The evolution of South Asia’s nuclear powers

Henry Srebrnik comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on January 26, 2014

While much of the world’s attention these days is focused on Iran’s nuclear program, it should not be forgotten that its eastern neighbours, Pakistan and India, South Asia’s two largest countries and long-time enemies, both are nuclear-armed states.

India is not a party to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and tested what it called a “peaceful nuclear explosive” in 1974. The test was the first after the creation of the NPT, and India’s secret development of nuclear weaponry, using civilian nuclear technology, caused great concern and anger from nations such as Canada, that had supplied its nuclear reactors for peaceful and power generating needs.

Indian officials had rejected the NPT in the 1960s on the grounds that it created a world of nuclear “haves” and “have-nots.” The Indian position asserted that the NPT was in many ways a neo-colonial regime designed to deny security to post-colonial powers.

Even after its 1974 test, India maintained that its nuclear capability was primarily “peaceful,” but in 1998 India tested weaponized nuclear warheads, including a thermonuclear device. Today, India is estimated to have up to 100 nuclear warheads.

In 2008, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) approved an agreement with India under which the agency gained access to India’s civilian nuclear reactors. As a result, India was granted a waiver allowing it to access civilian nuclear technology and fuel from other countries, including the United States. Both President George W. Bush and his successor Barack Obama have agreed that the world’s largest democracy is a responsible nuclear power.

The IAEA’s Director General, Yukiya Amano visited India last March to hear from Indian policy makers, scientists, researchers and engineers on developments in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

But India is also expanding its ability to produce highly enriched uranium for military purposes, including more powerful nuclear weapons, according to a U.S.-based think tank that cited satellite imagery taken last April of a gas centrifuge facility under construction at the Rare Materials Plant near Mysore in Karnataka.

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) published a report in 2013 stating that this new facility “could significantly increase India’s ability to produce highly enriched uranium for military purposes, including more powerful nuclear weapons.”

Pakistan, too, is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and built its first nuclear power plant near Karachi with equipment and materials supplied mainly by western nations in the early 1970s. Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had promised in 1965 that if India built nuclear weapons then Pakistan would too, “even if we have to eat grass.”

In 1998, Pakistan conducted its first six nuclear tests at the Chagai Hills, in response to the five tests conducted by India a few weeks before. In 2004, the Pakistani metallurgist A.Q. Khan, a key figure in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, confessed to having sold gas centrifuge technology to North Korea, Iran, and Libya, though he denied complicity by the Pakistani government or army.

“Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal probably consists of approximately 90 to 110 nuclear warheads, although it could be larger,” according to a report released last year by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), an independent research wing of the U.S. Congress. “Islamabad is producing fissile material, adding to related production facilities, and deploying additional delivery vehicles. These steps could enable Pakistan to undertake both quantitative and qualitative improvements to its nuclear arsenal,” the report said.

Given Pakistan’s chronic instability there is always the danger that such weapons could conceivably fall into the hands of Islamist extremist groups should the country implode.

As Robert Kagan noted in his book “The Revenge of Geography,” published in 2012, “A state like Pakistan can have weapons of mass destruction, even as it can barely provide municipal services and protect its population from suicide bombers.”

As well, any conflict with India over disputed Kashmir could easily touch off a major conflagration.

 

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.