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The Rediff Interview/Dr R R Subramanian
January 21, 2003
Armed with impressive credentials it was only a matter of time before Dr R R Subramanian joined the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, as a specialist in nuclear studies.
An expert in Indo-US relations, specifically non-proliferation issues and technology transfer, he worked with Joseph Nye, who, during the Carter and Clinton Administrations, was instrumental in conducting negotiations on nuclear non-proliferation.
A Fulbright scholar at Harvard's Centre for Science and International Affairs, Dr Subramanian acquired his doctorate from Brandeis University in the United States before moving to Stanford to specialise in arms control and disarmament issues. He subsequently went to Freiburg University in Germany and was associated with its Institute of Science and Politics, a premier think tank.
In an exclusive interview, he spoke to Chief Correspondent Tara Shankar Sahay about regional and international nuclear issues.
Why did President Pervez Musharraf recently resort to a reckless nuclear threat to India? Do you perceive it as a part of Pakistan's compulsions?
It is typical of Musharraf. It is part of his sabre-rattling hypothesis when he knows India's National Security Advisory Board 's recommendation -- Manoj Joshi's (political editor, The Times of India) statement notwithstanding that India should go for a qualified no-first use like Beijing, which says it will only attack those countries which have nuclear weapons and are not signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Our no first-use is based on credible minimum deterrence, which Joshi thinks will force India to take deterrence, by punitive retaliation. That means if New Delhi's (nuclear) command and control centre were attacked, India would not have time to retaliate before international opinion comes to stop any further escalation.
That is losing nuclear posturing. It's meant for firstly, the jihadi audience and secondly, it is meant for his own morale boosting of the military. So we must, from time to time, be aware of this. So, we are politically committed to deterrence by punitive retaliation. But basically, we are going for a triad (of the three services), at a minimal level, we are not a rich country like America to go for massive boosting.
Musharraf somehow thinks India does not have a command and control in place whereas Pakistan has. But now he has come to know India is not that vulnerable and does have a well-defined chain of command.
Do you go along with your earlier suggestion that Pakistan's nuclear trigger is in the hands of American forces?
No, I think that surmise was wrong. I think there was a misunderstanding. I felt the Americans would ensure complete safety of the nuclear triad. I did not believe that nuclear weapons were very much in control of the Pakistani army. This has been the case even from the days of President Zia-ul Haq's regime. The whole Project 706 was under the army's direction. So it's heavily commanded and controlled by the army.
I want to dispel the notion that the Americans have their finger on Pakistan's nuclear trigger. No doubt American military presence inside Pakistan and western Afghanistan clearly shows they are keeping a very close watch that these (Pakistan's) nuclear weapons do not fall into the hands of the jihadis.
What do you think about Musharraf's hobnobbing with jihadi forces?
I think President Musharraf is operating on a tripwire. Hobnobbing will not be the right word because the Americans and Musharraf are so close that he is intelligent enough to realise he is riding a tiger.
He had the jihadis behind his back; his future cannot be predicted. You cannot take out a life insurance policy on Musharraf for the next five years, according to well-known American analysts like Richard Solomon, formerly US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and now advisor to the US navy.
There is no doubt Musharraf's future is uncertain but for America he is the best bet. Therefore, they will not allow his truck with the jihadis to ever reach a stage where he can transfer nuclear technology into the hands of Al Qaeda or the jihadis who rose to prominence.
What do you think about the US hardselling its strategic partnership to India to prevent radical forces from acquiring nuclear technology? How do you explain the Americans coming to Pakistan's rescue despite its donning the role of nuclear pariah?
The US will not allow a nuclear escalation in the (Indian) subcontinent. That is clear. I am one of those who also believe that these ballistic missile defence talks are basically to explore how the US could get a contingency vis-à-vis China. That is for the theatre ballistic missile defence.
American diplomacy is as much understood and practised by the Chinese. They understand each other very well. They both are always fighting for space, the Americans a bit more crudely and the Chinese more sophisticatedly. Americans are committed to a first-use doctrine, but not the Chinese. They believe very much in the role of deterrence but they will not call it deterrence. They call it hudsohilia -- the power to frighten the adversary by telling him any attack on China will be met with equal force.
But for the Americans, the theatre missile defence is very important for Taiwan. And for protecting Taiwan and Japan from North Korea's Nodong missile, the Americans are interested in TMT. They might be trying to somehow use their strategy to prevent India from developing nuclear weapons and promising the use of theatre missile defence in South Asia. That way they could restrain both India and Pakistan.
Why do you think about Indian Navy chief Admiral Manavendra Singh's recent assertion that as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he [the navy] has the prerogative for utilisation and use of nuclear weapons?
I think he is only stating a fact. It's not only the navy but also army and air force; all three will be consulted by the strategic command before it goes to the national command authority. This, in my opinion, is fair enough, he is not stating anything that is wrong -- that the individual developments of the triad, the Agni I, Prithvi in the army, the so-called 20 MK, the Jaguar with nukes, the Russian Akula nuclear submarine, if it comes, which can use the Indo-Russian Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles -- would be in our hands.
But in a war-like situation we will integrate, they [the three service chiefs] would argue. There is a national command authority headed by the prime minister and its executive council is headed by his principal secretary, which very clearly will make the decision.
Why do you think about our nuclear bomb managers contending that India should review its no first-use nuclear policy given Islamabad's recurring threats?
