H-Asia: Implications of India’s Nuclear Tests

30 May, 1998    ·   99

Stephen P. Cohen provides an American perspective to the implications of the Indian tests both within the region and in relation to US and China.


When the Indian government conducted five nuclear test blasts on May 11 and 13, the domestic response was one of joy and pride. Polls show 90% approval rating, and 82% in favour of weaponisation. In my judgement the figures are due to pleasure at the assertion of national greatness in defiance of an apparently hostile international community, most notably the United States .



The Indian strategic community, which has debated this issue for over thirty-five years, is just now coming to grips with the implications of being a nuclear state. Do the tests make India a nuclear "power," or must New Delhi embark upon an extensive and costly program to mount these devices on deployed missiles (to reach China) and aircraft? Can the tests be used diplomatically and strategically, to establish India as a major player in global arms control and disarmament debates, and even as a prospective member of the Security Council? Can India ’s new nuclear status be used in such a way as to make Pakistan more pliable on Kashmir , and China less arrogant?



Few Indian commentators have taken the threat of economic sanctions seriously: many believe that the Indian economy is strong, and some assert that in the long run the US will become dependent upon India , as it has become dependent upon China . Many American firms that have invested in India are organising themselves to get the US government to lift or moderate sanctions.



Foreign Responses



The Indian tests struck Washington like a thunderbolt. While most officials argued for caution, President Clinton was particularly incensed, and demanded that sanctions be imposed immediately, bypassing the thirty days grace period allowed in the law. Because of the way in which the relevant law has been written, sanctions cannot be lifted without congressional approval, which means that the Washington and New Delhi will have to engage in a substantial period of bargaining and negotiation immediately. While the prospective presidential visit (scheduled for November 1998) has not been cancelled, it would be quite surprising if the two sides could agree on a set of policies and principles that would make such a visit possible.



Because the main strategic justification for the test given out by Indian officials was the incipient threat from China, India-China relations have plunged rapidly, featuring a lively exchange of invective and innuendo (the Indians quoted back to the Chinese the latter’s justification for their own series of nuclear tests, the Chinese responded by calling the Indians hypocrites and hegemonists). If India-Chinese relations deteriorate further, it will be an easy, low-risk operation for Beijing to balance India by supporting Islamabad .



Proliferation Implications



First, it would appear that the CTBT has been dealt a serious blow. The Indian test showed that very low-yield tests cannot be detected by the present world-wide network of seismic monitors. While deriding "poor" India for carrying out these tests, Senator Jesse Helms has used them to justify his strong opposition to the CTBT, and it now seems unlikely that the Senate will ratify the treaty in time for the United States to participate in the forthcoming review conference (ironically, then, both the United States and India will be excluded from the discussions).



Second, there are more far-reaching proliferation implications. If India and Pakistan do proceed to active, overt, declared deployment, then they will face critical command and control problems, and will take a long step down the road of an action-reaction arms race that characterised the Cold War. Further, such an arms race would certainly draw in China ,and might spread to other states in the region. Iran has strongly criticized the Indian tests, and might feel compelled to move more quickly to a nuclear weapons program of its own.



Third, while both states appear to have acted responsibly in not sharing their nuclear technology with other countries, this could change, either as a matter of government policy, or because of weakened control over their nuclear/strategic enclaves.



Finally, observers have begun to construct optimistic and pessimistic scenarios, as to whether the Indian example will contribute to proliferation in particular regions. The Middle East is an obvious candidate, as Iran and Iraq have actively sought to join Israel as nuclear weapons states. My own judgement is that while there still remains a possibility of containing proliferation to South Asia itself, and limiting its more pernicious consequences, we should revisit the most dreaded scenario of the 1960--a world of twenty nuclear weapons states. A policy to deal with such a world will have to be diverse and flexible, and move away from the "one size fits all" approach that has recently characterised American non-proliferation policy, and which may have had the consequences of hastening the Indian tests, rather than discouraging them.