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India: Tests Challenge U.S. Policies

  • Sonia Winter

Washington, 13 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- India's nuclear tests this week have put Washington policy makers in a crisis mode, looking for a response to one of the most serious challenges to U.S. interests in decades.

At key areas of government across town -- the White House, State, Defense and Commerce Departments, and the Central Intelligence Agency , senior officials have been meeting for fundamental reviews of ramifications, procedures and options to decide the next course of action. And a U.S. Senate subcommittee hurriedly convened a hearing today (Wednesday) to examine what it's chairman, Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) called "a critical development" for U.S.-Indian relations and for India's neighbors.

The three nuclear tests triggered an international outcry, including expressions of "alarm and concern" in a statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

It was issued after a relatively mild criticism by President Boris Yeltsin earlier on Tuesday. As he put it: "India has let us down with its explosions...but by diplomatic means and with our visit to India (later this year) we should bring about a change in its position," adding that "India is a very good friend of ours and we have very good relations."

In sharp contrast, the U.S. has lodged a formal protest to the Indian government, recalled the U.S. ambassador from New Delhi to Washington for consultations, and is expected shortly to announce a slew of sanctions against India.

And, unlike Yeltsin, President Bill Clinton may decide not to go on a planned official visit to New Delhi this fall. White House spokesman Michael McCurry says that trip is being reassessed. But no conclusion has been reached yet, perhaps in the hope that India will go no further in its nuclear weapons program.

Clinton Tuesday called on the Indian government to stop all testing and sign a global test ban treaty.

Before leaving for Germany, he said that India's action threatens the stability of the region and, in his words "directly challenges the firm international consensus to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

Clinton urged India and, with equal intensity, India's neighbors "not to follow suit, not to follow down the path of a dangerous arms race."

A White House official, who did not wish to be named, told RFE/RL's correspondent Tuesday that nuclear proliferation and export control issues will figure prominently on the U.S. agenda when Clinton and Yeltsin meet for a bilateral session scheduled to be held on Sunday in the English town of Birmingham after a summit of leading industrial nations.

Russia is believed to have supplied India, as well as Iran, with sophisticated ballistic technologies that the U.S. has long regarded as destabilizing to the region.

The official made no mention of sales to India but said that over the past year, the United States has had an intensive dialogue with Russia about Moscow's ballistic missile technology cooperation with Iran. "That intensive dialogue continues," he said.

At the Defense Department, spokesman Kenneth Bacon Tuesday called on India and neighboring China and Pakistan to show restraint. He said the U.S, wants all countries in the Indian subcontinent, the most heavily populated area in the world, to spend more time on economic development and less time on military pursuits.

In an understatement of the blow to U.S. non-proliferation policy, Bacon said "the U.S. has worked very hard to press this position" and "it is unfortunate that the arms race in the area is continuing despite this." Nuclear containment and disarmament have been a principal tenet of U.S. foreign policy for more than 35 years,

The U.S. regarded the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by 149 countries at the United Nations in 1996, as a crowning achievement and the beginning of a new phase in the nuclear age, effectively halting the arms race. At the time, Clinton called it "the hardest fought, longest sought prize in the history of arms control."

But the India tests make meaningless important assumptions underpinning the treaty and may gain support for already significant opposition to the CTBT in the U.S. Senate, which is set to consider ratification this month.

The Clinton Administration arguing in favor of the treaty has said, among other things, that the CTBT will strengthen America's ability to lead a global campaign against nuclear proliferation and constrain even non-signatories, including India, Pakistan and Iran, from conducting nuclear tests and developing nuclear capabilities. U.S. officials also said the CTBT will improve America's ability to detect and deter nuclear explosive testing.

But none of that now holds true. Washington officials have admitted they were taken by surprise by the nuclear tests and received no warning from U.S. intelligence.

The countries that signed the CTBT expect to rely heavily on the U.S. to uses its advanced spying technology to verify adherence to the treaty but the CIA's failure to detect India's preparations for the detonations now casts doubt on that ability, further weakening the treaty's potential.

Meanwhile, the United States is obliged under a 1994 nuclear non-proliferation law to impose unilateral economic and financial sanctions against India.

A State Department spokesman says the U.S. is India's largest trading partners with an annual trade volume between $5 and $6 billion.

But only a small part of that would be affected by the sanctions. India would lose about $143 million annually in U.S. economic assistance and $40 million worth of U.S computer technology and military equipment.

However, the U.S. would also block credits and bank loans to India extended by international financial institutions. India is a major borrower from the World Bank and such a move could significantly slow its economic development projects.