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South Asia Needs a Bomb-Less Deal

The US-India nuclear accord will exacerbate the arms race between India and Pakistan and threatens to accelerate nuclear weaponisation by both countries. The sane course is for the two countries to negotiate a fissile cut-off pact, which may well create positive ripple effects in China and the US as well.

Letter from South Asia

South Asia Needs a Bomb-Less Deal

The US-India nuclear accord will exacerbate the arms race between India and Pakistan and threatens to accelerate nuclear weaponisation by both countries. The sane course is for the two countries to negotiate a fissile cut-off pact, which may well create positive ripple effects in China and the US as well.


or all who have opposed Pakistan’s nuclear programme over the years – including myself – the US-India nuclear agreement may probably be the worst thing to have happened in a long time. If ratified by the US Congress it is likely to reignite nuclear fires on the subcontinent which, over the last few years, had appeared to be dying down.

Post-agreement, Pakistan’s ruling elite is confused and bitter. This was to be expected. President George W Bush, in his furtive and unwelcomed visit on March 4 to Islamabad, had done little but lecture general Musharraf on the need to fight terrorism more effectively. Nothing was done to soften a blow that hit America’s “non-NATO” ally squarely in the midriff. Condoleezza Rice, who accompanied Bush on the visit categorically ruled out any remotely similar nuclear deal with Pakistan, “there are a lot of technological ways to pursue [Pakistan’s] energy needs, but civil nuclear just isn’t possible”.

De-hyphenation was declared to be the new policy: the US president said that “Pakistan and India are different countries with different needs and different histories”. It made little difference that Pakistan had recently agreed to join the Container Security Initiative, an international effort to stop the spread of dangerous material shipments. Indeed, India has overtaken Pakistan in too many areas for there to be any reasonable basis for symmetry. Therefore, logically enough, the US is now interested in reconstructing the geopolitics of south Asia and in repairing relations with India, not in mollifying Pakistani grievances.

This change in US policy has thrilled many in India. They may also have enjoyed Musharraf’s discomfiture. But they would do well to restrain their exuberance. Only 3 per cent of India’s total power comes from nuclear, and this will not change much for reasons of cost and economy even if the US-India deal is ratified. On the other hand, Pakistan is bound to react – and react badly – once the nuclear materials and equipment start rolling into India. This does not augur well for peace on the continent. Therefore, one must therefore soberly assess the implications of the nuclear deal for the future of the subcontinent.

One certain consequence will be more bombs on both sides of the border. The deal is widely seen in Pakistan as signalling America’s support or acquiescence, or perhaps even surrender, to India’s nuclear ambitions. Indeed, this is not far from the truth because there will be no restriction upon the transfer of spent fuel from non-safeguarded Indian power reactors for reprocessing into weapons-grade plutonium. On the other hand, India will be freely able to import uranium fuel for its safeguarded civilian reactors. This will free up the remainder of its scarce uranium resources for making plutonium. Further, once the planned thorium-fuelled breeder reactors are fully operational, India will be able to produce more bombs in one year than in the last 30.

Demand within Pakistan

Not surprisingly, important voices in Pakistan have started to demand that Pakistan match India bomb-for-bomb. Abdus Sattar, the ex-foreign minister of Pakistan and a former member of general Musharraf’s cabinet, advocates “replication of the Kahuta plant to produce more fissile uranium…to rationalise and upgrade Pakistan’s minimum deterrence capability”. He has also written about the need to “accelerate its [Pakistan’s] missile development programme”.

This is a prescription for unlimited nuclear racing, given that “minimum deterrence” is essentially an open-ended concept. Pakistan has mastered centrifuge technology, and there is little doubt that giving birth to more Kahutas is technically feasible and would require only a political decision. Moreover, unlike India, Pakistan is not constrained by supplies of natural uranium. It has only a small 137 MW Canadian-supplied power reactor (KANUPP) in Karachi that consumes locally produced un-enriched uranium fuel. Chinese power reactors at Chashma, including both the present one and another currently under construction, will also not consume Pakistani uranium stocks because the fuel is to be supplied by China. Thus, at least in principle, Pakistan can increase its bomb production considerably.

Given that the motivation for the US-India nuclear agreement comes partly from the US’ desire to contain China, one can also expect that the Pakistan-China strategic relationship will be considerably strengthened. This amounts to fuelling regional rivalries and tensions. In practical terms, this may amount to enhanced support for Pakistan’s missile programme, or even its military nuclear programme. Speaking at Pakistan’s National Defence College in Islamabad a day before Bush’s arrival there, Musharraf declared that “My recent trip to China was part of my effort to keep Pakistan’s strategic options open”.

The US-India nuclear deal will exacerbate an arms race that is already in progress. Although nuclear hawks in India and Pakistan had once pooh-poohed the notion of an arms race, there is little doubt that India and Pakistan are solidly placed on a cold war trajectory. As more bombs are added to the inventory every year, and intermediate range ballistic missiles steadily roll off the production lines, both countries seek ever more potent weaponry.

