Nuclear copycats


THAT India set off five underground nuclear blasts last week almost overtook American anguish over the concluding episode of "Seinfeld." Led by the United States, the world is reacting to India's actions as though that country were an international pariah.

Even the Chinese are upset with India -- as well they should be, because India's newly tested nuclear capability dilutes China's military predominance in the region. China, unlike India, is a signatory to a worldwide nuclear weapons test ban but didn't agree to it until the day after it had concluded its own nuclear tests in 1996.

This is much the same way the French did things. They chose not to commit to a nuclear test ban treaty until after they concluded tests in the South Pacific in 1995. The tests, said the French, were necessary to guarantee France's future security.

That's what India is saying today, so what's different?

No one's happy with what happened last week, but did India commit an unconscionable act? I think not. What India did was what the other nuclear powers did earlier. It made certain it was up-to-date on nuclear weapons and, as did the others, probably will agree to some sort of ban now that its is.

Dangerous competition

That's the hypocrisy of the treaty. The nations that signed it wouldn't have had they not been convinced that their nuclear capabilities were competitive with those of their adversaries. And the only way to find that out was to test. The Americans tested, the French tested, the Chinese tested. They all tested until there wasn't a need to test any more. Then they agreed to ban testing.

When it refused to sign the nuclear test ban treaty three years ago, India argued that nations such as the United States, Russia and China have stockpiled nuclear weapons by the thousands and that India would not sign until and unless the major powers got rid of some of them.

Mortal enemies

However idealistic it sounds, that likely wasn't the reason for not signing. Pakistan and China were. India, after three wars with Pakistan, and an uneasy relationship with Pakistan supporting China, made a decision it felt was in its own best interest.

What's doubly irritating is that India was able to pull off the testing without prior knowledge of the world powers, including the United States. There's nothing that says India has to tell us what it is doing militarily, and it is obvious from the red faces in Langley, Va., that our worldwide spy system, both on the ground and via satellite, couldn't tell the pre-testing activity in Pokharan from people washing their clothes in the Ganges.

India, although it tested nuclear weapons as early as 1974, now will be seen as a military power, no longer in a please-and-thank-you position of humility when it comes to participating in global decisions.

The Pakistanis will be along shortly, as should be expected. With its next-door neighbor now flaunting its Gold's Gym T-shirt, Pakistan has to catch up. It probably has the capability, being nurtured militarily by China for decades, but needs to put on the show nevertheless.

In a few years, scientists somewhere will plot out some new form of horrible weapon and one of the nations that is signatory to the ban will find a way to violate it, testing the new weapon "in the best interests of our own self-defense."

That's the way the game is played, the way it always will be played. India is just a new player.

Howard Kleinberg is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. His e-mail address is

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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