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Benign Neglect Is a Dangerous Nuclear Policy

Diplomacy: Washington ought to be defusing escalated tension between India and Pakistan, but stands silent.

April 10, 1998|MANSOOR IJAZ

Pakistan's announcement this week that it test-fired a missile capable of carrying nuclear payloads deep into India escalates the stakes dramatically in the region's nuclear chess match. At the same time, India's recently elected Hindu nationalist government has provocatively stated its intention to conduct a new round of test explosions on nuclear warhead designs. Throughout this escalation of tension, the United States has been an absentee power rather than an effective moderator in the region, the role it should be playing. Washington's silence may increasingly be viewed as tacit assent to India's ambition of joining the big-power nuclear club.

In two longtime enemy nations beset by corruption and economic mismanagement, not to mention widespread illiteracy, disease and famine, it is discouraging to find that offensive missiles and hydrogen bomb explosions are considered the first orders of government business. In New Delhi, the threatened resumption of long-suspended nuclear tests is potentially a tool for galvanizing Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's fragile ruling coalition while demonstrating India's virility abroad--particularly to China.

Science also figures prominently in India's nuclear grandstanding. While Pakistan's still untested nuclear bomb designs are largely based on proven Chinese technologies, India's indigenous architectures are believed to be less reliable. "Little Buddha," as New Delhi's first nuclear explosion in 1974 was named, reportedly had a destructive atomic yield only one-third as much as predicted and could only be dropped as a bomb, not delivered atop a missile.

When India developed its short-range Prithvi and long-range Agni missiles in the early 1990s, miniaturized nuclear warhead design and testing became the highest scientific priority. Unlike in Pakistan, where such decisions reside with the army, India needed political consent from the prime minister to test new plutonium and hydrogen bomb designs, an obstacle in previous coalition governments, in which international opposition to such testing overcame nationalist desires. With a nationalist government now in power, political approval is no longer at issue.

Pakistan is of course mired in a perpetual game of nuclear "me too" with India, but with a not-so-indigenous program. The new Ghauri missile, its answer to India's Prithvi, is widely believed by intelligence analysts to be North Korean technology imported by way of Beijing's weapons pipeline to Pakistan. The missile tests may be partly a show to mask Pakistan's doubts about its own ability to actually produce a testable nuclear device, should India force the testing issue.

The United States could--and should--play a role in defusing this potential catalyst for nuclear confrontation.

Until recently, the U.S. defined its role in South Asia by Cold War boundaries, siding with Pakistan against the Soviets in Afghanistan, while India cozied up to the Kremlin. Today's Asian geostrategic considerations, however, have dictated a radical shift in Washington's loyalties.

While Pakistan, for its nuclear ambitions, now suffers U.S. trade and military aid sanctions under the 1990 Pressler amendment, the U.S. has turned a mostly blind eye to India's more developed program. Washington's rationale: Ignoring democratic India's closeted ambition to join the first-world nuclear club is a necessary evil in developing counterweights to communist China's overt nuclear capability.

But benign neglect is a dangerous policy choice when historical ethnic and religious tensions in the Punjab regions of India and Pakistan have the potential to boil over in an instant. That message was conveyed by Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Jehangir Keramat, when he visited the U.S. three weeks ago and warned Washington's military and national security establishments of the need to moderate India's nuclear enthusiasm.

Judging by Keramat's decision to go ahead with preemptive missile tests, he must have decided Washington was apathetic about the potential for a South Asian flareup and perhaps even resigned to India's nuclear ascension.

The costs of this misguided arms race will be more than political. The subcontinent can hardly afford to pay for an arms race that will exacerbate the growing divide between its rich and poor, between educated citizens and illiterate masses. What remains of Washington's political clout in South Asia should be used to persuade India that its international stature does not depend on proving its nuclear potency. Testing hydrogen bombs will do little more than isolate India from the very powers it seeks to influence.

Mansoor Ijaz, whose father contributed to Pakistan's nuclear program, is a nuclear physicist and chairman of Crescent Investment Management, a New York firm with energy holdings in South and Central Asia.

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