India's nuclear muscle flexing

Despite a 'no first use' policy, a new weapons program is one more step

India this week sought to assure the international community that it will pursue a responsible nuclear policy of "no first use" of atomic weapons - even as it continues to build a much larger military capability, including a new defense strategy to deliver nuclear weapons by missile, plane, ship, and submarine.

India's first nuclear doctrine, announced Tuesday, indicates a further break from the moral policy of pacifism dating to founder Jawaharlal Nehru and long professed by India. It reflects a new and emerging Indian realpolitik in which status as a great economic and political power is seen as dependent on modern military capacity.

Moreover, the announcement comes at a time when the overall climate in South Asia is under increased scrutiny, following nearly three months of fighting in late spring between India and Pakistan in the Himalayan mountains of Kashmir. Only last week, India downed a Pakistani military plane it claims crossed a disputed border along the Arabian Sea, and relations between the neighbors are at a low ebb.

India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons 15 months ago, marking them as the first new members of the nuclear "club" in decades. Western nations uniformly condemned the tests, arguing they would increase the possibility of other states breaking the existing nonproliferation regime. But Clinton administration efforts to talk the two sides out of nuclear weapons development have so far failed - a point made resoundingly clear by New Delhi's Tuesday press conference.

Until this week India had not made clear its nuclear doctrine, which also states that the prime minister alone may pull the nuclear trigger, and lays out what supporters term a "muscular" strategy of land, sea, and air delivery systems. Pakistan has not yet renounced the "first use" of nuclear weapons.

US State Department spokesman James Rubin said Tuesday that the policy "does not enhance" the security of the region. Western observers in Delhi stated it was "difficult to tell" from the language of the doctrine whether "this means we are in for an arms race in South Asia or not." However, military analysts here seized on India's new intention to develop ship and submarine delivery systems as the most significant part of the announcement. India's submarine capability is still years off, but ships could be more quickly fitted to deploy India's smaller "Prithvi" missile in a manner hard to detect.

"If I am a strategic planner in Jakarta, or Tehran, or Saudi Arabia, or Australia - suddenly India's nuclear program has a lot more meaning than before," says a Western analyst.

Along with pointing to a potential threat from Pakistan, which tested only after India in 1998, Indian officials say nuclear weapons are a deterrent against China - a greater long-term threat, say some experts here.

Old antimuclear policy

For years, India, as a member of the "nonaligned nations," touted a Gandhian antinuclear doctrine and eschewed the development of catastrophic weapons as immoral, illegal, and irrational. Indian opponents of the new doctrine described it as a betrayal of Indian values.

"This doctrine represents a further hardening of policy using primitive cold-war language, and promising things like 'massive and punitive retaliation' - language we have never used," says Praful Bidwai, an expert on disarmament in Delhi. "This is a dangerous development for a country that can barely keep its electric power grids running, and that still can't operate its trains very well."

Indeed, in the months since India tested five nuclear devices in the Rajasthan desert, officials stated that any nuclear retaliation would occur only after a review lasting from 24 hours to several days, and would consider limiting damage done to the other side.

That initial assumption has been superseded by the current policy, which states in part, "Any adversary must know that India can and will retaliate with sufficient nuclear weapons to inflict destruction and punishment that the aggressor will find unacceptable if nuclear weapons are used."

Supporters say this is "classic deterrence" language. They argue that any doctrine promising not to launch preemptive "first use" nuclear weapons must also spell out an unequivocal threat of retaliation, in order to be taken seriously.

One sleeper clause in the doctrine suggests India will retaliate against "a State or entity" that attacks it - opening the door, say experts, for possible use of weapons against an alliance like NATO, or against a terrorist encampment.

The doctrine was shaped by a diverse 27-member National Security Advisory Board in New Delhi made up of military officers, government officials, cabinet members, and experts - some of whom disagree with the outcome.

It must be ratified by the Indian parliament, probably this fall after national elections in September.

Preelection positioning

The timing of the announcement on the eve of elections is viewed as significant. The current interim government led by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is responsible for the nuclear tests in May of 1998, and were widely approved and a source of pride in India. Airing a tough policy prior to elections reminds voters of the successful previous tests, puts an agenda of India as a great nation before the voters, and deflects criticism from the Kashmir crisis in June when Pakistan-based troops crossed en masse and undetected into Indian-controlled territory.

The first point of the new doctrine is the one attracting the most ire from some Western observers and analysts. It states that India's need to develop nuclear weapons is a result of the continued reliance by nuclear states on the weapons as a form of deterrence - an approach that "amount[s] to virtual abandonment of nuclear disarmament" by those states.

A Washington-based source argues the Clinton administration "would take great exception to that statement. The White House has reduced from 20,000 to under 10,000 nuclear weapons, and is talking about reducing to 2,000," he says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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