Although Pakistan will want to match India’s efforts in using outer space for

Economic and Political Weekly April 15, 2006

reconnaissance and early-warning systems, it will not be able to do so. But if India is successful in acquiring and installing an anti-ballistic missile system, developing a multiple independent re-entry vehicle (MIRV) system, or in developing submarine launched nuclear-tipped missiles, then Pakistan will counter by lowering the strikethreshold and through wider dispersion of its mobile launchers, as well as by employing decoys and moving towards submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

In seeking to woo the US, Indian and Pakistan elites are tacitly collaborating to show that they are “responsible nuclear states” and hence worthy of military and nuclear assistance. Their aim is to show that their nukes are safe, that they sternly oppose proliferation, and that they are unfortunate victims rather than supporters of terrorism.

The past has been banished by an unwritten agreement. Retired Pakistani and Indian generals and leaders meet cordially at conferences around the world and happily clink glasses. They emphatically deny that the two countries had even come close to a nuclear crisis. Being now charged with the mission of projecting an image of “responsibility” abroad, none amongst them wants to bring back the memory of south Asia’s leaders hurling nuclear threats against each other.

Criminal Behaviour

But instances of criminal nuclear behaviour are to be found even in the very recent past. For example, India’s defence minister George Fernandes told the International Herald Tribune on June 3, 2002 that “India can survive a nuclear attack, but Pakistan cannot”. Indian defence secretary Yogendra Narain had at that time taken things a step further in an interview with Outlook: “A surgical strike is the answer”, adding that if this failed to resolve things, “We must be prepared for total mutual destruction”. On the Pakistani side, at the peak of the 2002 crisis, General Musharraf had threatened that Pakistan would use “unconventional means” against India if necessary.

Given the roller coaster nature of regional politics, it is quite likely that similar tense times will return at some point in the future. But Indian and Pakistani leaders are likely to once again abdicate from their own responsibilities whenever that happens. Instead, they will again entrust disaster prevention to US diplomats and officials, as well occasionally to those from Britain.

Of course, it would be absurd to lay the blame on the US for all that has gone wrong between the two countries. Surely the US does not want to destabilise the subcontinent, and it does not want a south Asian holocaust. But one must be aware that for the US this is only a peripheral interest – the core of its interest in south Asian nuclear issues stems from the need to limit Chinese power and influence, fear of Al Qaida and Muslim extremism, and the associated threat of nuclear terrorism.

The Americans will sort out their business and priorities as they see fit. But it is unwise to participate in a game that leaves the south Asian neighbours at each other’s throats while benefiting a power that sits on the other end of the globe. The real question is: what actions would best serve the interest of the peoples of India and Pakistan, as well as of China? The answer lies in moving away from the mad homicidal urges that have come to possess south Asian ruling elites.

Many years ago, all three countries crossed the point where they could lay cities to waste and kill millions in a matter of minutes. The fantastically cruel logic, known as nuclear deterrence, requires only the certainty that one nuclear bomb will be able to penetrate the adversary’s defences and land in the heart of a city. No one has the slightest doubt that this capability was crossed multiple times over during the past few decades.

Delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons have also multiplied and increased in accuracy, as well the ability to avoid detection and interception. Indian militarism is far more ambitious than Pakistan’s – which is fundamentally constrained by economic and manpower resources. India is reportedly developing MIRV capability for delivering its nuclear warheads. A latent worry in the US is that India may even develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and perhaps also develop countermeasures to penetrate American missile defences. Technological progress will inevitably bring with it limitless dangerous possibilities. Unless rationality is brought to bear, every crazy idea will be pursued just because it is possible to do so.

Best Hope

The time for a fissile material cut-off is now. It offers the best hope to limit the upward spiral in warhead numbers. Instead of threatening to create more Kahutas, Pakistan should offer to stop production of highly enriched uranium while India should respond by ceasing to reprocess its reactor wastes. Previous stockpiles possessed by either country should not be brought into issue because their credible verification is extremely difficult and would inevitably derail an agreement. Years of negotiation at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva came to naught for this very reason. A series of “nuclear risk reduction” talks between Pakistan and India have also produced zero results. The cessation of fissile material production is completely absent from the agenda; it must be made a central item now.

If a Pakistan-India bilateral agreement could somehow come through, it would have fantastically positive effects elsewhere. China – which is the major target of US nuclear weapons – may not have enough warheads to match the US but has more than a sufficient number to constitute a nuclear deterrent. Inspired by an Indian cut-off, it could declare a moratorium on fissile material production. The US, which no longer produces fissile materials because it has a huge excess, could encourage the Chinese action by offering to suspend work on its Nuclear Missile Defence system.

Unfortunately, the US is not acting as a force for peace in south Asia. Confronted by the accusation that it is pumping arms into a region that some of its leaders had once described as a “nuclear tinder box”, US officials have responded defensively with answers such as: you have to deal with the world as it is and the Indian programme cannot be rolled back; India is a democracy; India needs to import nuclear fuel and technology and we need to sell them. But such replies sweep under the carpet the disturbing history of near-nuclear conflict on the subcontinent for which the US has often taken credit for defusing.

By proceeding with the nuclear deal with India the US may destabilise south Asia. Equally, if it forces a change in the global nuclear order by creating an exception for India, it will have bartered away one of its fundamental interests. “What will Russia say when they want to supply more nuclear materials or technology to Iran?” angrily asked congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts. Indeed, the US-India nuclear deal will deeply damage the NPT, take the heat off Iran and North Korea, open the door for Japan to convert its plutonium stocks into bombs, and create the conditions for eventual global nuclear anarchy.



Economic and Political Weekly April 15, 2006

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