Relations between India and the United States have improved considerably since the end of the Cold War, but they are still punctuated by controversies over nuclear nonproliferation. To a significant extent, these conflicts seem to be the result of persisting American beliefs that India is obstinate about the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, that India is vulnerable to technology-denying efforts, and that it can be equated with its neighbor, Pakistan. These perceptions take on added import because of the assumption by American policymakers that South Asia is the most dangerous nuclear hot spot. Implicitly, India's image also continues to be that of a revisionist state destined to be at odds with the United States, a status quo global power. These are misperceptions that deserve attention, as only four months remain for constructive dialogue before the NPT conference convenes to review the expiring 30-year-old treaty.

The NPT has come to represent the core of U.S. nonproliferation efforts. The Clinton administration has promised to spare no effort to get an indefinite extension. The United States sees India's continuing opposition to signing what New Delhi considers an inherently discriminatory NPT as symptomatic of India's tendency to obstruct global arms control efforts. This view, however, discounts India's numerous disarmament initiatives (in the United Nations and elsewhere) and its adherence to the principles that underlie the NPT.

In India's view, the NPT curbs the spread of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear states without providing adequate security guarantees. Furthermore, it fails to reduce or eliminate stockpiles of the weapon states and thus legitimates them. India regards vertical and horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons as equal threats to peace, and contends that elimination efforts ought to proceed in tandem. It also believes the United States unfairly singles it out from Pakistan and Israel, two other key NPT nonsignatory states. Although undeclared, Israel is surmised to have a sizable nuclear arsenal. While controversy surrounds the Pakistani nuclear program, Pakistan is on record as having the components of at least one bomb and was identified in reports last summer as smuggling weapons-grade contraband plutonium from the former Soviet Union through Germany.


For its part, India has remained at the threshold level. In the two decades since the Pokharan test explosion, India has neither tested nor deployed nuclear weapons. Nor has it transferred sensitive nuclear technology or trained nuclear experts from other countries. Within India there is a broad consensus for protecting the country's nuclear option but no significant lobby for "going nuclear" among the scientific and political elites. India's support of nonproliferation has received little U.S. acknowledgment, although its record is better than the United States' from this perspective.

Given that military planners assess capabilities rather than intentions when making strategic choices, India's restraint could be viewed as exceptional. Neighboring China has steadily advanced the size and sophistication of its nuclear weapons program, and until recently the superpowers continued their intense competitive buildups. The second Strategic Arms Reduction Talks treaty ceiling of 3,000 to 3,500 warheads for the United States and Russia by the year 2000 -- and even the lower ones recommended by some American strategic analysts -- fail to assuage India's concerns about the potential for a nuclear holocaust or the security of nuclear have-nots. India's goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons through a nondiscriminatory regime is gaining adherents (former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara is one) and precedents (including the convention banning chemical weapons).

Almost 20 years of painfully slow negotiations were capped in 1993 by the signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The CWC would subject all countries' chemical industries and facilities to verification, with sanctions against violators. Previously, the United States insisted on maintaining a two-percent security stockpile until all states possessing chemical weapons destroyed their stocks to an equivalent level. Until it shifted its policy after the Persian Gulf War, Washington's insistence was regarded by India as yet another nonproliferation instrument that would create two unequal classes for the purpose of controlling the spread of weapons rather than eliminating them.

The all-or-nothing attitude attributed to India by some American observers tends to neglect or underestimate the flexibility, even initiative, that Indian policymakers have demonstrated on several arms control measures. India has championed a ban on prospective plutonium production and highly enriched uranium for weapons, even though it would result in highly unequal stockpiles of materials among nations. Although details are still to be worked out, India is cosponsoring with the United States a U.N. resolution that accepts in principle a global ban. A backdrop to such a proposal has been the ongoing controversy regarding the disposition of spent fuel at the Tarapore atomic power station, India's first power reactor built with American assistance. Although the reactor falls under the purview of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the reprocessing of its plutonium must be approved by the United States, even if it is recycled for use in the same reactor. The United States has refused to grant permission, and as a result large quantities of unprocessed plutonium are accumulating, which goes against all safety regulations. This safety hazard, which is causing increasing concern in India, could rival the problem of diverting materials for weapons production and needs to be addressed more seriously by the United States.

