Amid all the talk of weapons of mass destruction, a curious bill passed through the United States Senate Armed Services Committee last Friday, repealing a ban on the research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons.
Such weapons are so sophisticated and specialized that few nations have the capability to respond with their own similar weapons programs.
But for the clutch of nuclear-weapons states here in Asia, accustomed to American diplomatic lectures on the benefits of nuclear restraint, the change of tone in the Senate comes as a welcome change.
The message, perhaps unintended, is that if the US can do nuclear-weapons research, other nations can too.
"For India and Pakistan, for the moment, this is good news," says Kanti Bajpai, a disarmament specialist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "It helps them claim that they, too, can refine their weapons systems and do research also.
"The US knows it can't roll back the Indian and Pakistani nuclear programs," adds Mr. Bajpai. "So as long as their nuclear programs don't get too big, there shouldn't be any pressure from the US. They need the Pakistanis and the Indians too much."
For good or ill, Bush policy is closely watched here in South Asia and among the seven or eight countries around the world with acknowledged nuclear-weapons capability.
When the US made preparations for a preemptive war against Iraq, presumably to halt that country's ability to use or sell weapons of mass destruction, there were huzzahs in Delhi.
India's foreign minister, Yashwant Sinha, responded that India had a stronger case for a preemptive war against its nuclear rival Pakistan.
Now that the US is formally casting off Clinton-era bans on nuclear-weapons research, there is likely to be a similar me-too phenomenon among military planners and strategists throughout the region.
"Look, the policy of the US toward Iraq and North Korea only gives more incentive for nations to get nuclear weapons," says Jasjit Singh, a military analyst and columnist for the Indian Express newspaper. "The insecurity for nations has increased, not decreased. If the US tests weapons, then China will test. If China tests, then there will be domestic pressure for India to test as well. You're reopening a can of worms."
Any change in the political atmosphere toward nuclear weapons is carefully noted here. Just last week, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Khursheid Kasuri suggested that Pakistan would be willing to scrap its nuclear-weapons program if India agreed to do so as well.
Both India and Pakistan tested their nuclear weapons in 1998, prompting US economic sanctions against both nations. Several months after Sept. 11, those sanctions were lifted.
At present, there are no signs that the US government has any plans to test nuclear weapons anytime soon. Indeed, the current bill in the Senate - which has the backing of the Bush administration, and which political observers say is likely to pass the House Armed Services Committee as well - says that repealing its ban on nuclear researching should not be interpreted as "authorizing the testing, acquisition or deployment of a low-yield nuclear weapon."
Yet, by repealing the 1993 ban, called the Spratt-Furse Amendment, the Bush administration has clearly turned away from a decade of arms control that followed the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. The Spratt-Furse Amendment banned low-yield nuclear weapons, or those that have a force of less than 5-kilotons. The bomb at Hiroshima had 15 kilotons.
Such weapons are considered tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs), and are designed to wipe out hardened bunkers, communications centers, or leadership centers. Radiation from such a low-yield weapon disperses more quickly than radiation from larger weapons. In theory, this allows soldiers to safely retake the bombed area in a matter of minutes rather than days.
Supporters of the bill say such weapons are needed not only to go after rogue leaders like Saddam Hussein and terrorists like Osama bin Laden, but even the leaders of nuclear states like North Korea that don't adhere to treaties aimed at halting the spread of nuclear weapons technology.
Opponents of the bill say the US could be setting a bad example and weaken its moral authority when trying to convince those emerging nuclear states to eschew nuclear weapons.
"In international politics and domestic politics, everybody knew that might is right," says one Indian military analyst, privately. "When you're big like America, you can get pretty much what you want."
On the narrow issue of these low-yield weapons, few experts here expect there to be a boom in such nuclear research. The technology for developing these weapons is so advanced that few nations other than the US and Russia would be able to master it, military experts say.
"I feel that tactical nuclear weapons are not much use in our context," says P.K. Ghosh, a New Delhi-based defense analyst with a specialty in strategic nuclear weapons. "They can lead to an escalation in war without any tangible results on the ground. The moment you use TNWs in the field, you have just used a nuclear weapon, and you might invite a retaliatory strike from Pakistan, which nobody wants."