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Curbing the Bomb: US Choices

Diplomacy shifts into high gear this week as US and other nations try to contain nuclear brinkmanship in South Asia.

By Jonathan S. LandayStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 1, 1998


With the world nuclear order shattered by the Indian and Pakistani atomic tests, the US and other big powers are scrambling to halt an arms race in South Asia and shore up global nonproliferation regimes.

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The US and other countries are discussing holding a series of high-level meetings, starting this week with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

Both India and Pakistan have indicated a possible willingness to talk about some ideas under consideration, such as renouncing further tests and renegotiating existing arms-control pacts that both refused to sign.

But there are enormous obstacles to cooling the upsurge in one of the 20th century's most intractable rivalries. These include a lack of leverage over India and Pakistan and differences on what steps to take. Russia, France, China, and others oppose punitive sanctions.

"We are trying to turn around the trend, and it is a very difficult thing to do from the outside," says State Department spokesman James Rubin. "Nevertheless, the basic goal ... is to try to see how we can encourage the parties to take steps to reduce the possibility of escalation."

The crisis erupted May 11, when India conducted three underground nuclear blasts, its first since exploding what it called a "peaceful" device in 1974. It held two more tests on May 13.

The UN Security Council's five permanent members may take on India and Pakistan.

The US and Japan responded by imposing economic sanctions.

Pakistan, ignoring pleas for restraint, detonated what it said were five devices on May 28, although some experts question the number because of the low yield detected by seismic monitoring. Despite worldwide outrage and the imposition of US and Japanese sanctions, Pakistan detonated a sixth device on Saturday.

The final Pakistani test gave new urgency to international efforts to find ways of lowering the tensions. The proposed meeting of the permanent UN Security Council members and established nuclear powers - the US, China, France, Britain, and Russia - may be followed by talks between them, Germany, Japan, and Canada in London June 12. India and Pakistan could then be brought into the discussions.

Australia is also calling an emergency meeting of the Geneva-based UN Conference on Disarmament for Tuesday.

The Clinton administration is hoping to win broad support for a series of measures that include urging India and Pakistan to renounce further tests and sign the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). It also wants them to join negotiations in Geneva on a worldwide halt to the production of nuclear-weapons-grade material, and to refrain from placing atomic warheads on their missiles.

The administration's most ambitious goal is encouraging the foes to convene talks on improving relations, including resolving their dispute over the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir.

Some experts say one major problem the administration may encounter is resentment shared by India and Pakistan over what they regard as its lack of attention to South Asia, home to the poorest one-sixth of humanity.