Favorable U.S. policy shifts concerning a comprehensive test ban treaty, long proposed by India, could be undermined by the U.S. Energy Department's 1994 nuclear weapons research and development budget, which includes a request for studying precision low-yield warheads, dubbed "mininukes." Proponents of nuclear testing are reportedly pushing for a one-kiloton-threshold version of a comprehensive test ban, which would accommodate more sophisticated laboratory tests, a capability countries such as China and India lack. The development of mininukes would leave the distinct impression that, whereas the larger ones were arguably for pure deterrence purposes, the newer ones could conceivably be for actual use, most likely against developing countries. If such exemptions are sought, it will create a unilateral advantage for the United States that others will likely challenge.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the NPT by itself is unable to contain proliferation. The Iraqi and North Korean cases reveal the shortcomings of the NPT approach and of America's coercive strategy against the so-called rogue states. In the more uncertain post-Cold War period, in which some states may feel more pressure to adopt self-help measures, the United States is likely to be tested elsewhere. During such a time, the support of a stable and democratic country like India could be valuable. Even with the NPT as the core of its nonproliferation efforts, the United States would better serve its interests by recognizing India's continued support for measures consistent with the spirit of the NPT.


The American tendency to equate India and Pakistan, especially pronounced in the past, artificially reduces Indian security concerns, making any wider strategic calculations by India appear unreasonable. Sino-Indian relations are now clearly on the upswing, but the memory of the 1962 war and the continuing border dispute between the two countries in the face of significant Chinese military superiority suggest that Indian concerns were not baseless. The strategic links between China and Pakistan, especially the sale of M-11 missile components, indicates that China views Pakistan as one instrument of its foreign policy toward the subcontinent. China has reportedly provided assistance to Pakistan's nuclear program, and Chinese missiles and nuclear weapons can reach India. This has increased the existing imbalance in China's favor. Although China formally acceded in March 1992 to the NPT (as a nuclear weapon state on terms different from those offered currently to other countries), it is not a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which delineates guidelines calling for restraint in exporting sensitive technologies like production of heavy water, enrichment, and reprocessing. The U.S. policy of isolating arms control initiatives to the Indian subcontinent does not match the strategic realities of the area.

The most recent five-power proposal put forth by the United States continued to focus on nuclear issues in South Asia as an Indo-Pakistani problem. Chinese participation was premised on the exclusion of its nuclear arsenal from consideration. Meanwhile, China continues to engage in nuclear testing despite moratoriums by other nuclear states, and it appears disinclined to forgo tactical nuclear weapons, unlike many other nuclear powers. Not surprisingly, India rejected the American proposal (as it had before), adding fuel to the opinion that India is obstinate.

From the Indian perspective, America's outlook on South Asia's present and potential nuclear capability is based on faulty assumptions. There is a strong fear in the United States that a nuclear-capable Pakistan and India have made South Asia "the most dangerous place on earth." Such a view fits what some have termed the nuclear theology of the West: that developing countries are more prone to go to war with each other and that these wars are more likely to escalate to nuclear war if the nations have such a capability. Beneath this view seems to be the unstated assumption that leaders of developing countries are more irresponsible, volatile, and cavalier with the lives of their people. In the case of India and Pakistan, Kashmir is seen as the probable spark.

But the behavior of Indian and Pakistani leaders suggests otherwise. In the three Indo-Pakistani wars since independence, considerable restraint was exercised in avoiding civilian targets and in not pushing the military advantage to gain territory in the heartland or disputed areas -- for example, India's decision not to thrust forward in the western sector in 1971 or to "liberate" Kashmir. There is little reason to believe that the two countries will change their behavior after obtaining nuclear capability and act with less caution than before. Indeed, a strategy of "nuclear realism" by India and Pakistan has given rise to bilateral confidence-building measures, including a mutual agreement not to attack each other's nuclear installations, reciprocal notification of key military exercises, and a hot line between the nations' army generals. The United States' policy in the region gives a hollow ring to its current nonproliferation exhortations. Throughout the 1980s, at the height of Pakistan's nuclear weapons project, the United States pursued a policy of strategic alliance and military largess without which Pakistan's success would have been unlikely.


