Nuclear India and Post-Cold War Asia-Pacific Security

Nuclear India and Post-Cold War Asia-Pacific Security


India’s staging of the Pokharan 2 nuclear weapons tests in May 1998 in defiance of the other nuclear states marked a radical departure from what has somewhat paradoxically been described as the “old Hindu outlook” toward national security. It also unleashed significant chain reactions across a broad spectrum of dimensions having sub-regional, regional and even global implications, both positive and negative, from India’s own perspective. These included intensifying tensions in the already-sensitive South Asian security environment, strengthening India’s position as a major actor in the broader Asia-Pacific security environment, reshaping India’s “Look East” policy of promoting closer integration in security, trade and investment terms with the Asia-Pacific region, and further undermining the international regime of supply-side controls on the proliferation of nuclear-related materials and technology developed and maintained by the developed industrial states.

This study will analyse the implications of the Pokharan tests in the context of the evolution of India’s post-Cold War foreign policy, especially towards the Asia-Pacific region. It will focus on the role of India within the regional security environment and on its emerging multilateral cooperation in the security sphere. It will argue that while its recent nuclear tests have exacerbated tensions with Pakistan and China and damaged India’s nascent relationship with East and Southeast Asian states, they have served to establish India as a major actor in the view of the US.

The Road to Resurgence: A Case for “Manifest National Greatness”

The Pokharan tests authorized by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in May 1998 were part of a long-term programme to develop a credible nuclear weapons capability stretching back for more than two decades. The importance attached to this by India has been demonstrated by its perseverance in defiance of sustained pressure on the part of the US and other developed industrial states to conform with the strictures of the global non-proliferation regime accepted, at least in principle, by most members of the international community.

The Indian case is distinct in a number of respects. Both the structure of India’s nuclear weapons programme and the determinants which underlie it distinguish it from the remainder of the small body of developing states which have undertaken to develop nuclear weapons in the postwar period. One characteristic feature of these states has been the conspicuous role played by the military establishment. This helps to sustain the developmental process in the face of opposition from domestic political forces but may result in unrealistic objectives and developmental schedules. In addition, many of the developing states which have initiated nuclear weapons programmes have been motivated less by the objective of developing a viable military instrument than by objectives related to their status within the international system, either with respect to other developing states or even the superpowers themselves.

India was unique in the degree of restraint which it exercised following its initial nuclear test of 1974. Despite the pressing need for further testing in order to successfully “weaponize” a nuclear device, India refrained from doing so until 1998, when it staged the Pokharan tests. This is evidence of a relatively gradual developmental process that reflects the marginal role of the Indian military establishment.

The decision and timing of the Pokharan tests were the product of a number of factors. It is significant that they occurred following the coming to power in March 1998 of a twelve-party coalition government led by the nationalist Bharatya Janata Party (BJP), which had long advocated the introduction of nuclear weapons and campaigned on this basis. The BJP recognized the political benefits of nuclear testing, which was perceived as very popular with the domestic electorate. Brahma Chellaney notes that the BJP “wanted to go down in history as the people who gave India both the nuclear deterrent and the missile deterrent.”

It is necessary to look to the security sphere for India’s decision to conduct a series of nuclear tests in May 1988, however. Here India’s objectives were rooted more in realpolitik considerations than in a desire to compete with or even approximate the status of the established nuclear weapon states. It is critical to recognize the Pokharan tests as a logical – and in technical terms long-overdue – step in India’s long-term plan to provide itself with a nuclear arsenal capable of serving as a viable instrument of state policy.

This was evident in the arguments and counter-arguments which followed the surprise announcement of the tests by the Indian Prime Minister, which crystallized in distinctly opposite threads of debate. The official position was nicely summed up by Jaswant Singh, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission and India’s official trouble-shooter, who argued that the tests were in the “supreme national interest” and in response to such factors as the growing dis-equilibrium of the Asian balance of power, ongoing processes of proliferation of nuclear weapons and missile systems, and the insecure nature of the regional security environment. He affirmed that India’s policy remains committed to national security while supporting non-proliferation, global disarmament and the exercise of the principle of legitimate security, but argued that nuclear proliferation was the responsibility of those nuclear weapons states that were not subject to verification regimes. Mr. Singh accused other advanced industrial states as well for being “permissive” regarding the proliferation of nuclear technologies, to the extent of using these “as commodities of international strategic trade and commerce.”

