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HVK Archives: The US and nuclear India

The US and nuclear India - The Economic Times

K Subrahmanyam ()
October 29, 1998

Title: The US and nuclear India
Author: K Subrahmanyam
Publication: The Economic Times
Date: October 29, 1998

After a visit to seven universities, two think tanks, three
national dailies and a few government officials in the US, one
is struck by the vast difference in attitudes towards the Indian
nuclear tests between mainstreet USA and the sections of vocal
anti-nuclear opinion in India. By and large there appears to be
an acceptance of Indian nuclear policy among the US academia and
strategic community. Those who disapprove do so because it
disturbed a generally accepted status quo. They wanted to be
reassured that it did not involve any greater degree of risks
than the ones the world had come to accept in the nuclear era.
Once the logic and rationale were explained in language they are
familiar with, they all had one query. Why has not the Indian
government explained its reasons and policies in those terms
especially when they appeared to have a logical case according
to the present rules of the international game. I had no answer
to give them.

The sharpest criticism about the Indian nuclear tests came from
some of the Indian students while the Americans who were
familiar with the evolution of nuclear strategic thought were
able to follow the logic of the Indian nuclear tests more
readily. My presentations on the nuclear issue were not treated
as a rationalisation of the Indian government's (particularly
BJP's) policies and actions. My work of the last thirty years
was known. In the last decade I had also written about the
challenges arising out of China's emergence as the foremost
power in Asia and the second most powerful nation in the world
with the possibility of overtaking the US in the size of its
overall economy if all went well. Since the American policy on
China was based on the same assumption, the need for Asian
nations, particularly China's neighbours, to adjust themselves
to this possibility did not need elaborate explanations to US
audiences. The Americans were deeply rooted in the strategic
tradition that a country's security policy should be based on
the implications of a neighbour's military capabilities than its
currently expressed intentions. Therefore, they did not raise
the question with which we are familiar in India: What is the
threat from China today.

There was an overall understanding on China - Pakistan nuclear
weapon technology relationship and the American permissiveness
of it. But the details and the underlying implications of the
Chinese proliferation policy have not received adequate
attention in the US. Even China specialists in US had not given
thought to the possibility of an underlying purpose and design
in China's proliferation policies in the Gulf region related to
Sino-US equations.

The American audiences with some exceptions had not thought of
NPT extension as legitimisation of a weapon of mass destruction
nor of the deep resentment in India about the way article XIV -
entry into force clause of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty -
was imposed in violation of international norms. Once explained,
the logic of the Indian position was not contested. No US
strategist or official could justify the strategic rationale of
the US continuing to keep large nuclear arsenal and making the
nuclear weapon legitimate through extension of the NPT.

Most of the concerns expressed by the audiences on the potential
dangers of Indo-Pakistan nuclear arms race, Kashmir being a
flash point and lack of restraints were based on the propaganda
they had been subjected to by the non-proliferation cultists.
The Indian case on nuclear strategy surprised them first but the
inexhorable logic of it could not be rebutted. The US and the
Soviet union took immense risks while deploying their forces in
Europe in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation because destruction
of Europe did not involve their own home territories. They were
used to a strategic tradition of city busting and genocidal
population decimation, inherited from the second world war
bomber offensives, Korean and Vietnam wars. They saw each other
as ideological enemies in which one or the other system had to
be destroyed. They behaved irresponsibly in an era when they
believed nuclear wars were fightable and winnable. They had
issued the weapons to their armed forces and had even delegated
the power to use them without the sanction of national authority
under certain circumstances. None of these factors operated in
the Indian-Pakistan context and therefore most of the concerns
expressed were based on misperceptions, inept comparisons and
lack of knowledge. I did not come across a single American who
could find fault with this argument about the differences in the
nuclear deployment policies and risks involved in them during
the cold war confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union
and the present nuclear policies of India, China and Pakistan.

Nor has Indian advocacy of nuclear disarmament lost its
credibility as some of our antinuclear activists argue. On the
other hand many non-governmental organisations including some
Indians associated with antinuclear campaigns argue that the
Indian tests were a wake up call at a time when the nuclear
weapon powers tended to become complacent on the issue because
of the NPT extension and the CTBT. The Pugwash Council, which
won the Nobel Peace Prize for its campaign to eliminate the
nuclear weapons, while condemning the Indian nuclear tests as it
did all other tests before, has focussed attention on the need
for all states having nuclear weapons acting in ways that are
consistent with the objective of a nuclear weapon-free world and
to agree on specific steps that will lead to that goal. The
proposed Indian resolution in the UN General Assembly on nuclear
risk reduction has the support of many leading NGOs committed to
elimination of nuclear weapons.

Quite a few American academics and media persons accept that the
US nuclear strategy and non-proliferation policy are hostages to
bureaucratic politics in Washington and parochial interests of
congressmen and Senators who have interests in nuclear weapon
industry, research and deployment in their constituencies. On
national security issues each party, whether Republican or
Democratic tends to outdo the other in exhibiting their
commitments. It is perhaps one of the reasons why the Indian
nuclear tests are also interpreted in terms of parochial party
gains in domestic politics. At the same time there is also the
realisation that no Indian political party (barring perhaps the
Communist parties) would agree to roll back the Indian arsenal.
Even the Green party in Germany is prepared to compromise on
NATO nuclear strategic doctrines in practical terms irrespective
of their rhetoric.

In many quarters, both official and unofficial in the US, there
is also an understanding that many steps the US government is
publicly advocating are rational and logical ones which India
would adopt on its own but there is an urge to project that such
steps were being adopted by India at US behest. Many of them
also acknowledge that such a policy of public advice to India
could prove counterproductive and make many Indians resist what
they see as the US pressure. There are not many Americans who
see the nuclear issue as one which is likely to perpetuate as
chasm in Indo-US relations. The Americans knew India and
Pakistan had nuclear weapons for a number of years and they
expected to be able to manage the situation without the weapons
being put on the table. They underestimated the Indian response
to the legitimisation of the weapons through the NPT extension,
the imposition of the CTBT and the publicly exhibited
permissiveness of China-Pakistan nuclear relationship. Their
resentment at the injury to their amour propre is ebbing and
they are bound to take it in their stride.

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