Worldwide condemnation

Print edition : May 23, 1998

The impact of the explosions will be felt most in economic and diplomatic relations.

THE nuclear tests conducted by India have sent shock waves around the world and provoked a storm of protests. The diplomatic fallout has not been positive from New Delhi's point of view. It is now clear, from what the scientists behind the explosions said at their New Delhi press conference, that one of the first decisions of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee after assuming office was to give a go-ahead for the tests. The haste with which the decision was taken almost certainly precluded a meaningful debate about the likely economic and political repercussions of trying to gatecrash into the nuclear club.

A senior government official told Frontline that two in-depth studies about the possible consequences of exploding a nuclear device had been done in 1995. One study was by the Ministry of Finance, the other by the Ministry of External Affairs. Surprisingly, Foreign Office officials came to the conclusion that the diplomatic and economic fallout could be contained. The Finance Ministry's assessment was, understandably, more pessimistic. In its worse-case scenario, the country would be deprived of essential foreign investment and the flow of sophisticated technology. Sanctions would make international investors, especially institutional investors, nervous, the study concluded.

The Ministry of External Affairs, meanwhile, exudes confidence despite the misgivings many people in the Ministry have about the timing of the tests. Officials say that the United States is the only major country that has called for coordinated economic sanctions; even the Group of Eight summit, though critical of the explosions, failed to take a united stand on sanctions, they argue. Only the U.S., Canada and Japan, among the G-8, seem to be serious at this juncture about economic sanctions against India. The European Union (E.U.), India's biggest trading partner, is yet to take a stand.

A senior official in the Ministry of External Affairs said that the U.S. sanctions would not harm India's security interests. Washington, he says, had already banned the export of most dual-use technologies to India. Dr. Abdul Kalam, chief of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, told mediapersons in New Delhi after the tests that the embargo had only helped strengthen the country's resolve to march towards self-reliance in high-technology areas. Citing the indigenous development of supercomputers and cryogenic engines as a case in point, he declared: "We are willing to accept the challenges."

The challenges will be, however, in the areas of economic and diplomatic relations. The Clinton administration has already announced punitive measures that could have an adverse impact on trade and technical cooperation and financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The U.S. State Department has claimed that the sanctions will cost India $ 20 billion. Indian officials dismiss this figure as highly exaggerated. And the BJP-led Government hopes that the lure of quick profits will make U.S. businessmen disregard the sanctions in the long run. With South-East Asia continuing to be volatile and lucrative markets such as Iran remaining closed to the U.S., India is seen as the last great untapped market.

However, the Government seems a little too optimistic about the scenario. The Clinton administration has already started turning the screws diplomatically. A U.S. State Department spokesman has rejected India's claim to nuclear weapon state status while observing that the tests had considerably diminished India's chances of securing a permanent seat in a reconstituted United Nations Security Council. Indian diplomats expect a tough time at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) foreign affairs meeting in Cartagena in the last week of May as they try to rationalise India's volte-face on its nuclear policy and seeming readiness to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty albeit on the basis that some "reciprocity" is involved.

Japan was one of the first countries to react swiftly with Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto calling the nuclear tests "very regrettable". Japan, India's largest aid donor, promptly cut off its Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) aid to India. The tests were criticised by other world leaders such as Nelson Mandela and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Registering their anger, Canada, Australia and New Zealand recalled their High Commissioners for consultations. After the second round of nuclear tests, Japan recalled its Ambassador and Britain its High Commissioner. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said that his Government "unreservedly condemns" the testing. Canberra announced that it was ending all military-to-military contacts with India. New Zealand may reportedly join Australia in proposing a special session of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva to discuss the developments in the Indian subcontinent. Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien said that his country was "shocked and disappointed" at India's actions and announced that Canada's relations with India had "been placed on hold".

Russian President Boris Yeltsin remarked that "India has let us down", but Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov made it clear that his Government did not intend to impose sanctions against New Delhi, saying that they would be "counterproductive".

PERHAPS the most adverse fallout of the tests is the souring of India's relations with Beijing. Despite being persistently targeted since the BJP-led Government came to power (see report on page 105), the Chinese Government had kept its cool. After the first round of explosions, Beijing reacted mildly, merely expressing its serious concern and saying that the tests were "detrimental to the peace and stability of the South-Asian region." But after the second round of tests China reacted strongly. This was mainly because the contents of the Indian Prime Minister's letter to Clinton and Hashimoto, justifying the tests, became public. In the letters, Vajpayee had tried to paint China as the looming threat to India and the region.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, in a strong statement on May 14, accused the Indian Government of undermining the international effort to ban nuclear tests so as "to obtain the hegemony in South Asia" and "maliciously" accusing China of posing a nuclear threat to India. This, the statement said, was "utterly groundless". It went on to say that the "gratuitous accusations by India against China are solely for the purpose of finding excuses for the development of its nuclear weapons."

As expected, New Delhi responded in kind. An official spokesman said that India had legitimate security concerns and that it could not but take into account the offensive nuclear weapons and missile capabilities in the region and the "well documented history of proliferation through clandestine acquisition taking place in our neighbourhood." This was a veiled reference to the allegations that China has been supplying Pakistan with missile and nuclear know-how.

Within a span of two months, the BJP-led Government has managed to derail Indian-China relations, so painstakingly nurtured after years of hostility.

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