Asia's Nuclear-Arms Race

January 27, 1995|By JONATHAN POWER

London -- Before she became Pakistan's Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto spilled the beans to an obscure Middle East newspaper about something many long had suspected -- that Pakistan does have a nuclear-weapons program.

Pakistan now has nothing to lose by being honest. Once the Afghan war had lost its Cold War context, the need for Pakistani loyalty to Western interests no longer pressed. Washington cut off all aid, belatedly deciding to punish Pakistan for secretly going nuclear. That policy appears to have had no effect. A new one is needed. If Pakistan has not much to lose, the world has.

The Soviet Union no longer threatens the West with its missiles, or vice versa, and the United Nations has dismantled the clandestine Iraqi nuclear installations. The one active nuclear flashpoint is South Asia. It is a mistake to see the issue only in Pakistani-Indian, or Muslim-Hindu, terms. The covert Indian drive toward nuclear-weapons capability has never been fueled principally by rivalry with Pakistan, but by fear of China.

The Indo-Chinese border dispute is both bitter and long-standing. India's humiliating rout in the 1962 border war with China is a wound deeply rooted in the Indian psyche. To this day, many Indians feel they will never be safe or respected until they can match China man for man, missile for missile.

China's nuclear arsenal is larger than those of Britain and France combined. The major Chinese deployment is not aimed toward the former Soviet Union, but on the high plateau of Tibet on India's northeastern border, within easy range of the Indian heartland. Both China and India have engaged in a massive naval build-up in the Indian Ocean and the waterways of southeast Asia. Many of China's submarines are nuclear-armed; India's are not.

India has to be wary about provoking China. It knows it is the inferior party and has preferred to keep its nuclear-weapons program hidden until it can unveil in one sweep what China would consider a credible deterrent.

It probably is not quite ready. India has intermediate-range missiles, and successfully test-fired one in 1989, but they are of limited value against China whose main industrial, civilian and military targets are more than 2,000 miles away. A few years ago India placed a civilian satellite in orbit, showing that it was on the way to mastering the art of long-range ballistic-missile technology. It is only a question of time.

India would rather avoid a nuclear stand-off with Pakistan, which would blunt India's superiority in conventional forces, rendering them less usable. Therefore it avoids going public with its arsenal and plays down Pakistani's nuclear brazenness. As long as Pakistan doesn't actually conduct a nuclear test, public opinion will be quiet.

But Asia's three-way nuclear race is a precarious situation that cries out for an initiative by the old-time nuclear powers, the United States and Russia -- the long overdue, long promised move to sign a world-wide comprehensive ban on nuclear testing.

Such a ban would stymie the development of reliable weapons. But would India and Pakistan sign, even if the United States, the former Soviet states, China, Britain and France did so? Both Pakistan and India have always said they would. Both countries have an interest in not letting a nuclear arms race spin out of control. They have seen the superpowers engage in such a race and know that it is extraordinarily difficult to rein in and appallingly expensive. The present policy of ''untested bombs in the basement'' is not without virtues to both sides.

Perhaps, however, Pakistan has pushed India too far -- and at a time when India soon will feel confident of the range and power of its missiles. Within a couple of years India may be ready to

reveal a full-sized nuclear force mounted on intercontinental-range rockets. If that happens, the West, dilatory for so long about a test-ban treaty and conniving in Pakistan's nuclear development, will have only itself to blame.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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