By Michael Krepon – Ten years ago, the governments of India and Pakistan tested nuclear devices, prompting a global uproar, a united front by the five permanent members (P-5) of the UN Security Council, and stiff sanctions directed at New Delhi and Islamabad. Although the timing of the tests came as a surprise to the U.S. intelligence community, New Delhi had foreshadowed its decision to test two years earlier by withdrawing from the negotiating endgame for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), a goal that was ardently championed from 1954 onward by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, and his successors.
The Indian government explained its reversal on the CTBT’s entry into force clause, which required India and 43 other countries to join the Treaty, which New Delhi claimed was an infringement on its strategic autonomy. New Delhi also defended its position by arguing that the CTBT did not call for a time-bound framework for nuclear disarmament, even though this was not part of the negotiations. What truly rankled New Delhi was that the walls of the global nonproliferation system appeared to be closing in from all sides. The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty had been indefinitely extended in 1995, with the promise of a CTBT to follow-a promise that the P-5 could condition but from which they could not back away. India’s nuclear enclave believed that negotiations on a treaty ending the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons would be next in line. Global export controls also seemed to be closing in on India’s nuclear options, while the screw-tighteners seemed to put blinders on when China helped Pakistan.
India’s test of a nuclear device in 1974 was more of a physics experiment than a workable bomb design, and India’s nuclear enclave was chafing at the bit. If ever there was a juncture to break free of New Delhi’s decades-long ambivalence regarding nuclear weapons, it was, paradoxically, at a time of progress to prevent proliferation and to end nuclear testing permanently. The timing of India’s decision to test depended on the election of a coalition government led by a party with enough nerve to break out of this box. That government took office in March 1998, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s two most senior politicians, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani. When India finally decided to test, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Pakistan would also test. When New Delhi obliged on May 11 and 13, no inducements or penalties the United States and other capitals could identify were powerful enough to prevent Pakistan from following suit. Just to make sure that Pakistan would reject US offers and to prevent India from being singled out for international pressure, Advani issued a thinly veiled public threat to the effect that now that New Delhi possessed the bomb, its neighbor should watch its step in Kashmir. Pakistan tested its nuclear devices on May 28.
Ten years later, India and Pakistan still have not accepted any constraints on their strategic autonomy. Along with China, both states are engaged in strategic modernization programs of considerable breadth, building nuclear-tipped cruise missiles as well as ballistic missiles to be carried by their land, sea, and air forces. India has plans for a deterrent it deems worthy of a major power, which might entail further tests to certify thermonuclear weapon designs. If India tests again, Pakistan is likely to do so as well. The nuclear enclaves in each county are highly respected at home and believe they have more work to do. This spells trouble not only for the CTBT, but also for initiating and successfully concluding fissile material cutoff negotiations in Geneva.
While the CTBT remains in limbo, India and Pakistan have agreed to several confidence-building and nuclear risk-reduction measures, such as notifications regarding certain missile flight tests and military exercises. After a period of domestic turbulence in Pakistan, these discussions will resume, perhaps yielding more agreements that reduce the possibility of unintended escalation. Each country is focused on trade, economic development, and domestic cohesion, which suggest that the divided territory of Kashmir, which Pakistani officials used to describe as a “nuclear flashpoint,” will remain calm. These important gains are unlikely to be supplemented by constructive initiatives by India and Pakistan relating to nuclear negotiations.
A full version of this article was published in the May 2008 issue of Arms Control Today
Michael Krepon is the director of the South Asia and Space projects and is a co-founder of the Stimson Center.