16 May 1998

Pokhran as Pandora: Remapping the Geography of Power

16 May 1998
The Times of India

Pokhran as Pandora
Remapping the Geography of Power


THE most significant aspect of Pokhran II is not that India's
policy of nuclear ambiguity has ended. Rather, it is the
questionable way in which the Vajpayee government has played the
nuclear card, gambling with the national interest for partisan
ends. Already, the BJP has said it will cash in on Pokhran in the
forthcoming Rajasthan elections; and today, a nationwide carnival
is being held to celebrate the party's `heroism'.

Like a virgin on Viagra, the ruling establishment is charged up
with its new-found power without quite knowing what to do with it,
thus making it susceptible to indiscretions. The government's
senior-most foreign policy adviser says India will only sign the
CTBT ``as a nuclear weapon state'', without realising that the
treaty makes no distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear states
(it is the NPT which does). And then there is that official letter
sent to US President Bill Clinton in which India's tests have been
justified by pointing to China.

Poor Tactics

This rationale has only succeeded in eliciting an incredibly harsh
response from Beijing. Naming China betrays a poor sense of
strategy and tactics. If Chinese missiles are not already targeting
Indian cities -- and even the BJP-led government has not said they
are -- Mr Vajpayee's letter and his statement that India will not
hesitate to use nuclear weapons will certainly change that. China's
1995 White Paper on defence notes that Beijing ``has solemnly
undertaken not to be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time
and in any circumstance''. At a minimum, New Delhi should have
issued a similar undertaking.

In a world which has legitimised the possession of nuclear weapons
in the hands of five powers, every country has the right to possess
them. Of course, since these weapons are immensely destructive and
destabilising, a country should think carefully before exercising
that right. The BJP-led government felt that India faced an extreme
situation and thus decided to go in for the tests within a few days
of assuming office. Yet, it has not explained what has changed in
the international environment to warrant this dramatic decision.

This criticism, however, is redundant beyond a point. Since the
tests are now a part of history, the challenge is how best to
manage the post-Pokhran II fallout. For though in possession of
nuclear weapons, India is far from being a great power.

The equation of nuclear weapons with great power status flows
directly from the NPT, which, in turn, reflects the global balance
of power as it existed on January 1, 1967. Given the uneven
development of the world economy and the changing balance this
implies, the NPT today has become obsolete, not just in respect of
India but many other countries as well. People have forgotten the
difficulty the US had in getting Germany, Japan and Italy to sign
the NPT. All three added riders that if the list of nuclear states
ever grew beyond the original five, they would reconsider their
accession. Even if the US wanted to admit India and Pakistan as
nuclear weapon states, it would have a tough time convincing its
allies, leave alone the rest of the world, that the NPT should be


``Nonproliferation'' is the number one foreign policy goal of the
US because even small tremors can weaken irrevocably the security
architecture the US has devised in the post-Cold War world. It is
not the so-called `rogue states' the US most fears. Its worst
nightmare is a situation where economically powerful countries --
most of them, but not all, US allies -- eventually decide either to
build their own nuclear forces or refine existing stockpiles. And
the CTBT is the key to ensuring this does not happen.

For the moment, therefore, US efforts will be directed at stopping
Pakistan from testing. Though a Pakistani test would be aimed at
India, it is bound to generate shockwaves in West Asia. Will Iran
feel safe with a nuclearised neighbour? And will Israel decide to
come out of the closet, prompting a similar response from its
worried neighbours?

Apart from this worst-case dynamic, there is another reason why the
US stake in the CTBT has increased exponentially as a result of the
Indian tests. If India had not tested, the US could have lived with
New Delhi's opposition to the treaty. Now that India has tested --
and identified China as its main adversary -- Beijing is unlikely
to adhere to the CTBT unless India too does the same, especially
given China's weakness in the area of computer simulation. US
pressure on India will be very great because Washington cannot live
with a CTBT which excludes China: one of the main aims of the CTBT
is to freeze in place US technological superiority vis-a-vis the
other nuclear weapon states.

With its bravado, the Vajpayee government has thus virtually
painted itself into a corner. The paradox is that if the US can
walk away from this drama with India's signature on the CTBT, it
will have gained enormously from Pokhran-II. For the one country
which could have kept alive the disarmament issue by remaining out
of the treaty would have thus been co-opted.

Dangerous Illusion

There is another way in which the US will use the Indian tests to
its advantage. In a multipolar world, US pre-eminence is based on
its ability to exploit contradictions between potential rivals.
NATO expansion pits Europe against Russia; the US-Japan security
relationship pits Japan against China; APEC and the trade issue
divide Europe from Japan. In this scheme of things, Sino-Indian
tension suits the US just fine.

Now that the Vajpayee government, however unadvisedly, has taken
the plunge, it must work to ensure that New Delhi becomes a factor
for peace and stability. Even though it tested sub-kiloton
``mininukes'' whose only use is as battlefield weapons, India must
not fall prey to the dangerous illusion that nuclear weapons can
actually be used. Apart from immediately issuing an unconditional
no-first-use declaration, as Mr K Subrahmanyam recommended in these
columns, India must push for positive change in the global system.
That alone will give the country prestige and clout. If India stops
aggressively campaigning for the elimination of nuclear weapons in
exchange for a place at the nuclear apartheid table, it will not
only be universally condemned by all right-minded people, but will
also help to condemn the world to the possibility of a nuclear

© Siddharth Varadarajan

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