WASHINGTON — THE Bush administration is working hard to advance nuclear nonproliferation talks in South Asia. But the very regional tensions the pact is designed to defuse continue to retard Washington's efforts.
The administration is focusing on India and Pakistan. The predominantly Hindu and Muslim states have been bitter enemies since the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947. Since then they have fought three wars, and tensions are mounting in the disputed province of Kashmir, where Indian and Pakistani troops frequently clash.
Both nations insist that they do not possess nuclear weapons. But both have publicly acknowledged - Pakistan in early February - that they have the know-how and the materials to construct such weapons, and both countries are believed to have nuclear delivery capabilities.
The issue of proliferation in the subcontinent has an added dimension of danger because the former Soviet Central Asian republics, which have nuclear assets of their own, now are part of the nuclear regional equation. Any diminution of nuclear tension between India and Pakistan would have residual benefits.
"If Pakistan feels comfortable with new nuclear arrangements, the incentive for Pakistan to dash off to get scientists and nuclear materials in the Asian republics would be reduced," notes proliferation specialist Leonard Spector of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Likewise, if you get an agreement it would reduce Pakistan's inclination to share its own nuclear technology with the Asian republics."
India, whose relations with Washington have improved since the end of the cold war, has rebuffed United States pleas to engage in bilateral talks with Pakistan over nuclear proliferation. But during a recent visit to Washington Indian Foreign Secretary J. N. Dixit said that a US-India dialogue on security issues could serve as the prelude to multilateral proliferation talks. (Indian reaction, below.) So far, New Delhi has not agreed to participate in a Pakistani-proposed five-power regional conference al so involving Pakistan, China, Russia, and the US.
Pakistan, whose importance to Washington has been marginalized since the Soviets left Afghanistan, is eager to redefine its own relevance to the US.
One obstacle to normal relations is a Pakistan-specific US law that prohibits US military aid as long as Pakistan develops its nuclear weapons program. Pakistan's ambassador to the US, Abida Hussain, says that by cutting off aid, the so-called Pressler Amendment has weakened her country's conventional armed forces and leaves Islamabad with no choice but to build up a nonconventional deterrent.
The Bush administration defends its decision to exempt commercial military sales to Pakistan from the Pressler ban. But many lawmakers are seeking a stricter interpretation to prevent Pakistan from purchasing spare parts and defense equipment as long as it continues on a nuclear course.
US analysts say there are several reasons why India could find the five-power conference attractive. Negotiations could give the so-far defiant New Delhi government a chance to appear conciliatory on the nuclear issue. Any eventual agreement could freeze nuclear development, leaving India with a distinct advantage. It could eventually even open the door to mutual inspections.
But India is wary of the proposal because the five-power talks could prove to be an open-ended process that would leave it restricted and shorn of the status of being a nuclear power.
"We would like to know more about the terms of this proposed conference, whether there will be more accomplished nuclear powers telling us [India and Pakistan] what to do," Mr. Dixit said.
Analysts say regional talks are unlikely unless China agrees to participate. Five-power talks could benefit India if they lead to the removal of Chinese missiles that China says are deployed across its border in Tibet. As for China, the talks offer an attractive opportunity to support its old ally Pakistan without necessarily giving up its nuclear weapons program.
"China can isolate India by joining the conference," says Selig Harrison, a South Asia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment.
Another obstacle to regional talks on proliferation is the acrimonious dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.
"As long as the Kashmir insurgency is at its present state of intensity, with India deeply angered by Pakistan's support of Kashmiri insurgent groups, the possibility of any meaningful five-power conference is marginal," says Mr. Harrison.
In separate visits during February and March, the US State Department hosted senior Indian and Pakistani officials to explore ways of slowing regional nuclear competition.
Following Pakistan Foreign Secretary Shaheryar Khan, who visited Washington and first publicly revealed Pakistan's nuclear capacity, India's Dixit defended his government's refusal to sign the "discriminatory" 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and New Delhi's opposition to opening Indian-developed nuclear facilities to international inspections. Pakistan repeated its refusal to join the NPT until India does.
Eliminating weapons from the region is impossible, Dixit says.
"There is no point in talking about a nuclear-free zone when the whole region is bristling with weapons," he says.
The foreign secretary prefers to talk about "a nuclear-safe zone," in which tensions are diffused through confidence-building measures.