The Scariest Nuclear Stand-off


Geneva. -- Good news and bad news from the Indian subcontinent's nuclear battle front: Russia decided, under heavy pressure, not to sell rocket engines to India; while political chaos descended on Pakistan, just as it is reported that China is selling the country medium-range missiles. Again we see how dangerously the nuclear genie is out of the bottle.

With or without Russian help, India is clearly set on a course to build rockets capable of carrying nuclear weapons that can reach, not just Pakistan, but the heartland of China. As for Pakistan, there has always been a large question mark over who exactly has authority on nuclear matters, and the joint resignation of both president and prime minister confirms what many have long surmised -- that the military are a law unto themselves.

The precariousness of this situation was dramatized three years ago. During a particularly bitter moment in the Kashmir dispute, Pakistan appeared to threaten to go nuclear, deploying an armored caravan from a nuclear facility to an air base where F-16s with modified bomb racks were waiting.

Of course, both Pakistan and India deny having nuclear weapons. The general suspicion, however, is that they are only a "twist of the screwdriver" away from having them.

Neither country, even before the present political crisis in Pakistan, has had reliable command and control systems for the deployment of nuclear weapons. Unlike in the U.S. and the ex-Soviet Union, there is no searching debate on "first use," "counterforce" and the "ladder of escalation." This puts a premium on pre-emptive use: the old American adage "use 'em or lose 'em."

A number of influences work to maintain the status quo. Military strategists are concerned about command and control. There is also the fear that an attack on an adversary might be self-destructive as wind, refugee flows and the mix of populations confounded any attack.

The fact remains that India and Pakistan sit on a perilous perch. At any moment, as the Kashmir crisis showed in 1990, they are close to being pushed off it. And if they get missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, all bets on stability should be off.

India and Pakistan do not serve their own long-term security interests -- and certainly not the world's -- in maintaining the ability to assemble a nuclear armory in a matter of days. De-nuclearization may be a saner policy, but prestige, independent-mindedness, the raw popularity of being a nuclear power and, as time goes by, the institutional pressures of a nuclear establishment that provides many officials with opportunities for personal enrichment make abandonment a very difficult policy to advocate.

China could cut this knot if it could be persuaded to redeploy its missiles away from the high plateau that overlooks India's northern cities. If China were to start reducing its nuclear arsenal as well, India might consider de-nuclearization. That in turn would influence Pakistan.

But China has already said that until Britain and France reduce their nuclear capability, it will not consider cuts of its own. That puts a heavy responsibility on London and Paris, which no longer have adequate reason for maintaining a nuclear deterrent.

Policies are desperately needed to halt a subcontinental missile race. If either side had effective missiles, both countries in a time of crisis would be tempted to pre-emptive attack.

This is why Alton Frye's proposal to revive President Reagan's suggestion, made at the Reykjavik summit, that there be a global ban on ballistic missiles is important. A world anti-rocket treaty would have none of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty's weaknesses. Its application would be universal. It would bring crisis stability to both old and new nuclear powers.

If presidents Clinton and Yeltsin could agree on this, it would be a truly intelligent end to their dispute over selling rocket engines to India.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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