Divergent perceptions

Print edition : November 07, 1998

BEFORE India and Pakistan went into their latest round of bilateral talks, the United States advised both sides to study the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty that it had concluded with the Soviet Union in 1987. This, in Washington's reading, was a worthy model for emulation by the adversarial neighbours. The U.S. also urged both sides to introduce certain quantitative parameters into their frequently mentioned intention of inducting a "minimum" nuclear deterrent. This would put verifiable limits on the scope and extent of weaponisation and stabilise a situation that threatened to escalate rapidly into a lethal arms race.

Clearly, the Pakistani bargaining position drew much from the framework that the U.S. had outlined. As for India, since it went in with its own distinctive perceptions, it often found itself talking at cross purposes with the neighbour. India was willing to offer a treaty committing both sides to a "no first use of nuclear weapons" posture. After having made a unilateral pledge to this effect, India thought that a better ambience of mutual security could be created by drawing Pakistan also into a similar commitment. Expectedly, Pakistan saw this as an effort to undo a situation of nuclear parity and tilt the strategic balance in favour of India's superior conventional military forces.

The Pakistani alternative of a comprehensive treaty of non-aggression was rejected by India on account of its linkage to the Kashmir question. Lowering its sights from a "no first use" treaty, India then suggested that mechanisms to prevent an accidental or unauthorised nuclear launch be put in place.

Honesty of intentions aside, this proposal could be read as a fairly transparent admission that the two neighbours have embarked upon a dangerous game of nuclear brinkmanship without quite having the internal resources to establish a failsafe system of control over the most destructive weapons known. In offering to discuss ways of preventing an accidental nuclear war, India has unwittingly brought into public view the multiple hazards it has exposed itself to.

One of India's most significant suggestions was the establishment of safe and secure lines of communication between the political leaders, the military commands and the operational security details on either side of the border. The 1991 agreement on not attacking each other's nuclear installations was to be extended to cover centres with population above a certain threshold. Both sides were also to commit themselves to prior notification of missile tests above the range of 200 km.

The specificity of these proposals invests them with a certain merit in the Indian perception. But for Pakistan, they do not go far enough in their security implications. And given its obsessive preoccupation with the Kashmir issue, India's proposals were seen as a way of minimising the security threat to itself while in turn conceding little.

Pakistan for its part came up with a series of more ambitious proposals to defuse nuclear hostility. These included a mutual ban on explosive testing, a commitment by both sides to forswear the ballistic missile defence option, and the acceptance of a minimum deterrence force of transparent dimensions. None of these proposals gained acceptance from India, which continues to insist that the issues they raise touch upon national security interests, which transcend the neighbourhood context.

Since the talks concluded, the divergence between Indian and Pakistani perceptions has been evident in a number of developments. Although neither country is in any state of economic health, Pakistan is in greater imminent danger and has been engaged in a series of discussions with world financial institutions - the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank - to check a rapid plunge into insolvency. The conditions imposed by the masters of world finance cut rather close to the bone, and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has so far sought political mileage in holding out, revelling in fact, in openly defying the diktat of the World Bank in the matter of electricity tariffs. But as a long-term strategic partner of the U.S., Pakistan has been treated with relative leniency and Nawaz Sharif is scheduled to hold a summit meeting with President Bill Clinton in December, at which his country's parlous economic situation is likely to top the agenda.

Pakistan also recently played host to Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz and showered him with honours, perhaps winning a commitment of sustenance through its immediate financial travails. The U.S., Pakistan and Saudi Arabia constitute a powerful strategic triad, which has decisively turned the situation in Afghanistan in its favour, and today could seek a preeminent role in Central Asia. Pakistan is not about to lose its key role within this partnership on account of its nuclear tests. It will, though, have to provide some conspicuous signal that it will not destabilise the global nuclear order any further than it already has.

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz provided precisely this signal when he spoke last fortnight of unconditional accession to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and perhaps even the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a distinct possibility. He did hedge his offer around with the demand that belligerence from the Indian side, particularly as exemplified by Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, be suitably restrained. And he later clarified that accession to the CTBT would be conditional to the lifting of all economic sanctions imposed against Pakistan as a consequence of its nuclear tests.

Significantly, this occurred even as Defence Minister George Fernandes firmly ruled out any possibility of a "private deal" with the U.S. on the CTBT. Fernandes admitted that the secret track of negotiations between Jaswant Singh, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, had produced little by way of results. Although Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had stated firmly that India's stand would not be a factor that would prevent the CTBT from coming into force in September 1999, the country would prefer to wait for the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty before initiating any further action.

Jaswant Singh had been evidently briefed to maximise during his negotiations with Talbott the strategic advantage that could be garnered from India's accession to the CTBT. This involved not merely a relaxation of economic sanctions and the lifting of technology denial regimes dating back to India's first nuclear test in 1974, but also perhaps a larger strategic partnership that recognised India as a neighbourhood power. Current indications are that this effort has come a cropper. There are clearly no rewards to be gained from accession to the CTBT except the modest one of stabilising a hostile neighbourhood relationship. The multiplying ramifications of the May 1998 nuclear tests will continue to exact a heavy price in terms of national security and economic well-being. The newly acquired conciliatory tone of the Government in New Delhi, its determination to keep Pakistan engaged in dialogue, indicates the grudging acceptance of this reality.

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