In the post-Cold War period, there are signs that the United States is stepping up efforts to limit the transfer of dual-use technologies to developing countries. Technology denial is considered a workable form of containing proliferation. This assumption seems misplaced, especially in the case of India, which already has a mature technological base. The policy of closing the technology door to new entrants does not appear to be a viable or verifiable way of managing destabilizing technologies that will inevitably be developed. Moreover, the multilateral technology control regimes that have evolved under the American umbrella resemble cartels rather than global institutions from India's vantage point.

American optimism regarding limiting dual-use technology is questionable in the case of India. The vast majority of technologies that fall into this category are state of the art and crucial to industrial modernization. Leading-edge technologies are a precondition to global economic competitiveness, and it is only logical to expect India, which is poised to harness the latest generation of technical know-how as part of its economic liberalization drive, to resist unwarranted constraints. Indian objections to such schemes are in part related to the perception that they spring not only from America's strategic compulsions but also from economic motivations aimed at eliminating or disabling potential second-tier competitors in the most lucrative sectors of the global economy.

When the Missile Technology Control Regime was formed in 1987, India already had a fairly ambitious space and missile program. Since then India has successfully tested the Prithvi short-range, ground-launch missile and the medium-range Agni. While analysts disagree on the exact extent of the MTCR's impact on India's missile program, its most lasting effect has been to spur greater self-sufficiency, with signs of eventual success. As with its nuclear capability, India has exercised restraint in missile deployment. In many ways it exemplifies India's tendency to have technology "demonstrators" as part of its strategic posture for sending strong signals of its capability without necessarily ratcheting up the arms race.

While the United States depicts missiles as inherently destabilizing, it has not convincingly spelled out why they are more so in India's arsenals than in more powerful countries'. Most of India falls within the range of Chinese and Saudi Arabian CSS-2 missiles. America's enhanced fear of missiles seems to be generated more by Iraq's use of scud missiles in the Persian Gulf War than by a considered analysis of India's intent and capability.


The various strands of U.S. policy toward India seem rooted in the implicit attitude that India is somehow a revisionist power bent on restructuring the international system at the expense of America's global interests. This negative view of India arises from a misreading of the meaning of India's drive for self-reliance and national sovereignty. It is also tied to the paradoxical streak of universalism in America's philosophy of liberal individualism, which implies that "those who are not with us are against us."

As an ancient civilization subjected to prolonged British colonial rule, India is vigilant about both territorial and political autonomy. Even at the height of Cold War bipolarity, India opted for nonalignment, seeking accommodation to and compromise with both worlds, unlike the revolutionary approaches of the Soviet Union and China, which envisioned fundamental transformations in the world system. It is important for the United States to recognize that India's independent stance has been much more defensive than offensive. Indian aspirations for autonomy should be seen as the product of specific historical circumstances, and not as a function of some unique Indian ambition.

Excessive ambitions ascribed to India need to be seen in light of its actual behavior. India's restraint in the nuclear arena since 1974 does not seem typical of an aspiring hegemon. Its defense expenditures do not point to committed militarization. For nearly two decades after the Sino-Indian war, India's military spending was approximately 3.6 percent of GDP. While it went up slightly in the wake of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, in the past six years Indian spending declined, to 2.5 percent of GDP in 1993, despite the collapse of its erstwhile partner, the Soviet Union, and Pakistan's drive to acquire a nuclear capability. Neither Pakistan nor China have publicly available defense figures, but it is estimated that Pakistan's spending has remained steady at approximately 7.5 percent of GDP and that China's expenditures have been rising annually at a rate of 10 to 15 percent of GDP.

In many ways, American perceptions of India in the nuclear arena have been and continue to be out of step with actual Indian thinking and policy practices. In light of the approaching NPT Review Conference in April 1995 and the potential for misrepresentation and misunderstanding between the United States and India, genuine and sustained dialogue will be all the more critical.

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  • Deepa Ollapally is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College. Raja Ramanna is Director of the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore, India, and a former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India.
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