South Asia Plays With Atomic Fire

RELATIONS have been brittle enough between India and Pakistan, with each exchanging shell fire almost daily in the disputed Kashmir region. Now, US disclosures that India is poised to test a nuclear weapon are fueling concerns that the rivals may be flirting with disaster.

India denies that it is preparing to detonate a nuclear device at the same desert test site where it set off its first "peaceful" atomic blast in 1974. And, while Indian and Pakistani officials admit tensions are dangerous, they insist that neither wants a full-blown conflict, especially one that might involve the nuclear arms that both almost certainly possess.

"There are little incidents now and then. Helicopters stray over the border. Some shots are fired. But what are we really going to fight about?" says Salman Khurshid, Indian minister of state for foreign affairs. "How are you going to use nuclear weapons on someone next door?"

Such assurances, however, bring little solace to Western officials and independent analysts, who are watching the rivalry with mounting alarm.

At a minimum, they say, the foes may be headed into an accelerating arms race that will worsen tensions and undermine their economic development by forcing them to divert scarce resources to buying new weapons.

In a worst-case scenario, given the distrust, absence of outside mediation, and lack of high-level talks or confidence-building steps, some experts worry that even the smallest of inadvertent incidents could escalate into the fourth Indo-Pakistani war since their independence from Britain in 1947. Only this time, it might go nuclear.

Bad time for a mishap

The crisis holds significant global implications, illustrating the international community's inability to curb the danger of nuclear conflict despite the end of the cold war. It also shows how the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and regional confrontations have replaced the US-Soviet confrontation as prime threats to international stability.

"South Asia is on the threshold of significantly increased tensions and nuclear dangers," warns Michael Krepon of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington arms-control think tank. "It is a region prone to mishap, prone to miscalculation."

Concurs an American intelligence official: "It's fair to describe the Indo-Pakistan conflict as one of the world's most potentially dangerous situations."

Both India and Pakistan admit they can produce nuclear weapons but assert they have declined to do so. Western analysts, however, believe Pakistan may be able to deploy relatively quickly between 15 and 25 nuclear weapons. India is estimated to have produced weapons-grade plutonium for 80 bombs. Both refused to ratify the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was recently extended indefinitely by 178 states.

Many experts contend that only the US could mediate a reduction in the tensions. But, they add, the Clinton administration lacks a coherent South Asia policy. Instead, they say, it poured oil on the fire last month by unfreezing $368 million in US arms that were bought by Pakistan in 1987 but had been held up by Washington because of Islamabad's clandestine nuclear weapons program.

The move enraged Indian public opinion and plunged Indo-US relations into a freeze after several years of unprecedented warmth. As Pakistan crowed, officials of India's ruling Congress Party, facing an uphill reelection fight next year, warned that India would have to buy more weapons.

The main thorn in Indo-Pakistan relations is Kashmir, a Himalayan region bordering China, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. It has more than just strategic value. The predominantly Muslim region has become for both countries a symbol of national honor, the last and greatest prize in a bloody feud that began when Imperial Britain partitioned the subcontinent colony into Islamic Pakistan and mostly Hindu India at independence in 1947.

"The Kashmir question goes back to the question of Pakistan's identity and India's identity," says retired Maj. Gen. D. Bannerjee of New Delhi's Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses.

Kashmir has remained divided since India and Pakistan went to war over it for the first time in 1947. They fought over Kashmir again in 1965.

The current frictions stem from a five-year-old uprising in Indian-ruled Kashmir by Islamic militants; some want independence and others seek union with Pakistan. India accuses Pakistan of arming, training, and sheltering the separatists. Pakistan denies the charge, but gives political succor to the radicals, accusing Indian forces of committing human rights abuses against the Kashmiris and taking up their call for "self-determination."

The rivals came perilously close to war in 1990, when India began massing troops ,ostensibly to crush the insurrection. Pakistan responded by mobilizing its army. The Bush administration averted a conflict by brokering force reductions and "confidence-building steps," such as prior troop-movement notification and contacts between local military commanders.

Those measures, however, are now virtually ignored, experts say. The militaries are said to make only perfunctory use of a "hot line" between their capitals. Both sides are taking casualties in near-daily clashes along the 435-mile-long "line of control," the front line between Pakistan-held Kashmir and the Indian side. Civilians are also being killed and wounded.

Still, Indian and Pakistani experts discount the chances that a local clash could flare into a major confrontation. They contend that both armies lack sufficient supplies or funds to wage a protracted war and that the threat of nuclear attack is acting as a powerful restraint.

"There are deterrents ... that go against a resumption of conflict," says General Bannerjee. Like other analysts, he predicts an indefinite continuation of the present stalemate.

But, outside experts are not so sure. Most disturbing to them are refusals by the sides to talk. There have been no senior-level discussions in two years and no prime ministerial meeting since 1988. India says it will discuss valid bilateral issues, but insists the uprising on its side of Kashmir is an internal affair. Pakistan argues that relations cannot be normalized before the Kashmir issue is resolved, preferably through a referendum on independence from India.

Join Pakistan, or not?

Pakistan "wants Kashmir on a platter," says Indian minister Mr. Khurshid. Retorts Pakistan's Ambassador Riaz Koker: "The people of Kashmir have risen. I'm not suggesting they are dying to join us. We are saying they have the right to self-determination."

Experts attribute the impasse to domestic politics. Both Indian Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao and his Pakistani counterpart, Benazir Bhutto, head weak governments. Even the slightest conciliatory gesture could give their opponents ammunition to oust them. Both, therefore, pander to hard-liners within their bureaucracies, militaries, and constituencies.

Making matters worse is a "missile race." India is now producing the Prithvi, an intermediate-range missile capable of hitting any part of Pakistan if deployed near the border. No deployments have been made. But J.N. Dixit, who retired this year as foreign secretary, India's most senior career diplomat, told the Monitor: "Prithvi will certainly be deployed. That decision was taken long ago."

Should that happen, Pakistan is expected to counter with deployments of similar missiles, including M-11 rockets it has reportedly obtained from China.

Though the Indian and Pakistani missiles are believed capable of carrying nuclear warheads, neither country was thought to have been able to make warheads small enough - until now. Some experts believe that the test India is reportedly preparing could be of a warhead for the Prithvi.

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