Doubts on Halting S. Asian Arms Race

Experts say India's and Pakistan's promise to stop nuclear testing doesn't go far enough

At first blush, they seemed like major breakthroughs.

Four months after conducting tit-for-tat underground nuclear blasts that triggered worldwide sanctions, India and Pakistan grabbed headlines last week by announcing their intentions to join a global ban on such tests by next September.

Now in the afterglow of the announcements, the significance of their action is in question - notwithstanding the archrivals' agreement to resume talks on a host of disputes, including on divided Kashmir.

Some US officials say the decisions actually represent scant progress toward averting the danger of atomic conflict between the foes. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1948, and their troops stand eyeball-to-eyeball along the border.

Furthermore, they say, the decisions do little to dispel uncertainty over the future of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Not only did both nations attach conditions to ratifying the pact, but it has yet to be adopted by 32 other states with atomic reactors, including the United States and Russia, without whom it cannot go into effect.

"We have a long, long way to go," concedes a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Clinton administration put the best face it could on the announcements, made in speeches to the United Nations by India's nationalist prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif. Both said they are already adhering to the CTBT by observing moratoriums on further tests.

"It is something that clearly will advance our interests in moving toward the test-ban regime that needs to be implemented," said White House spokesman Mike McCurry.

But President Clinton cancelled a visit to India and Pakistan late Tuesday, perhaps reflecting frustrations felt by many US officials over a lack of progress in curbing an arms race. Many had hoped that after weeks of US shuttle diplomacy, India and Pakistan would be more forthcoming, including making clear commitments to the CTBT.

There were also hopes that the rivals would announce more concrete actions on other measures demanded by a UN resolution. These include commitments to cap their long-range missile programs, a moratorium on production of atomic bomb-making materials, and the establishment of tension-reduction mechanisms.

Instead, Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Sharif, both of whom head shaky governments whose decisions to test won strong public support, linked joining the CTBT to the lifting of sanctions.

Under US law, the tests triggered sanctions, including cutoffs of all aid except humanitarian and food assistance. The US also blocked loans from private banks and institutions. Other countries also imposed sanctions, which had a devastating impact on Pakistan's near-bankrupt economy.

To give the US greater negotiating flexibility, Mr. Clinton is backing legislation that would let him relax some sanctions for a year. He will not act, however, before each side makes "substantial progress" toward meeting the international community's demands. But by making concessions before sanctions are relaxed, Sharif and Vajpayee risk igniting political backlashes.

Some experts dismiss the announcements with a perfunctory "so what?" They argue the CTBT will do nothing to halt the nuclear-arms programs because the rivals no longer need to conduct tests. The blasts detonated in May - initiated by India - provided them with all the data they required. "They already have the data from the tests, which they are free to incorporate into new weapons," says Gary Milhollin, director of the Washington-based Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. "The treaty doesn't do much for you in terms of stopping proliferation, because it allows countries to build nuclear weapons."

Furthermore, experts and US officials agree that neither India nor Pakistan is showing any restraint in developing missiles capable of lofting nuclear warheads across much of Asia and parts of the Middle East.

"If they persist in these programs, it means that they have not really decided to curb their nuclear development," says Mr. Milhollin.

Nor have the sides forsworn deploying their missiles. "The question of whether they are going to deploy is the real concern here," says Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.

"It looks like they have not come this far to keep [their nuclear weapons] in the basement anymore," says Dr. Weinbaum. "They are prepared to do what they believe they must to defend themselves. As Pakistan looks at India, India is looking at China. If they were looking at one another, we would have a much better chance of equilibrium."

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