A divided G-8

Print edition : May 23, 1998

INDIA rarely figures on the agenda of the Group of Eight (G-8), the elite club of industrialised countries _ the United States, Germany, Britain, France, Canada, Italy, Japan and Russia _ which meets annually. However, the five nuclear explosions in the Rajasthan desert a few days before the G-8 met in Birmingham ensured that India dominated the proceedings. A toughly worded communique at the end of the summit condemned the Indian action and urged India to refrain from carrying out further tests or nuclear deployments.

The thrust of the G-8's efforts was to ensure that the subcontinent did not witness more explosions. This meant persuading Pakistan not to conduct a test in response to India's tests, and extracting a commitment from India that it will not resort to further tests and will sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The G-8 leaders, who assembled for their first formal session over dinner on May 15, were unanimous that they should condemn the tests and urge India to sign the CTBT. But they were divided on whether to support concrete actions to punish India. The U.S., Japan and Canada had already announced punitive measures; they wanted the other G-8 countries to follow suit. U.S. President Bill Clinton, in an interview, said he supported sanctions because "I just think we need to do as much as possible to make it clear that in the world of today and tomorrow it is simply unacceptable to build a nuclear arsenal."

Russia made it clear that while it condemned the tests, it was not going to join in any sanctions. France too was unwilling. Britain had made its opposition known when Derek Fatchett, Minister in the British Foreign Office dealing with India, told the BBC that Britain was against sanctions because if felt that they only hurt the poorest and the most needy. The G-8 leaders, unable to forge a united position on sanctions left it to individual countries to decide on the action.

It was agreed that British Prime Minister Tony Blair, as chairman of the G-8, would telephone Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and convey the G-8's strong feelings about the tests. Blair telephoned Vajpayee, and apparently won an assurance that India would consider signing the CTBT and begin internal discussions. "He assured me that he would begin discussions immediately with a view to coming within the CTBT process and I trust that will be the case," Blair said.

While Blair contacted Vajpayee, it was left to the U.S. to persuade Pakistan to show restraint. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott was dispatched to Islamabad and he came to Birmingham to report on his mission to Clinton. Clinton's message was that Pakistan would gain the moral high ground and could count on strong U.S. support, including security guarantees, if it refrained from conducting a test. There was, however, little optimism that Pakistan would not test.

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