Asians Against Nukes
Asia Needs A Bomb-Less Deal
Published earlier in Economic and Political Weekly (India) and The
Friday Times (Pakistan), week of 17 April, 2006.]
For all who have opposed Pakistan’s nuclear program over the
years – including myself – the US-India nuclear
agreement may probably be the worst thing that has happened in a long
Post agreement: Pakistan’s ruling elite is confused and
bitter. They know that India has overtaken Pakistan in far too many
areas for there to be any reasonable basis for symmetry. They see the
US is now interested in reconstructing the geopolitics of South Asia
and in repairing relations with India, not in mollifying Pakistani
grievances. Nevertheless, there were lingering hopes of a sweetener
during President George W. Bush’s furtive and unwelcomed
visit in March 2006 to Islamabad. There was none.
This change in US policy thrilled many in India. Many enjoyed President
Musharraf’s discomfiture. But they would do well to restrain
their exuberance. The nuclear deal, even if ratified, will not
dramatically increase nuclear power production – currently
this stands at only 3% of the total production, and can at most double
to 6% if currently planned reactors are built and made operational over
the next decade. On the other hand, Pakistan is bound to react
– and react badly – once US nuclear materials and
equipment starting rolling into India.
One certain consequence will be more bombs on both sides of the border.
The deal is widely seen in Pakistan as signaling America’s
support or acquiescence, or perhaps even surrender, to
India’s nuclear ambitions. India will be freely able to
import uranium fuel for its safeguarded civilian reactors. This will
free up the remainder of its scarce uranium resources for making
plutonium. Further, when India’s thorium-fuelled breeder
reactors are fully operational, India will be able to produce more
bombs in one year than in the last 30.
Not surprisingly, important voices in Pakistan have started to demand
that Pakistan match India bomb-for-bomb. Abdus Sattar, ex-foreign
minister of Pakistan, advocates “replication of the Kahuta
plant to produce more fissile uranium…. to rationalize and
upgrade Pakistan's minimum deterrence capability”. He has
also written about the need to “accelerate its
[Pakistan’s] missile development programme”.
This is a prescription for unlimited nuclear racing, given that
“minimum deterrence” is essentially an open-ended
concept. Pakistan has mastered centrifuge technology, and giving birth
to more Kahutas would require only a political decision. Moreover,
unlike India, Pakistan is not constrained by supplies of natural
uranium. Thus, at least in principle, Pakistan can increase its bomb
Although nuclear hawks in India and Pakistan had once pooh-poohed the
notion of an arms race, there is little doubt that India and Pakistan
are solidly placed on a Cold War trajectory. As more bombs are added to
the inventory every year, and intermediate range ballistic missiles
steadily roll off the production lines, both countries seek ever more
Many years ago, all three countries crossed the point where they could
lay cities to waste and kill millions in a matter of minutes. The
fantastically cruel logic, known as nuclear deterrence, requires only
the certainty that one nuclear bomb will be able to penetrate the
adversary’s defences and land in the heart of a city. No one
has the slightest doubt that this capability was crossed multiple times
over during the past few decades.
What action would best serve the interest of the peoples of India and
Pakistan, as well as of China?
A fissile material cutoff is the easiest and most straightforward way
to ease nuclear tensions. It offers the best hope to limit the upwards
spiral in warhead numbers. Instead of threatening to create more
Kahutas, Pakistan should offer to stop production of highly enriched
uranium while India should respond by ceasing to reprocess its reactor
wastes. Previous stockpiles possessed by either country should not be
brought into issue because their credible verification is extremely
difficult and would inevitably derail an agreement. Years of
negotiation at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva came to naught
for this very reason. A series of “Nuclear Risk
Reduction” talks between Pakistan and India have also
produced zero results. The cessation of fissile material production is
completely absent from the agenda; it must be made a central item now.
If a Pakistan-India bilateral agreement could somehow come through, it
would have fantastically positive effects elsewhere. China –
which is the major target of US nuclear weapons – may not
have enough warheads to match the US but has more than a sufficient
number to constitute a nuclear deterrent. Inspired by an Indian cutoff,
it could formally declare a moratorium on fissile material production.
The US, which no longer produces fissile materials because it has a
huge excess, could encourage the Chinese action by offering to suspend
work on its Nuclear Missile Defence (NMD) system.
Unfortunately the United States is not acting as a force for peace in
South Asia. Confronted by the accusation that it is pumping arms into a
region that some of its leaders had once described as a
“nuclear tinder box”, US officials have responded
defensively with answers such as: you have to deal with the world as it
is and the Indian program cannot be rolled back; India is a democracy;
India needs to import nuclear fuel and technology and we need to sell
them. But such lame replies sweep under the carpet the disturbing
history of near-nuclear conflict on the subcontinent for which the US
has often taken credit for defusing.
The arms race directly benefits Indian and Pakistan elites. Hence they
are tacit collaborators as they woo the US and prove that their states
belong to the community of “responsible nuclear
states” that are worthy of military and nuclear assistance.
The past has been banished by an unwritten agreement. Retired Pakistani
and Indian generals and leaders meet cordially at conferences around
the world and happily clink glasses together. They emphatically deny
that the two countries had even come close to a nuclear crisis in the
past. Being now charged with the mission of projecting an image of
“responsibility” abroad, none amongst them wants to
bring back the memory of South Asian leaders hurling ugly nuclear
threats against each other.
But instances of criminal nuclear behaviour are to be found even in the
very recent past. For example, India's Defence Minister George
Fernandes told the International Herald Tribune on June 3, 2002 that
“India can survive a nuclear attack, but Pakistan
cannot.” Indian Defence Secretary Yogendra Narain had taken
things a step further in an interview with Outlook Magazine:
“A surgical strike is the answer,” adding that if
this failed to resolve things, “We must be prepared for total
mutual destruction.” On the Pakistani side, at the peak of
the 2002 crisis, General Musharraf had threatened that Pakistan would
use “unconventional means” against India if
Tense times may return at some point in the in the future. But Indian
and Pakistani leaders are likely to once again abdicate from their own
responsibilities whenever that happens. Instead, they will again
entrust disaster prevention to the US.
Of course, it would be absurd to lay the blame on the US for all that
has gone wrong between the two countries. Surely the US does not want
to destabilize the subcontinent, and it does not want a South Asian
holocaust. But one must be aware that for the US this is only a
peripheral interest – the core of its interest in South Asian
nuclear issues stems from the need to limit Chinese power and
influence, fear of Al-Qaida and Muslim extremism, and the associated
threat of nuclear terrorism.
The Americans will sort out their business and priorities as they see
fit. But it is unwise to participate in a plan that leaves South Asian
neighbours at each others throats while benefiting a power that sits on
the other side of the globe.
Regional tensions will increase because of the deal. Given that the
motivation for the US-India nuclear agreement comes partly from the
US’s desire to contain China, the Pakistan-China strategic
relationship will be considerably strengthened. In practical terms,
this may amount to enhanced support for Pakistan’s missile
program, or even its military nuclear program. Speaking at Pakistan's
National Defense College in Islamabad a day before Bush’s
arrival there, Musharraf declared that “My recent trip to
China was part of my effort to keep Pakistan's strategic options
By proceeding with the nuclear deal with India the US may destabilize
South Asia. It will also wreck the NPT, take the heat off Iran and
North Korea, open the door for Japan to convert its plutonium stocks
into bombs, and bring about global nuclear anarchy.
author is professor of nuclear and high energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam
University in Islamabad.