India’s decision to stage the Pokharan tests was interpreted by some as an effort by India to advance its strategic position, however. The Indian commentator Chandan Mitra noted that “[t]he bomb is a currency of self-esteem” and K. Subrahmanyam argued that Nuclear weapons are not military weapons. Their logic is that of international politics and it is a logic of global nuclear order. … India wants to be a player in, and not an object of, this global nuclear order.

An examination of India’s security environment reveals considerable grounds for developing nuclear weapons to address its regional security concerns – particularly the threat posed to India by neighbouring China and Pakistan. China and India have competed with each other for influence at the regional level, and India’s development of a nuclear weapon capability constitutes a logical response to the large and growing nuclear arsenal of China. It is likely that India’s nuclear weapons programme was initiated as a response to the Sino-Indian war of 1962 – in which India suffered territorial losses – and China’s own successful nuclear test of 1964. China has frequently accused India of striving for regional hegemony and has consistently supported Pakistan diplomatically and by providing arms. In recent years, developments such as expanding Chinese influence in Myanmar and the deployment of Chinese naval forces to the Indian Ocean, not to mention revelations concerning its provision of assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme have heightened Indian concerns. Immediately prior to the Pokharan tests, Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes described China as a “threat” to India.

While there is no evidence of a long-term Indian strategy to counter Chinese influence within the region, India has undertaken a number of measures designed with the Chinese threat in mind. Development of the Agni II intermediate-range ballistic missile – which was first successfully tested in April 1999 – was explained by Brahma Chellaney of India’s National Security Advisory Board as the “missing link” in India’s nuclear deterrent in China, providing it with “the ability to strike the Chinese heartland.”

India’s relationship with Pakistan, though less asymmetrical than that with India, has been no less worrisome. The ongoing territorial dispute over Kashmir and Pakistani support for insurgent movements within India have fuelled a rivalry between the two threshold nuclear powers. It is noteworthy that the Pokharan tests were preceded by warnings to Pakistan to “roll back its anti-India policy, especially with regard to Kashmir” and were quickly followed by its declaration of a “pro-active” Kashmir policy which was targeted specifically at Pakistan.

Nuclear India in the Asia-Pacific Region

The Pokharan 2 series of tests constituted a major element of India’s programme to develop a nuclear arsenal. India’s efforts to do so accelerated over the course of the 1990s, following Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s reported 1991 decision in favour of adopting a “recessed deterrence” doctrine in which the deployment of nuclear weapons could be quickly effected if required. It is clear both from the Pokharan tests themselves and from related evidence in the form of efforts to develop appropriate delivery systems and effective command and control capabilities that Indian objectives centre around developing a viable instrument of state power.

While it is not clear what developmental path India will ultimately pursue, current plans call for the establishment of what it terms a “Minimum Nuclear Deterrent” (MND). This is envisaged as involving a “triad” of air-, sea- and mobile land-based launch platforms along the lines of the model provided by the nuclear superpowers. This is considered necessary to India’s objective of developing a nuclear force capable of rapid response and of surviving multiple attack waves. To this end, India has devoted considerable resources to the development of ballistic missiles, such as the Agni noted above. It is also negotiating the purchase of a number of Mirage 2000D strike aircraft from France to serve as delivery platforms. India recently claimed to possess a capability to produce enhanced radiation or “neutron bombs.” It was reported in 1997 that India was exploring command-and-control systems for nuclear weapons.

The actual utility of India’s emergent nuclear arsenal is a separate consideration. It is important to note that significant differences of opinion on questions related to the development of a nuclear capability and its nuclear doctrine exist within the policy community in India. These centre around the issues of the size and structure of the nuclear arsenal, the level of alert to be maintained and participation in multilateral arms control arrangements such as the Conventional Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). It is possible to distinguish between “moderates” and “hardliners” on these issues. The former support the development of a limited nuclear deterrent sufficient to counter China and Pakistan, while the latter argue for the eventual development of a global capability similar to states such as China, France and the UK, enabling India to strike at targets in the US. Moderates envision a potential arsenal of 60-150 weapons, as opposed to the figure of upwards of 350-400 advocated by the hardliners.

