Going nuclear

A test ban treaty for thee, but not for me

By Brahma Chellaney
Published September 24, 1996 11:08AM (EDT)

It was a historic day at the United Nations. Led by President Clinton, the world's nuclear powers today signed a global test ban treaty, which U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali hailed as a "turning point in the history of efforts toward nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation."

But there is no celebration here in the Indian capital. In fact, there are fears that the treaty might push India, the world's largest democracy, over the nuclear threshold.

Today's U.N. action would have the force of international law only after it is ratified by the 44 countries, including India, that have nuclear power or research reactors on their soil. But India, which has consistently tried to block the agreement, has vowed never to sign "this unequal treaty, not now, not later."

That pledge could consign the treaty to indefinite limbo. It could also lead to a showdown which could push India up against the diplomatic wall. And if, as many here have urged, India defiantly carries out a nuclear test -- a spate of recent articles in the national press urge the government to go overtly nuclear -- it could wreck not only the treaty itself but also the international non-proliferation policies so carefully pursued by the U.S. and other nuclear powers.

Why has India, which is wedged between nuclear-armed China and nuclear-capable Pakistan, joined such states as Libya and North Korea in opposing the treaty? The government's official stand -- strongly supported by political parties and public opinion -- springs from the belief that the measure, which it once envisioned as a step toward complete nuclear disarmament, has been turned into a wily non-proliferation tool directed against India itself.

Because the test ban isn't linked to a binding disarmament timetable,
India now regards the treaty as riddled with loopholes. The
treaty, for example, fails to expressly prohibit the most sophisticated
forms of testing -- such as hydronuclear experiments -- that could
obviate the need for full-scale underground explosions. Nor does it
require the closure of existing test sites or ban test-related
preparations such as excavation and drilling.

The United States has already unveiled a $40 billion program to maintain
nuclear warheads and employ weapons designers indefinitely by conducting
underground "subcritical" tests and building mammoth new computerized machines that would take testing from the physical to the "virtual" environment.

India held one test explosion, back in 1974. It prides itself on being the only country to demonstrate a nuclear weapons capacity without taking that capacity to the next deployment stage -- despite pressing security concerns and the continued proliferation of such weapons close to its own frontiers. But that restraint has been sorely tested by China's growing military and economic power and -- more importantly -- by China's continuing covert nuclear and missile assistance to Pakistan.

Pressed to come up with a credible deterrent, India faces formidable technical challenges. It is the only "nuclear-threshold" state (a category which includes countries like Pakistan and Israel, thought to be exploring the development of nuclear weapons) not to have received tested warhead designs from external powers. Pakistan reportedly obtained from China the design of at least one missile-deliverable warhead in the early 1980s, while Israel reportedly received warhead technology and computer design codes from France and the United States.

Moreover, while China can strike India's northern Gangetic plains
with bombers and short-range missiles from Tibet, New Delhi would need
missiles with a range of more than 2,000 miles to strike targets in the
Chinese heartland. For India to build a reliable missile-based deterrent
without testing is almost unthinkable.

Despite such fears, India's real defense spending has plummeted since the end of the Cold War. It has not ordered a single major new weapon system in five
years. In the years ahead, India may not feel as secure with a strategy
based solely on a conventional defense posture. The attraction of a nuclear deterrent is thus likely to grow. Late last year, U.S. intelligence officials accused India of preparing to conduct a nuclear test at the very site of its 1974 detonation. New Delhi denied it, but with the signing of today's treaty, such tests have become more likely.

If India's concerns are not addressed, the world faces the real prospect of a test ban that may never take effect, and worse, could backfire.

© Pacific News Service

Quote of the day

Class dismissed

"By the standards of any other society, or of reason itself, the great and
growing disparity of wealth in America is a successful form of class
warfare waged against the poor and the moderately well-off. But so devoid
of a left is this country that even to mention such inequities is branded
as 'class baiting,' and therefore unAmerican. We have not had an acceptable
rhetoric for expressing social discontent against the rich since President
Roosevelt's mild, meliorist language about 'economic royalists' in the
depths of the Depression."

-- Garry Wills, "A Tale of Two Cities," in the Oct. 3 issue of The New York
Review of Books.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney is a Professor of Security Studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. He writes frequently for the International Herald Tribune.

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