Preventing a South Asian Arms Race
by Kevin O'Neill, Deputy Director
May 20, 1998
ISIS Issue Brief
India’s five nuclear tests, conducted during the week of May 11, 1998, and indications from Pakistan that it may test nuclear weapons clearly show that international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in South Asia have failed. The Clinton administration, which quietly acknowledged the nuclear weapons-capability of India and Pakistan even before India’s tests, must now openly address a possible nuclear arms race on the subcontinent.
The goal of international efforts should now aggressively turn to preventing further nuclear tests, persuading India and Pakistan to halt the production of fissile materials for nuclear explosives and taking other steps to head off a South Asian nuclear arms race. The international community needs to convince Pakistan not to conduct a test and press India to refrain from further testing and sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Efforts need to be made to encourage Pakistan to recommit to its unilateral, seven-year moratorium on the production of highly enriched uranium (HEU); India could respond by declaring a halt to the production of weapon-grade plutonium. Both India and Pakistan should be pressed to negotiate and join a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT).
The immediate international response to India’s nuclear tests, led by the United States, was to impose sweeping sanctions on India, and to warn Pakistan that similar sanctions would be imposed if Pakistan decided to conduct its own tests. Now, the United States and other countries must decide how high a price India should pay before sanctions are lifted. One short-sighted proposal under consideration is to reduce sanctions in exchange for India’s adherence to the CTBT. In announcing that India had tested nuclear weapons, the Indian Prime Minister said in a May 11 press statement that India would “consider being an adherent to some of the undertakings in the [CTBT].” One week later, Bill Richardson, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, stated that “if India signs [the CTBT] and doesn’t do any more testing, I think a lot of the international condemnation, all of these sanctions, will be reduced.”
To be sure, the United States should approach India about its new-found interest in the CTBT and to press India to unconditionally sign the treaty. India’s adherence to the CTBT would help to lower tensions on the subcontinent. However, signing the CTBT would do little to prevent India from greatly expanding its nuclear arsenal. Nor is it likely that this tradeoff would satisfy Pakistan. At the time of this writing, Pakistan has not responded to India’s test by conducting one of its own. But Pakistan is believed to have resumed its production of highly enriched uranium in anticipation of expanding its own arsenal.
To cap the South Asian nuclear arms race, India and Pakistan should agree to stop producing nuclear explosive materials for nuclear weapons. India has already indicated a willingness to do so. International negotiations on a FMCT at the UN Conference on Disarmament have been held up by India’s insistence that the United States and the other “declared” nuclear powers–China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom–first agree to hold multilateral nuclear disarmament talks. But in his May 11 press statement, the Indian Prime Minister said that India “shall be happy to participate in the negotiations for the conclusion of a [FMCT].”
While India has changed its views of the FMCT, getting Pakistan to the negotiating table will not be easy. On May 19, Munir Akram, the Pakistani Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, declared the FMCT to be “an entirely irrelevant goal at this moment.” Given India’s current capacity to produce a nuclear arsenal seven times as large as Pakistan, it is no surprise that Pakistan resists the negotiations. But the dangers warrant strong international pressure to convince Pakistan to change its mind.
Beyond a CTBT and a FMCT, both India and Pakistan should be pressed not to deploy nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles. Given the heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, such deployments would significantly increase the chances of a nuclear war.