THE Clinton administration sees South Asia as a trouble spot on the political map of the post-cold-war world. Here there are two clandestine nuclear-weapons powers, India and Pakistan, and between them there is a serious conflict over Kashmir. It is the fear of a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan that prompts the United States to seek ways to disarm them.
India and Pakistan resist American pressures by posturings and diplomatic ruse. Thus during his recent visit to the US, Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao attempted to smooth India-US differences over the issue of nuclear proliferation by talking about ties that bind the world's two largest democracies. He also loudly advertised to American businesspeople, academics, and legislators India's recent conversion to a free-market economy. To members of the US Congress, Mr. Rao promised to make India the largest free market in the developing world. All this sweet talk about markets and democracy was in part intended to deflect attention away from the contentious issue of nuclear proliferation.
Pakistani President Farooq Leghari also visited Washington recently to tell the Clinton administration that nothing stands between the US and Pakistan except India. The Pakistani leader could tell Americans that he is all for a nuclear-free South Asia, provided India is, because he knows India is not. It is a common diplomatic ploy to make proposals the other party cannot accept to establish one's reasonableness and the other's intransigence.
For the first time, Washington is displaying greater realism in its South Asia policy. Its earlier stand of linking the resolution of the Kashmir problem with the problem of proliferation is now given up. Much to the relief of India and the chagrin of Pakistan, the India-US joint statement issued at the end of Rao's visit said it is up to India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir problem.
The ineluctable reality of the Kashmir problem is that it cannot be resolved without turning South Asia into another Yugoslavia. Self-determination for Kashmiris, as the US has often advocated in the past, is a fine moral stand. To translate it into policy would mean undoing the state system that the departing British created 47 years ago. To redraw the political map of South Asia, however untidy it may now appear to be, is to unleash enormous ethnic and religious violence in the region.
This is not to defend the status quo, which the people in the Indian- and Pakistani-occupied parts of Kashmir find oppressive. The security forces of both countries often have resorted to massive repression and committed gross violations of human rights there. But for the present, one has to live with some bloodshed in Kashmir, for the alternative is bloodier.
It is slightly easier to tackle the region's proliferation problem than the Kashmir problem. Despite indignant denials by both countries, India and Pakistan have nuclear-weapons-making capability. Under the cloak of a ``peaceful'' civilian nuclear program, India, some American strategic analysts say, may have collected weapons-grade plutonium for some 60 or more Hiroshima-bomb-sized weapons. By stealth and great application, Pakistan may have come to possess some six to 10 unassembled nuclear devices. Both have a limited number of aircraft to deliver them; India has also begun to develop a medium-range missile.
At present, the declared US policy is first to cap the capability of India and Pakistan and then to eliminate it at some later stage. This could be achieved, depending on how the US chooses to reward India and Pakistan for agreeing to cap their existing weapons-making capability, on the kind of security framework the US helps to build in the region, and above all on how it deals with the present Indian and Pakistani leadership.
An overwhelming majority of people in India and Pakistan are for nuclear weapons. Neither the Rao government nor that of Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto can defy the people without losing power. Pakistan sees its nuclear program as a deterrent against India's imposing superiority in conventional weapons; India sees its program as a deterrent against China and a symbol of prestige.
Yet both also realize that in the post-cold-war world the political cost of maintaining and enhancing their present nuclear capability is high. The existing nuclear powers plus Germany and Japan see proliferation in South Asia as a threat to post-cold-war stability. India had a taste of American displeasure when the latter pressured Russia to stop its export of rocket engines to India. India is vulnerable to Western economic pressures. Its experiment in instituting a market economy depends largely on Western support. It was because of this consideration that Rao suspended the test of a short-range missile on the eve of his departure for the US. He feared it might sour relations.
Thus there is a possibility that India and Pakistan may quietly agree to cap their weapons programs, though without international verification at present. But it should not appear to be an American dictate. Rather, through skillful diplomacy the US should make the capping of nuclear capability on the part of India and Pakistan appear as those nations' own response to the new post-cold-war reality.
The ultimate American objective of eliminating nuclear-weapons capability in the region could only be realized if it could prevail upon China to restrict its nuclear program. India has legitimate security concerns vis-ia-vis China, and they could only be met by China agreeing to participate in current global negotiations on nuclear arms control. India will disarm itself only if it believes that there is a distinct trend toward delegitimizing the role of nuclear weapons in world politics.
* Bharat Wariavwalla is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, India.