US-India Nuclear Deal Fuels an Asian Arms Race
By Pervez Hoodbhoy
For all who have opposed Pakistan’s nuclear program over the years –
including myself – the US-India nuclear agreement may be the
worst thing that has happened in a long time.
Post agreement: Pakistan’s ruling elite is confused and bitter. They
know that India has overtaken Pakistan in far too many areas for there
to be any reasonable basis for symmetry. They see the US is now
interested in reconstructing the geopolitics of South Asia and in
repairing relations with India, not in mollifying Pakistani grievances.
Nevertheless, there were lingering hopes of a sweetener during President
George W. Bush’s furtive and unwelcomed visit in March 2006 to
Islamabad. There was none.
This change in US policy thrilled many in India. Many enjoyed President
Musharraf’s discomfiture. But they would do well to restrain their
exuberance. The nuclear deal, even if ratified, will not dramatically
increase nuclear power production – currently this stands at only 3% of
the total production, and can at most double to 6% if currently planned
reactors are built and made operational over the next decade. On the
other hand, Pakistan is bound to react – and react badly – once US
nuclear materials and equipment starting rolling into India.
One certain consequence will be more bombs on both sides of the border.
The deal is widely seen in Pakistan as signaling America’s support or
acquiescence, or perhaps even surrender, to India’s nuclear ambitions.
India will be freely able to import uranium fuel for its safeguarded
civilian reactors. This will free up the remainder of its scarce uranium
resources for making plutonium. Further, when India’s thorium-fuelled
breeder reactors are fully operational, India will be able to produce
more bombs in one year than in the last 30.
Not surprisingly, important voices in Pakistan have started to demand
that Pakistan match India bomb-for-bomb. Abdus Sattar, ex-foreign
minister of Pakistan, advocates “replication of the Kahuta plant to
produce more fissile uranium…. to rationalize and upgrade Pakistan's
minimum deterrence capability”. He has also written about the need to
“accelerate its [Pakistan’s] missile development programme”.
This is a prescription for an unlimited nuclear race, given that “minimum
deterrence” is essentially an open-ended concept. Pakistan has mastered
centrifuge technology, and giving birth to more Kahutas would require
only a political decision. Moreover, unlike India, Pakistan is not
constrained by supplies of natural uranium. Thus, at least in principle,
Pakistan can increase its bomb production considerably.
Although nuclear hawks in India and Pakistan had once pooh-poohed the
notion of an arms race, there is little doubt that India and Pakistan
are solidly placed on a Cold War trajectory. As more bombs are added to
the inventory every year, and intermediate range ballistic missiles
steadily roll off the production lines, both countries seek ever more
Many years ago, the nuclear powers crossed the point where they
could lay cities to waste and kill millions in a matter of minutes.
The fantastically cruel logic, known as nuclear deterrence, requires only
the certainty that one nuclear bomb will be able to penetrate the
adversary’s defences and land in the heart of a city. No one has the
slightest doubt that this capability was crossed multiple times over
during the past few decades.
What action would best serve the interest of the peoples of India and
Pakistan, as well as of China?
A fissile material cutoff is the easiest and most straightforward way to
ease nuclear tensions. It offers the best hope to limit the upwards
spiral in warhead numbers. Instead of threatening to create more
Kahutas, Pakistan should offer to stop production of highly enriched
uranium while India should respond by ceasing to reprocess its reactor
wastes. Previous stockpiles possessed by either country should not be
brought into issue because their credible verification is extremely
difficult and would inevitably derail an agreement. Years of negotiation
at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva came to naught for this very
reason. A series of “Nuclear Risk Reduction” talks between Pakistan and
India have also produced zero results. The cessation of fissile material
production is completely absent from the agenda; it must be made a
central item now.
The arms race directly benefits Indian and Pakistan elites. Hence they
are tacit collaborators as they woo the US and prove that their states
belong to the community of “responsible nuclear states” that are worthy
of military and nuclear assistance. The past has been banished by an
unwritten agreement. Retired Pakistani and Indian generals and leaders
meet cordially at conferences around the world and happily clink glasses
together. They emphatically deny that the two countries had even come
close to a nuclear crisis in the past. Being now charged with the
mission of projecting an image of “responsibility” abroad, none amongst
them wants to bring back the memory of South Asian leaders hurling ugly
nuclear threats against each other.
But instances of criminal nuclear behaviour are to be found even in the
very recent past. For example, India's Defence Minister George Fernandes
told the International Herald Tribune on June 3, 2002 that “India can
survive a nuclear attack, but Pakistan cannot.” Indian Defence Secretary
Yogendra Narain had taken things a step further in an interview with
Outlook Magazine: “A surgical strike is the answer,” adding that if this
failed to resolve things, “We must be prepared for total mutual
destruction.” On the Pakistani side, at the peak of the 2002 crisis,
General Musharraf had threatened that Pakistan would use “unconventional
means” against India if necessary.
Tense times may return at some point in the in the future. But Indian
and Pakistani leaders are likely to once again abdicate their own
responsibilities whenever that happens. Instead, they will again entrust
disaster prevention to the US.
Of course, it would be absurd to lay the blame on the US for all that
has gone wrong between the two countries. Surely the US does not want to
destabilize the subcontinent, and it does not want a South Asian
holocaust. But one must be aware that for the US this is only a
peripheral interest – the core of its interest in South Asian nuclear
issues stems from the need to limit Chinese power and influence, fear of
Al-Qaida and Muslim extremism, and the associated threat of nuclear
The Americans will sort out their business and priorities as they see
fit. But it is unwise to participate in a plan that leaves South Asian
neighbours at each others throats while benefiting a power that sits on
the other side of the globe.
Regional tensions will increase because of the deal. Given that the
motivation for the US-India nuclear agreement comes partly from the US
desire to contain China, the Pakistan-China strategic relationship will
be considerably strengthened. In practical terms, this may amount to
enhanced support for Pakistan’s missile program, or even its military
nuclear program. Speaking at Pakistan's National Defense College in
Islamabad a day before Bush’s arrival there, Musharraf declared that “My
recent trip to China was part of my effort to keep Pakistan's strategic
By proceeding with the nuclear deal with India the US may destabilize
South Asia. It will also wreck the NPT, take the heat off Iran and North
Korea, open the door for Japan to convert its plutonium stocks into
bombs, and bring about global nuclear anarchy.
This article was published in the Economic and Political Weekly (India) and
The Friday Times (Pakistan), week of 17 April, 2006. It is published in
a slightly abbreviated form at Japan Focus on April 23, 2006.
Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of nuclear and high energy physics at
Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.