Building confidence

Print edition : July 16, 2004

Sheelkant Sharma, Additional Secretary in the External Affairs Ministry and his Pakistani counterpart Tariq Osman Haider before their talks in New Delhi on June 19. - ELIZABETH DALZIEL/AP

The confidence-building measures arrived at by India and Pakistan are expected to help demonstrate to the rest of the world that the two countries are mature enough to manage their nuclear arsenals and allay fears that South Asia is becoming a nuclear flashpoint.

WITH the coming to power of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, India-Pakistan relations have got off to a good start. After high-level talks between the two sides in New Delhi on June 19 and 20, a set of confidence-building measures (CBMs) on nuclear weapons was announced. This is the first set of significant CBMs to be announced on the issue since both the countries went nuclear formally in 1998. Global concerns about the two countries' nuclear arsenal were heightened as the spectre of war cast its shadow on the subcontinent two years ago. Senior officials from both sides of the border made threatening noises at that time about resorting to the nuclear option.

Pakistan has been in the spotlight particularly after the recent revelations about the Dr. A.Q. Khan network's sale of nuclear know-how to countries such as Iran, North Korea and Libya, Bush administration officials are reportedly insisting on a rollback of the country's nuclear programme.

The United States continues to exert pressure on New Delhi too. U.S. officials have indicated that while they are "realistic" about the Indian and Pakistani nuclear programmes, the goal is to limit what they perceive as the damage the two programmes have caused to world security and the non-proliferation regime.

Statements from the U.S. State Department's Director of Policy Planning Mitchell B. Reiss have made it clear that the U.S. wants India's nuclear reactors to be under the watch of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He has stated categorically that the U.S. will not sell nuclear reactors to India in the near future unless India shows more flexibility on the nuclear issue.

The international community has welcomed the joint statement released after the recent India-Pakistan expert-level talks on nuclear CBMs. The two countries have agreed formally to renew a moratorium on nuclear testing. There is, however, an escape clause. The joint statement said the moratoriums were to be observed "unless either side, in exercise of its national sovereignty, decides extraordinary events have jeopardised its supreme interests". Importantly, the two countries have agreed to put in place a "dedicated" hotline between their Foreign Secretaries and Directors-General of Military Operations (DGMOs) "to prevent misunderstandings and reduce risks relevant to nuclear issues". The new hotline between the DGMOs will also be upgraded. The existing hotline was being used once a week since the Kargil War. The joint statement also said that the two countries would work towards concluding an agreement with "technical parameters on pre-notification of flight testing of missiles".

This is a belated follow-up to the Lahore Declaration, which stated that both countries "shall take immediate steps for reducing the risks of accidental or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons and discuss concepts and doctrines with a view to elaborating measures for confidence building in the nuclear and conventional fields, aimed at prevention of conflict".

ACCORDING to experts long-range missiles possessed by the two countries constitute the single greatest threat to the region. The time taken by a missile to travel between the two countries is the shortest among nuclear powers - four to six minutes. Another ominous fact is that India and Pakistan lack the technology that allows for the recall of missiles once they are fired.

Pakistan and India have exchanged the drafts of agreements that will formalise the existing understanding between the two countries whereby a notice is issued about an impending missile test, warning the shipping and aviation companies about the specified areas where the tests will be conducted. Even as the talks were going on, Defence Minster Pranab Mukherjee was quoted as saying that India would test the Agni-III "as and when required". Pakistan wants India to take the initiative in stopping the missile race between the two countries.

The joint statement issued on June 20 emphasised that the nuclear capabilities of both countries "are based on their national security imperatives, and constitute a factor for stability". The statement went on to add that both countries were "conscious of their obligations to their peoples and the international community" and "committed to work towards strategic stability". This is meant to be a signal to the West that both the countries are mature enough to manage their nuclear arsenals and that the international community need not fear about South Asia becoming a nuclear flashpoint. The two countries have also called for a dialogue with acknowledged nuclear countries, which include the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. "Both countries call for a regular working level meeting to be held among all the nuclear powers to discuss issues of common concerns," the joint statement said.

According to disarmament experts, it is unlikely that the P-5 countries would welcome the India-Pakistan suggestion of holding regular meetings. Countries such as Japan, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa and South Korea had joined the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) based on the understanding that no other country besides the P-5 would declare itself as a nuclear power. The 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan are still seen by these countries as a challenge to the NPT, which allows for only five temporary nuclear weapons states.

External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh (right) and Pakistan's Foreign Minister Kurshid Mahmood Kasuri in Qingdao, China, on June 21, during the Asian Cooperation Dialogue.-

Many of these countries are also unhappy with the double standards the West has been adopting towards Israel on the nuclear issue. In terms of quantity and quality of its nuclear arsenal, Israel's weaponry is apparently more advanced than that of China.

Some Western commentators have been saying that a way out of this current impasse is to give the three countries the status of associate membership in the P-5 category under a new agreement that would permit them to retain their programmes but prohibit further development. The agreement envisages compliance with international nuclear export controls, prohibition of new tests, and phased elimination of fissile materiel production. Those proposing such a solution say that, unlike Iran and North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel are not signatories to the NPT.

External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh's statement about distancing India from the U.S-led Missile Defence Initiative must come as a relief for Pakistan. Though the Bush administration's ambitious programme is aimed primarily against China, Pakistani officials say that their country will also be affected adversely by the move.

The Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman, who was part of the official delegation, told the media in New Delhi that there had been progress and "movement towards dialogue and confidence building and constructive and consistent engagement". In the last week of June, the two neighbours also held talks on the Baglihar project. Pakistan has been objecting to the design of the Baglihar dam saying that it would affect the flow of water downstream. These talks were followed by talks between the Foreign Secretaries of the two countries.

Natwar Singh had a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Khursheed Mahmood Kasuri in the Chinese city of Qingdao on June 21, during the Asian Cooperation Dialogue. This was the first meeting between the two Foreign Ministers.

An External Affairs Ministry spokesman said that both the Ministers discussed all outstanding issues, including Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistani officials believe that once the Kashmir issue is solved, all other issues would be resolved within no time. They point out that most other outstanding issues like Sir Creek, Tulbul and Siachen have been discussed threadbare.

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