India's nuclear escalation Tests: Fear of China, animosity toward Pakistan, Hindu nationalism fuel explosions.

May 12, 1998

STRATEGICALLY, India's explosion of three nuclear devices beneath the desert near Pakistan on Monday is aimed at a stronger China. The two fought in 1962 near their Himalayan borders when neither was nuclear. Now China is developing its military capabilities rapidly, and its growing naval capabilities disturb India.

Diplomatically, India's muscle-flexing is aimed more at Pakistan, the weaker neighbor that undermines India's rule in disputed Kashmir and Jammu. Pakistan, along with Israel and India, is understood to be at least nuclear-ready, probably with weapons in kit form waiting to be assembled.

Politically, India's nuclear tests are a triumph for Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of militant Hindu nationalists.

It came to power with a coalition seven weeks ago, advocating nuclear options and firmness toward Pakistan.

For much of India's technology sector, the tests are a welcome display of national prowess. But India's first testing since 1974 of more sophisticated devices is destabilizing.

It could panic Pakistan into open competition. It reflects Indian fears of a China-Pakistan alliance that could be self-fulfilling. And it undermines a de facto world moratorium on nuclear testing.

This event should automatically shut down direct U.S. military aid, which is minuscule. More importantly, it puts lending to India by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which Washington has the power to block, at risk.

A concerted policy is likely to emerge from the summit of the industrial powers of the Group of Eight, which includes most of the nuclear powers, in England next weekend.

This forum was begun for economic policy coordination, but it increasingly takes on political problems.

How to contain the Asian nuclear race when Russia, the United States, Britain and France are scaling back their own nuclear armaments is certainly paramount among them.

Pub Date: 5/12/98

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