South Asian Arms Race Heats Up

As Pakistan admits access to nuclear bomb, India warms to calls for regional arms talks

PUBLICLY, Indian officials reject a United States-backed proposal to sit down with Pakistani, Chinese, and Russian officials at a five-power conference on nuclear proliferation in South Asia. India has "grave reservations" about such a meeting, says Foreign Ministry spokesman Aftab Seth.

But officials and diplomats here say privately that India is not so opposed to a broader discussion of nuclear weapons in the region, and that the idea will be part of the agenda when Foreign Secretary J. N. Dixit arrives in Washington next week. "They have been saying, 'We want to examine this thing and talk about it one New Delhi diplomat says.

India "basically wants to clear the air on what our concerns are and what [US] concerns are," a Foreign Ministry official says.

Nuclear concerns here have been heightened recently. Pakistani Foreign Secretary Shahryar Khan admitted early last month that his country can assemble a nuclear device. Mr. Khan's statement publicly confirmed a long-held suspicion in Washington; Congress cut off military and economic aid to Pakistan in October 1990 over doubts about the country's nuclear intentions.

India's ability to build a bomb has not been in question since 1974, when it conducted a nuclear test. Analysts say the political situations in both countries prohibit unilateral rollbacks of their nuclear programs.

In the middle of February a group of pro-independence Kashmiri militants in Pakistan vowed to cross the line that separates Pakistani-held Kashmir from the portion controlled by India, raising the level of tension between the two countries. Indian officials called in a host of foreign ambassadors in New Delhi to ask them to encourage Pakistan to stop the marchers, which it did. In light of Pakistan's nuclear admission, commentators here even voiced concern that the situation in Kashmir could have led to a nuclear confrontation. Pakistan's aid cutoff

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif officially proposed a five-power conference toward a South Asian nuclear-free zone in June 1991, but the idea was advanced earlier by US officials. Indian analysts suggest that Pakistan's motive is to support the US on the nuclear issue in the hope of getting Congress to lift the aid ban, known as the Pressler amendment. The shipment of 40 F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan has been frozen by the amendment, and the Pakistani military is also in need of spare parts.

But a senior Pakistani official here says: "There's no feeling in Islamabad ... that there's going to be a quick fix to the problem" of the Pressler amendment through a five-power conference. Instead, this diplomat says, "We want to establish our credentials as a country interested in nonproliferation."

Pakistan has long tried to establish those credentials - apparently as it also pursued a nuclear weapons program - by offering to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if India would agree to do so at the same time. India has always rejected the NPT and regional nonproliferation efforts, on the grounds that such steps leave nuclear weapons in the hands of a few traditionally powerful nations.

Mr. Seth's "grave reservations" about the five-power proposal focus on China's role, since the proposal seems to indicate that China would serve as a guarantor of nuclear stability in South Asia, even though Indians see that country as a potential aggressor. And the precarious status of the former Soviet Union's nuclear weapons also makes the prospect of dismantling India's and Pakistan's nuclear capabilities improbable.

"The situation is far more complex than it was a year ago," Seth says. Focus on security

Indian observers and officials say the conference would be more appealing if it were focused on security issues in the region, rather than on the creation of a nuclear-free zone, an idea with almost no support here.

"It's absolutely essential at the present moment to discuss proliferation" in light of Pakistan's admission and possible migration of Soviet nuclear weapons, says K. Subrahmanyam, a defense analyst long known here for his advocacy of India's nuclear program.

But as far as disarmament goes, he adds, it must take place in the context of global denuclearization. Otherwise, he says, "If you have a right to have nuclear weapons, so have I."

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