Fearing Asian nuclear race, U.S. weighs dealing with Indian tests Indians appear unfazed by possible punishment; expert suggests trade-off


WASHINGTON -- India's explosive mix of religious nationalism and nuclear capability has pushed the world to a frightening new threshold at a time when methods for controlling dangerous weapons are still patchy.

Reacting to India's announced nuclear tests Monday, President Clinton pledged yesterday to enforce a law that virtually requires that India be punished. The State Department, meanwhile, prepared a sanctions package that includes a ban on weapons and technology sales and efforts to block loans from international financial institutions like the World Bank.

"Our laws have very stringent provisions and I intend to implement them fully," Clinton said. "I call on India to announce that it will conduct no further tests. I also urge India's neighbors not to follow suit, not to follow down the path of a dangerous arms race."

The test complicated an already tense arms-control picture.

India, its neighbor Pakistan and Israel refuse to sign the 1970 global treaty banning nuclear weapons proliferation, renewed only three years ago. Iran is said to want its own bomb. North Korea's program is frozen but not dismantled. Iraq has yet to come clean on biological and chemical arms.

China has been caught helping Pakistan build missiles. Concern is mounting over leakage of nuclear material and a brain drain of weapons scientists from the former Soviet Union.

Now India, fulfilling a electioneering pledge of its newly ascendant Hindu nationalist party, has conducted its first nuclear test since 1974, putting the country closer to being able to deploy an atomic arsenal.

The explosions Monday threaten to shift the drive toward weapons control into reverse, triggering a possible arms race among India, Pakistan and China, which has supplied missile technology to Pakistan as a way of avoiding a direct confrontation with India.

"It's pretty clear this event defies the direction in which the world has been going," said John Holum, director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

In one sense, the new situation could be more dangerous for the participants than that during the height of the Cold War. Then, the distance separating the United States and Soviet Union allowed a brief period of time to prevent a nuclear exchange.

India and Pakistan, however, are next-door neighbors, drastically cutting response time. And they have been embroiled for decades in a dispute over the lush region of Kashmir, constantly risking a military confrontation.

The heightened tension brought by the Indian test will likely encourage Pakistan to try to lure the United States into trying to broker a settlement over Kashmir, said Stephen Cohen of the University of Illinois.

More immediately, however, the United States has to wrestle with the legal requirement to punish India.

Among many in Washington, the desire to punish India for flouting accepted rules for international security was mixed yesterday with regret for a missed opportunity to improve America's relations with a nation of close to 1 billion people.

The Indian test came "precisely at the moment when we were poised for a great leap forward," said former New York Rep. Stephen J. Solarz, a specialist on Asia.

The two countries were working to expand a range of ties after decades of prickly relations compounded by an Indian tendency toward protectionism and a longtime friendship with the Soviet Union.

President Clinton is scheduled to visit South Asia this fall, but yesterday the trip was being reconsidered.

Neither sanctions nor global outrage fazed Indians yesterday. Judging from press accounts, they gloried in their new status as a potential nuclear-weapons state.

Wire services quoted Tushar Gandhi, grandson of the nonviolent icon Mohandas K. Gandhi, as saying, "As an Indian, I am proud it was done in India and by Indians."

"They do not accept the notion of there being only five powers in the world that have the privilege" of being full-fledged nuclear powers, said Francine Frankel, director of India studies at the University of Pennsylvania. "They refuse to be placed in a subordinate position."

The ruling Indian People's Party (BJP) party trumpets a self-image of India as a global power with 5,000 years of tradition.

Some analysts see a cool calculation in India's action, however -- one that could be exploited by the Clinton administration to limit the damage to South Asian stability.

Noting that both China and France conducted nuclear tests before signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Cohen suggested that India might be ready to do the same under the right circumstances.

Solarz proposed a trade-off: Encourage India to join the Nonproliferation Treaty as a declared nuclear power, granting it the same status as the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. This would bind India to a ban on any export of nuclear technology. India also should be encouraged to sign the test ban treaty. Then the Clinton administration would ask Congress to lift sanctions.

Such a deal would likely be widely denounced as offering a reward to India, but Solarz argues that it's better to have India inside the nuclear tent, subject to controls, than outside the tent and unconstrained.

Pub Date: 5/13/98

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