EVEN as its nuclear showdown with North Korea escalates, the Clinton administration is also stepping up pressure on India and Pakistan to curtail their nuclear-weapons programs. With tensions between the two adversaries at the highest levels in years, US officials are concerned that South Asia represents another potential nuclear flash point.
The main cause of conflict between India and Pakistan is the Himalayan region of Kashmir, which both countries claim. During the last five years, more than 10,000 people have been killed in the disputed territory.
Indian Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao did little to dispel fears about nuclear weapons on the subcontinent in a speech to his party's political convention June 11. ``I will not foreclose the option of making, or not making a bomb,'' he told Congress Party members.
Mr. Rao's comments came the day after leaders of the largest opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, called for the government to continue its nuclear program.
Rao's comments may have been intended to score political points at home, analysts say, but US officials are nonetheless concerned that the arms race in South Asia is escalating. Last week, India completed tests of a short-range ballistic missile that may be capable of carrying nuclear warheads. With a range of 155 miles, the Prithvi missile can strike most major Pakistani cities. Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto called the test-firing of the missile ``a provocative action.'' India is also developing a medium-range missile, the Agni, which has a range of 1,500 miles.
India has yet to decide whether it will actually deploy either of the missiles. On June 6, a State Department spokesman in Washington said the US has ``strongly encouraged'' India to scrap its missile programs. ``A country that thinks of Mahatma Gandhi as its source of inspiration cannot go nuclear at the drop of a hat,'' says Salman Khursheed, India's minister of state for external affairs. ``But at the same time, we cannot neglect our national security.''
In fact US diplomatic efforts have only managed to anger the Indians, who accuse America of meddling in their internal affairs. ``The Rao administration has made it abundantly clear to the United States that it would not be pushed around on this question,'' says P. R. Chari, professor at India's Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. When Rao met with President Clinton in Washington last month, their talks focused on India's economic reforms. On the nuclear question, an American official says, ``neither side gave any ground.''
India refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty despite consistent US pressures. At the very least, the US wants India to agree to a regional South Asia nuclear ban. But India insists that such a treaty not be confined to India and Pakistan alone.
US looks toward Pakistan
With the Indo-US talks stalled, the Clinton administration is now focusing on Pakistan's nuclear program. The country is widely believed to possess the ability to build a nuclear bomb, and may have already produced several warheads.
In an effort to curb that program, the US says it is ready to make Pakistan a deal: It will deliver 38 F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan if it agrees to a verifiable cap of its nuclear weapons program. Pakistan has never before allowed such inspections. ``We are asking Pakistan to swallow a bitter pill,'' said a senior State Department official, who requested anonymity.
In fact, the unusual proposal still has a long way to go. Prime Minister Bhutto is under domestic pressure to continue the nuclear program, which is a great source of pride for Pakistan - the first Islamic country to join the nuclear club. Indian officials, meanwhile, have expressed their ``serious reservations'' about the deal. Delivery of the F-16s, they say, will escalate the arms race in South Asia. ``There is much skepticism whether Pakistan would be deflected from its nuclear quest,'' Mr. Chari says. ``Pakistan will get into the same comfortable position that it has in the past, of getting the conventional arms and still continuing with its nuclear program.''
Pakistan had already paid for the fighter jets before a 1990 US law cut off military aid to the country because of its nuclear-weapons program. In order to deliver the jets, the Clinton administration would have to seek Congressional approval for a one-time exemption to that law.
But Sen. Larry Pressler (R) of South Dakota, author of the 1990 law, has threatened a Senate filibuster to block any such moves. He called the proposed delivery ``a strange way to proceed with arms control.''
The Clinton administration admits the deal will be a hard sell, but defends its diplomatic effort as the most expedient way to curb Pakistan's nuclear program. ``The presence of modern fighter aircraft is not the No. 1 problem,'' said Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott during a recent visit to New Delhi. ``The real problem is that of nuclear proliferation, the nuclear devices themselves.''