Buckling under pressure

Print edition : September 12, 1998

Pakistan, reeling under a severe economic crisis, is moving closer to signing the CTBT.

ALTHOUGH no specific details of the four rounds of talks held so far between the United States and Pakistan on the nuclear non-proliferation issue are available, indications are that Islamabad is playing along with Washington.

Soon after the third round of talks in Islamabad, between U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Pakistan Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmed, Pakistan withdrew its objections to joining the negotiations on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) in Geneva. At their meeting in London on August 25, Talbott and Ahmed decided to shift the talks to the "experts' level", probably to Geneva. There is speculation that such a shift was preceded by a deal between the two countries on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

A joint statement issued after the London talks said: "The talks were serious, substantive and constructive. Issues of regional security, arms control, non-proliferation measures, the situation in the region and recent developments were discussed. Both sides expressed their respective viewpoints and developed better mutual understanding. The U.S. expressed support for an early agreement between Pakistan and the International Monetary Fund and Paris Club in order to alleviate Pakistan's economic difficulties."

It added: "Both sides attached importance to continued strong bilateral ties in the interest of peace and security in the region and their desire for a broad, constructive relationship with each other. It was agreed that discussions would continue at the experts' level in September."

U.S. support for an "early agreement" between Pakistan and the IMF is of vital interest to Islamabad. Pakistan's foreign exchange reserves have risen slightly, with help from some Gulf countries, but the overall economic crisis shows no sign of ending.

Pakistan can no longer afford to delay an agreement with the IMF. As of now the country's foreign exchange reserves stand at a little over $ 600 million, and Pakistan has to pay out around $1.5 billion as quarterly payments. Remittances from Pakistani workers abroad have dried up after all foreign currency accounts were frozen on May 28. The Pakistani rupee, too, continues to slide against the dollar; it has already crossed the Rs. 60 mark.

The Government has been unable to come to grips with the crisis. Other than making grandiose announcements and seeking extra powers, it has done little to tackle what analysts have described as an "economic meltdown".

There is a live link between the crisis and the CTBT. If Pakistan toes the U.S. line, then the economic sanctions may be lifted and Pakistan may be able to negotiate a proper bail-out arrangement with the IMF. Such negotiations with the international economic masters may take place at meetings scheduled for later this month.

Consequently, Pakistan's negotiating position vis-a-vis the U.S. is influenced by the harsh economic realities facing the country. In a policy statement, Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz said on August 25: "We have declared a unilateral moratorium on further (nuclear) testing. We favour nuclear restraint and stability.... we are engaged in an intensive dialogue with the United States as well as with members of G-8 and China to address all nuclear and security-related issues and are responsive to international concerns. This was underscored by our decision to participate in negotiations for the Fissile Material Convention in Geneva. We will continue our negotiations on CTBT and other related issues in a constructive spirit."

The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Siddique Kanju, was more direct on August 31: "Pakistan never had any problem in principle with this Treaty and had actively participated in negotiating it. We voted in favour of the Treaty in the United Nations General Assembly in 1996. We, however, suspected that India opposed the CTBT because it wanted to test and develop nuclear weapons. We were proven right....our successful tests achieved the objectives of nuclear deterrence which we are determined to maintain. However, we no longer require further tests to prove our capability...."

He added: "We have delinked our position on the CTBT from that of India and declared that we would decide on the Treaty in the best interests of the country. Despite our past support to the Treaty and the fact that signing it will not undermine our deterrent capability, we have stated we will not sign the Treaty under a coercive atmosphere caused by the sanctions. We cannot sign this Treaty or, for that matter, accept any measure under duress or pressure. We have taken the same position in our dialogue with the United States, which focusses on security and non-proliferation issues...."

One factor that has queered the pitch for Pakistan is the U.S. missile strike on Afghanistan on August 20. With religious bigots in the country up in arms, the Government is on the defensive as far as the missile strikes are concerned. It has been repeatedly accused of being in the know of the U.S. missile strikes, a charge which it stoutly denies. However, the Government has sought to reduce the pressure on it by finally taking the issue to the United Nations Security Council.

The missile attacks complicated the situation for Pakistan vis-a-vis the CTBT. If the Government was thinking in terms of signing the CTBT, given the fact that it has had no objection to the treaty in principle, it will think again on the timing of such an act. However, it is clear that Pakistan is on the way to signing the treaty. The media, too, have carried reports that the Sharif Government may take the CTBT issue to Parliament for a debate. It probably wants to take advantage of the fact that the Opposition Pakistan People's Party is very much in favour of Pakistan saying yes to the treaty.

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