This is a very dicey issue now that you know your main long-range adversary, China, is committed to a qualified no-first use, meaning essentially Beijing will not attack those who do not have nuclear weapons and those having nuclear weapons like India will be subject to their attack. So there is no sense in our politically giving up no first-use at this stage.
The option of pre-emption will always be there, we have enough information that Pakistan plans to use nuclear weapons in an attack mode, we can always pre-empt.
What is the use of the Missile Technology Control Regime when Pakistan clandestinely acquires nuclear missile technology from China and North Korea? The Americans seem only interested in punishing Iraq for real or imaginary violations.
We must not confuse the situation in Northeast Asia. You can see America discriminating between North Korea trying to develop nuclear weapons, virtually holding the US to blackmail, threatening to move out of the NPT. You can see the difference because the Americans think China can manage the Northeast Asia security situation even though [whether] North Korea does or does not have nuclear weapons has not been proved even today. Its collaboration with Pakistan exists.
The US dynamics in Iraq is a completely different ball game. We must look at various factors, the front end being regime change. They don't like Saddam Hussein, there is the history of Bush Senior not completing the Gulf operations in 1991. But even those very people who are arguing about civilising Iraq like Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor to Bush Senior, is now critical (of Bush Junior).
Like everywhere, you say something while in office but something different when out of it. But the real question of Iraq is the weapons of mass destruction issue. Nothing has convinced the Americans yet, not even the inspector regime. They are afraid for the security of Israel. Israel is paramount to American national security planning, especially shown in the Bush Administration. So Iraq will always be on the front burner. In Northeast Asia, the Americans feel, China is the ideal manager.
Now regarding your query on the MTCR. Its sanctions were applied in July 1991 for the 18 M-11 missiles transferred by China (to Pakistan). Those sanctions were again removed. This has been a flip-flop kind of thing. China is only an adherent to the MTCR regime, it does not get into the inner dynamics, which is the 'Magnificent Seven' and now expanded to almost 13 odd countries. MTCR has never really worked as a deterrent for China. The reason the Americans continue to support Pakistan is that it is a bulwark for the US framework in the fight against terrorism.
What do you make of the North Korean leadership's reported threat that it would unleash a global nuclear holocaust if the US pushed it to the wall?
North Korea is playing the game of brinkmanship. It happened during the (Lyndon) Johnson administration, they (North Korea) seized a US ship (USS Pueblo) and the Americans threatened but did nothing. The North Koreans think the Chinese are with them along with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This is Northeast Asian dynamic in which Japan is most concerned. One of the notable aspects of this North Korea thing is that it will ultimately bargain with America.
In 1993 when the North Koreans moved out of the NPT, they went for the Korean Energy Development Organisation and signed an agreement after a series of secret negotiations with the Americans. The North Korean-South Korean dynamics is such that ultimately North Korea realises with starvation and the pitiable condition of its economy, they will have to go on their own.
The Sunshine Policy in South Korea is a change of president. They have a new president. He is much more forthcoming towards unification with South Korea. North Korea is hoping that by brinkmanship, it will be able to get American aid and will rebuild its economy. China resorted to brinkmanship in the 1950s during the Korean War.
How dangerous is Beijing-Islamabad nuclear cooperation for India?
There has always been nuclear and missile cooperation between China and Pakistan and there is the additional element of North Korea in it. One of the most important dangers is China's strategic support to Pakistan. Now that the Soviet Union has collapsed, the old Indo-Soviet axis effectively thwarted this. But the US will look the other way, it will not come to India's rescue, nobody takes out the chestnuts from the fire for somebody else, you have to do it yourself.
China would not like India to grow into a major power. You remember Resolution 1172 of the United Nations Security Council of June 6, 1998 when India detonated the nuclear bomb. The five permanent members of the Security Council met under China's chairmanship. That was an American game to let China somehow appear as a regional manager of control. But it didn't succeed and India started a strategic dialogue with China.
China will continue to play Pakistan against India. That will be very natural for any big power to achieve complete superiority. But China at best is a regional power. We must not exaggerate its capabilities.
What about occasional reports in the Western media that former constituents of the Soviet Union are selling nuclear technology in the black market?
That is highly exaggerated. There isn't any solid evidence coming to light. Some scientists have moved here and there in search of better jobs but all international atomic energy accounting have shown there has not been that much leakage of fissile material.
The erstwhile KGB -- now called the Federal Security Services -- has been keeping tabs on about a hundred atomic bombs of erstwhile Soviet Union countries.
How credible are suggestions that Al Qaeda could have manufactured a ‘dirty bomb'?
There is always a probability calculus but I would argue that that any terrorist would prefer to go for the poor man's option like chemical and biological matters, which are far more available. Chemical weapons are a poor man's nuclear weapons. Radiological warfare like throwing radiological garbage into the water supply would be more preferable to the terrorists.
Can India overcome the challenge of denial of dual-use technology by the US and other Western nations? Is the Defence Research and Development Organisation up to it?
Yes, yes, DRDO is a highly sophisticated R&D outfit engaged in significant and highly challenging work. It has achieved many things that cannot be disclosed.
What are the apprehensions in the international nuclear area?
The greatest apprehension, I would say, is the sub-state procuring a nuclear weapon. Nuclear weapons operate in the realm of the unreal. No defensive system can be foolproof. The greatest alarming factor is that a sub-state like a terrorist group can get hold of nuclear weapons. Secondly, we have to give tremendous emphasis, rather than safeguarding all the time, on safety. We have to work out an accord on safety. There should be global accountability of nuclear fissile material.