The Sunday Times
May 17 1998 SOUTH ASIA


Failure to solve the latest arms row will fuel the nuclear ambitions of others, says Gerald Segal

Asian hot spot spreads its heat around the world 
A CYNIC might be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. So India tested some nuclear weapons - haven't we lived with these horrific devices since 1945, and don't the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain have thousands of the things? The fair-minded observer would agree that India does face a threat from a nuclear-armed China. So why worry? 

But even our cynic will have noted that the cold war is over and a maturing world is learning to regard all weapons of mass destruction as nasty and dangerous. All nuclear powers except China have made substantial cuts in their nuclear arsenals. We expend huge diplomatic and financial resources on preventing further proliferation among the likes of Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Libya. 

So when India effectively became the sixth declared nuclear weapons power on May 11, about 34 years after the fifth power, - China - joined the club, the civilised world was right to worry that the struggle against proliferation was being lost. 

It was right to be particularly concerned about the formal introduction of nuclear weapons into an already warmish hot spot. It is not so much that India and Pakistan are about to go to war, but that their long-standing tensions have just become more hazardous and the stakes much higher. 

India and Pakistan have been at war several times since they were created in 1947 and they continue to skirmish along their frontier, especially in disputed Kashmir. When their nuclear programmes were covert, crises were sparked by trivial events and became at risk of getting out of hand. Now that India has declared its nuclear hand, Pakistan will probably follow suit. 

If no rapid diplomatic solution is found, both sides can be expected to carry out further tests and develop formal nuclear doctrines and command and control mechanisms. As they do so, we will be in for the kind of insecurity born of uncertainty that we saw in the early days of the East-West cold war. We survived that without nuclear war, but nobody would wish to see the south Asian equivalent of the Cuban missile crisis. It took us some time in the cold war to get our weapons tightly under lock and key and to learn how to communicate clearly in a crisis. 

India-Pakistan deterrents may well be more unstable because the countries are neighbours, not distant adversaries. The flight times of aircraft and missiles are shorter, so early warning would be harder and neuroses more intense. Minor skirmishes may be contained by the fear of nuclear escalation, but if miscalculations do take place the ultimate consequences could be devastating. 

The south Asian nuclear equation is complicated by the presence of a nuclear-armed China, an ally of Pakistan and an adversary of India. Unlike the relatively simple balance of the cold war, the India-Pakistan-China triangle adds to the risks of miscalculation and may help drive China to break out of arms control accords. The knock-on effect for an east Asia already worried about an increasingly powerful China is clear to see. 

There is the slightest of chances to stop south Asia's nuclear arms race, although the tools to achieve it are crude. The United States, Japan, Germany and other smaller European countries will impose sanctions on India - and on Pakistan if it joins the nuclear club - to show that there is a cost for nuclear proliferation. 

The intention is to force the new nuclear powers to do what the old ones have already done - stop testing and sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). By tying these countries into intrusive regimes of inspection, there is at least some hope of reducing uncertainty and building trust. The straws of hope are worth a grab. 

This use of sanctions also offers some credibility in preventing the other great worry triggered by the Indian test - wider proliferation. If India is not made to pay a price, it will be harder to argue that Iran, North Korea or Libya should be prevented from developing nuclear weapons. 

America and its closest allies, including Britain, risk going to war with Iraq because they feel Baghdad should be denied nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. The wider the proliferation, the greater the chance that even terrorists will soon get hold of the technology. 

Going soft on India will make it harder to be tough on Iraq. Hence the puzzlement that while America and other important allies have imposed economic sanctions on India, Britain - which says it is so worried about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction that it will put its soldiers in harm's way in the Gulf - refuses to follow suit. Saddam Hussein and the mullahs of Tehran might well ask why they cannot have what Britain, with a shrug of the diplomatic shoulders, lets India acquire. 

Dr Gerald Segal is director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies 


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