South Asian Nuclear Crisis

International Responses to South Asian Nuclear Tests Highlight Significant Differences
By Bhaskar Menon, International Documents Review Volume 9 #19
June 1, 1998

International reactions to the nuclear tests in India and Pakistan have been far more differentiated than is evident in the mass media. While the overall international response has undoubtedly been negative, there is a significant range of nuance in the words that governments have used to voice their opinions. And contrary to the general impression, all countries have not rushed to condemn the tests. In fact, key countries and regions have been silent or have expressed carefully modulated views.


The Protagonists

Much of the mass media reporting by Western agencies has focused on the antagonisms between India and Pakistan. Those two countries, however, have not directed blame exclusively at each other. India's Defence Minister George Fernandes laid the political groundwork for the tests by saying that the primary threat to Indian security came from China, a declared nuclear Power and permanent member of the Security Council. China is a protagonist in South Asia not only because of its major role in Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme (see below) but because of the long-standing Sino-Indian border dispute. India has also put its decision to test in the context of actions by the declared nuclear weapon States that are contrary to their commitment under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to negotiate in good faith on nuclear disarmament.

Pakistan has also located part of the blame for its actions outside the subcontinent. Speaking in Parliament at a time when Islamabad was under intense international pressure not to go nuclear, Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan said that India had been encouraged and abetted by the international community, through the transfer of sensitive technology, economic assistance, encouragement or acquiescence. It had become "an established pattern whereby each step of India,s escalation on the nuclear ladder has been followed by renewed pressure and propaganda against Pakistan". That "discriminatory policy towards Pakistan" had "encouraged India more than anything else to conduct its tests. Pakistan sees the early cooperation between India and a number of developed countries, including the United States, Soviet Union and Canada, on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, as equivalent to its cooperation with China.


The P-5

Although all five permanent members of the Security Council have strongly deplored both the Indian and Pakistani tests, their individual positions are hardly unified. The United States has taken the most unambiguous position in opposing the tests by both India and Pakistan. In both cases, the Clinton Administration is required by law to impose sanctions. At this writing, it has imposed them on India and has moved not only to suspend aid and postpone over $800 million in World Bank loans, but to repatriate Indians working in key areas of US defence-related industries. (According to The Deccan Herald in Bangalore, India, a 10-member team of Indian scientists working on the flight control system for Light Combat Aircraft in the United States was asked to leave after President Bill Clinton announced sanctions. The team from India's Aeronautical Development Agency has been working for several years at the Lockheed Martin facility in Binghamton, New York, developing a system for use in aircraft intended to replace the MiG 21s in the Indian Air Force.) Similar sanctions on Pakistan are expected. (However, the World Bank and the IMF were reported as saying on 29 May that some $700 million in loans to Pakistan during 1998 were not in danger. This is probably because some $800 million is due in international debt repayments by the end of June, and any sudden move to cut off support from the international financial institutions could snowball into a global crisis.)

The United Kingdom and France, while expressing strongly negative views of the tests, have stopped short of sanctions. But their aid programmes to the two countries will be affected. The Russian Federation has expressed "anxiety and concern" at the tests, but it too will not impose sanctions. Moscow has, however, taken pains to reaffirm strongly its anti-proliferation stance (see Communications, p 8).

China expressed strong condemnation of the Indian tests which it said showed an outrageous contempt for the common will of the international community for the comprehensive ban on nuclear tests. The Indian action was seen as a move to assert its hegemony. New Delhi had maliciously accused China of posing a nuclear threat to India and that was utterly groundless. Independent observers tend to discount Chinese denials. The Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies for instance, has compiled an extensive record of Chinese aid to Pakistan. According to US intelligence agencies it says, China in 1983 transferred a complete nuclear weapon design to Pakistan, along with enough weapons-grade uranium for two nuclear weapons. In 1986, China concluded a comprehensive nuclear cooperation agreement with Pakistan and Chinese scientists began helping to enrich weapons-grade uranium. China also reportedly transferred enough tritium gas to Pakistan for 10 nuclear weapons and "allegedly involved Pakistani scientists in a nuclear test at its Lop Nor test site in 1989".

In 1995 China's export of about 5,000 "ring magnets" for use in a Pakistani nuclear weapons laboratory, initially denied by Beijing as "groundless was eventually confirmed in US-China talks. (Beijing said the sale was without the knowledge or consent of the central government.) To escape US sanctions China then pledged publicly not to provide nuclear assistance to unsafeguarded facilities. However, in 1996 it was reported that China had sold a special industrial furnace and high-technology diagnostic equipment to a Pakistani nuclear facility which could use them in the construction of nuclear bombs. China denounced reports of the sale as groundless. In a 1997 report, the CIA told the US Senate that China was the primary source of nuclear-related equipment and technology to Pakistan. In the area of missile technology, CNS links every Pakistani weapon system to Chinese help. In view of this background, China's response to the Pakistani nuclear tests was understandably weaker than its comment on the Indian action.


Other Reactions

Strongly unambiguous responses to both Indian and Pakistani tests came from a number of developed countries, including Japan (which suspended sizeable programmes of development loans and aid to both countries), Germany, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Several Eastern European and Latin American States also expressed uniformly negative views. These countries were among the 40 speakers at the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament on 14 May who denounced the Indian tests. Significantly, however, only South Africa of the African States took the floor at the CD. And there were no speakers at all from the Middle East. Despite writings in the media about an "Islamic bomb, Arab governments have been wary of comment. It took Saudi Arabia a full week after the Indian explosions to issue a statement, and that came in a report by the official news agency that the royal ministerial council had "expressed grave concern. No Arab country has yet pronounced itself on the Pakistani test, but an Arab League spokesman decried it on CNN as a dangerous step. Israel has not made any official comment on the tests and the daily Haaretz has reported a government decision to adopt a policy of no comment .

Closer to and within South Asia, expressions of concern have been finely modulated. Iran in its statement to the Conference on Disarmament, said that it had always believed that the NPT and the CTBT were valuable international instruments which could contribute to nuclear disarmament. In that context, Iran could not but express its serious concern over the tests, for they provided pretexts for further intransigence and procrastination in the universal drive for nuclear disarmament. At the Conference on Disarmament, Bangladesh expressed the hope that South Asian countries would refrain from nuclear weaponization. It was particularly sad to see an arms race between peoples who shared a rich and ancient cultural heritage. Sri Lanka issued a statement of concern at the tests, but Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirg-amar told journalists that he was not worried about India as a nuclear Power.

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