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Venu Menon

The Forbidden Fruit

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After the nuclear explosions, the subcontinent is feeling the heat of economic sanctions. Multilateral loans worth $ 1.1 billion to India and $ 54 million to Pakistan have been blocked. While humanitarian aid flow will continue, the Clinton administration has banned US banks from lending to both governments.

The region's archrivals are facing a common backlash in the aftermath of last month's controversial tests that propelled them away from the non-proliferation mainstream and towards a self-proclaimed nuclear weapons status. New Delhi and Islamabad have summarily rejected calls by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and the Group of Eight industrialised nations to roll back their nuclear programmes.

Clearly, the nuclearisation of South Asia is a major concern to a broad cross-section of the global community. But it has also triggered a nascent movement towards a redefinition of the ground rules that govern non-proliferation. A pressure group of eight nations -- Ireland, Sweden, South Africa, New Zealand, Brazil, Mexico, Egypt and Slovenia -- have accused the nuclear weapons powers of reneging on their obligation under the NPT to eliminate their nuclear stockpiles.

An international consensus is building against the major powers that poses a challenge to their dual role in perpetuating the nuclear threat in the name of deterrence as well as arbitrating on global disarmament. Many countries are saying the nuclear weapons states must set the first example by destroying their weapons of mass destruction.

The monopoly on deterrence conceived and enforced by the major powers is a provocation to other nations to break free of what they see as big power hegemony and to pursue the nuclear option in their national interest. The rationale for deterrence advanced by the nuclear weapons states -- peace through balance of terror -- is in itself a catalyst for proliferation. It makes out a case for acquiring nuclear defence capability by any country that feels threatened by its neighbours. Israel, for instance, perceives itself to be fighting for survival in a tough neighbourhood. It deems the retention of its nuclear arsenal a legitimate exception to the general principle of global disarmament. The US goes along with that.

America is discovering how hard it is to police a unipolar world and to sort out the contradictions of disarmament. Russia, minus its superpower status, has shown it is capable of subverting US non-proliferation efforts by going ahead with its proposed nuclear reactor project for India. The end of the Cold War has brought in new uncertainties. Superpower rivalry had taken care of the security needs of countries that fell within their spheres of influence.

The break-up of the Soviet Union, the resultant importance of China as a world power and its covert commitment to nuclearise Pakistan have provided India with an alibi to go nuclear. Add to that Pakistan's historical compulsion to acquire a nuclear deterrent (the world watched as its eastern province was amputated by India in 1971) and the international community has reason to worry about an arms race on the subcontinent, with Kashmir as the flashpoint.

Even so, the demand for rolling back the nuclear programmes of the two countries is unrealistic. First, it flies in the face of current sentiment on the subcontinent. Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharief are buoyant on the jingoistic fervour let loose by the tests. To their respective masses they are the sentinels of national self-esteem. Second, India has strategic designs of emerging as a rival power centre to China, of becoming a player in the balance of power in Asia.

Containing a nuclear India has become the common cause of China and America, currently locked in an uncomfortable embrace. Asia will not benefit from a Cold War between Beijing and Washington, but it also cannot afford to let China have a free run of the region. A weaponised India could restore the equilibrium in Asia, though it will be hard to build a consensus for the idea. ASEAN, which endorses the international treaties sponsored by the nuclear powers, will not issue a good conduct certificate to India.

Third, acquiring nuclear capability opens up new political and diplomatic possibilities that aspiring countries may not like to pass up. True, it invites repercussions, but it also improves bargaining clout. India and Pakistan are willing to fall in line with the NPT and the CTBT regimes but only in their upgraded status as nuclear weapons states challenging the discriminatory ground rules of non-proliferation. The nuclear tests on the subcontinent have changed the terms of the negotiations on global disarmament.

Finally, proliferation has become a runaway phenomenon too rampant to control. Everyone has access to the forbidden fruit. All it takes is a threat perception backed by political will and an oversized defence budget. There are laws governing technology transfer and the sale of fissile material, yet demand is routinely catered to in the nuclear open market. Israel, Iran and North Korea are only some nations on a growing list that are receiving supplies without a hitch. Some of it comes from nuclear weapons states themselves, some are smuggled out of former Soviet installations.

Sanctions do not address the real problem. Punishment cannot be expected to advance the non-proliferation agenda. The genie is out of the bottle. Rattling the dollar will not get him back in.

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