The Indian nuclear tests of May 11 and 13, 1998, shook an unsuspecting world. Long at the forefront of the movement for universal nuclear disarmament, India had continually chastised the five declared nuclear powers (the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom) for not moving to eliminate their nuclear arsenals as called for by the 1970 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. After demonstrating its own nuclear capacity in 1974, India had refrained from testing for more than two decades. And apparently, neither the emergence of a government in New Delhi led by the right-of-center Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) nor the Indian elites' deep reservations about the global nonproliferation regime had disturbed this quiescence. Indian decision-makers had indicated that they would not carry out nuclear tests until they had completed a lengthy "strategic review" of security threats and how best to cope with them.
The explosions in the Rajasthan desert, therefore -- in addition to prompting Pakistan to detonate a few of its own nuclear bombs two weeks later -- set off corresponding explosions in capitals around the world. Foreign diplomats, academics, pundits, and policymakers quickly and sharply criticized India for bucking the trend toward nuclear restraint. The open declarations of India and Pakistan as nuclear weapons powers, many asserted, would unravel the carefully woven fabric of the nonproliferation regime by encouraging other states to acquire nuclear weapons. They might even propel the subcontinent toward nuclear war.
The condemnations belittled New Delhi's stated reason for testing -- namely, a growing threat from its powerful neighbor, China. China had not made any overt threats across the border, so what could be the problem? Foreigners instead generally ascribed the tests to what they saw as petty motivations: a desire to elevate India's international status and an attempt to bolster the BJP-led government's fortunes.
Three years on, however, little evidence has emerged to support these proffered motives. The quest for global status has been a staple of Indian foreign policy since the country's emergence as an independent state in 1947, and
Get the best of Foreign Affairs' book reviews delivered to you.
Browse Related Articles on