Nuclear Arms Race in South Asia: Is the US-India Nuclear Pact Really to Blame?
The New York Times carries a front-page story today that claims the Obama administration’s nuclear security conference currently taking place in Washington is ignoring a looming nuclear arms race in South Asia. The article says that Pakistan has recently fired up a new nuclear reactor that will be used to process high-grade plutonium for a second generation of nuclear weapons. It says this new weapons-production activity, coming at a time when Pakistan seems increasingly unstable and faces an existential threat from homegrown Islamic extremists such as the Pakistani Taliban, raises the danger that nuclear weapons or material will fall into the hands of terrorists.
Fair enough. Where the story goes astray I think is in its contention that Pakistan has been provoked into this activity due to the US-India Civil Nuclear deal. That deal was about allowing India — which has never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and which had been prohibited from receiving almost any kind of nuclear technology since it tested a nuclear device in 1974 — access to nuclear fuel and technology to build power plants which the country desperately needs to meet its growing demand for energy. As part of the deal, India’s own nuclear weapons facilities are placed off-limits to international inspection, which was pretty much just locking in the status quo. But, as The Times reporters note, non-proliferation hawks have criticized the deal — not only because it let India out of the nuclear doghouse even though it still refuses to join the NPT, but because these critics claim that the new nuclear power plants will free up India’s older reactors to make more weapons-grade fuel. That, in turn, they say will allow India to build a new generation of nuclear warheads. This, the critics say, is fueling paranoia about falling behind in Islamabad and prompting them to launch their own next generation program.
The Times reports the non-proliferation advocates’ contentions rather uncritically. It makes India somehow look like the bad guy in this equation. But you can’t have an arms race with yourself (although the U.S. certainly tried in the early 1960s with false reports about the “missile gap” with the Soviets.) I think it is just as likely that Pakistan would have launched its second generation warhead program with or without the US-India Civil Nuclear Deal. India has a larger military than Pakistan and it is the midst of a major defense modernization drive. Given this, Islamabad no doubt would have been leaning even more heavily on its nuclear deterrent even without the Indian civil nuclear deal.
The story also fails to mention that the civil nuclear deal does not guarantee India a supply of uranium in the event it tests another nuclear device (as it did not only in 1974, but in 1998 as well). If that happens, then despite this new nuclear deal, India is likely to face sanctions once again. (Which is why some on both the left and right in India opposed the civil nuclear deal and instead wanted India to try to go it alone on nuclear power; they feel the deal basically gives the U.S. too much leverage over India’s nuclear weapons program, essentially preventing it from testing another device without facing serious economic consequences.) Yes, theoretically, the new reactors which companies from Russia, France, the U.S. and Canada are likely to soon be building in India would free up the older Indian reactors and their fuel for use in the country’s nuclear weapons program. But, given India’s huge power demands, it might just as well need those old reactors to keep feeding the electricity grid too. There is also a fairly limited supply of indigenous uranium in India and any new uranium brought into India, under the terms of a reprocessing agreement that is part of the whole civil nuclear agreement, will not be available for India’s weapons program – so there is probably a limit in how many new warheads India will be able to build simply using its existing fuel stockpiles.
More importantly, the article fails to mention that India has a stellar track record when it comes to non-proliferation, whereas Pakistan has an absolutely abysmal record, thanks to the work of its leading nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, who sold nuclear weapons technology to anyone who with a checkbook. So, yes, there is a danger of terrorists getting their hands on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. But if they do, don’t go blaming New Delhi, or the Obama administration for that matter. (At least not because it gave nuclear power plants to India.)
What the article might have mentioned is that the U.S. could be doing a lot more to persuade India and Pakistan to take measures that might lessen the chance of a nuclear exchange if the two countries do become involved in a conventional military conflict, as they have numerous times in the past. For instance, it would be very useful if they each articulated a clear nuclear defense doctrine. It would also be good if the two nations shared far more information with one another about their nuclear defenses so that signs would not be misinterpreted during a crisis. Getting Islamabad to agree to a “no first use” policy would be a huge step too (although Islamabad would be unlikely to agree to such a measure.)
(A side note: Ed Luce writes in his brilliant book, In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India, that India often sees an underlying racism in stories such as the one that just appeared in The Times — they read into them an implied accusation that South Asians can’t be trusted with nuclear weapons, whereas those in the West, can be. He says belief led to some strange moments during India’s 2002 near-war with Pakistan, during which Indian diplomats took to briefing Western journalists on how Pakistan — its sworn enemy — would never use its nuclear weapons. But, Luce writes, India is so busy defending the idea that South Asians are responsible nuclear caretakers, that it often underplays the very real danger of loose nukes on its doorstep. As Luce writes, “…I sometimes get the impression that India sees its nuclear status as hypothetical. This is reassuring. But it is also vexing, because it means India is relaxed about the nuclear postures of its neighbors, which are of a very different nature. As a result, India knows very little about the nuclear assets, policies and signaling of Pakistan and vice versa. In matters nuclear, ignorance is never bliss.”)
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