For the present, India maintains a “no first-use” doctrine. Furthermore, it has stated its intention to conduct no further tests and that it will be satisfied with a limited nuclear arsenal for deterrent purposes.

The Burdens of the Nuclear State: The Fallout from the Pokharan Tests

Domestic euphoria over the Pokharan tests was matched by almost universal international condemnation. India’s efforts to develop an extra-regional nuclear capability constitute a potentially destabilizing factor in the Asia-Pacific region, and were perceived as initiating a South Asian nuclear arms race. The few positive external impacts involved encouraging increased awareness of the question of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems and greater recognition of India’s importance within the Asia-Pacific security environment.

No less than 152 states condemned the Pokharan nuclear tests. Their reactions ranged from the “concern” and “disappointment” expressed by France and Russia, respectively, to the suspension of aid programmes by Germany and Denmark. Most developed states, including Russia and the members of the European Union (EU), declined to impose sanctions on India, however.

By far the strongest response outside of South Asia was registered by the US. President Clinton referred to the Indian decision to undertake the tests as “a terrible mistake.” The US demonstrated its displeasure by imposing sanctions on trade and economic assistance to India via the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and by spearheading the effort to impede Indian efforts to borrow from multilateral institutions such as the World Bank.

The severe US response to the Pokharan tests quickly eroded, however. It gradually moderated its policy towards India, lifting some of the economic sanctions imposed following the tests and shifting the focus of its efforts to securing Indian agreement to multilateral non-proliferation arrangements, particularly the CTBT. It considers obtaining Indian (and Pakistani) agreement to the CTBT crucial to its efforts to reduce the potential for nuclear conflict in South Asia. The resulting stability is seen in turn as contributing to the US objective of opening up the economies of both states.

The seriousness attached to this by the US has been reflected in its efforts to obtain Indian compliance with the CTBT. An extended series of talks on the issue between Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot and Jaswant Singh has failed to secure India’s agreement to sign the CTBT, although it has maintained publicly that it would not block its entry into force.

Talbott called upon India to undertake “five practical steps” to stabilize the South Asian security environment:

Signing and ratification of the CTBT;

A halt of production of arms-grade fissile material pending signing the FMCT;

Adoption of “prudent constraints” on the development and fielding of delivery systems (both aircraft and missiles) for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs);

Tightening of export controls on sensitive technologies and materials applicable to WMDs; and

Encouraging the two countries to continue discussions on their dispute and underlying sources of tension.

The potential for the US to promote the policy changes on the part of India that it so evidently desires is mixed. On one hand, it is clear that India can ill-afford to weather the effects of US sanctions, particularly in the economic sphere. In fact, the Pokharan tests have served to highlight India’s glaring level of underdevelopment. Noted environmentalist Darryl Monte noted the persistence of abject poverty in India and that “to brandish nuclear weapons and missiles smacks of self-delusion of the worst kind.”

The measures taken by the US have had a limited impact. India has demonstrated its capacity to weather US-imposed economic sanctions and the drop in foreign assistance. According to the Indian Foreign Office, “many of the legislated sanctions in the US pertain to export of dual-use technology most of which is denied to India in any case.” Nonetheless, India has sought to minimize the negative impact of the Pokharan tests on its relations with states such as the US. India apparently calculates on its acceptance as a nuclear weapon state, once it convinces other states of its intention to conduct no further nuclear tests and to not to be the first to use nuclear nuclear weapons.

Post-Pokharan US policy towards India, with its more moderate tone and its evident willingness to engage India at such a high level is indicative of its recognition of India’s growing importance as an international actor. The Pokharan tests have thus served to enhance India’s stature within the international system, and possibly even to have legitimized it as a nuclear power.

Pakistan’s response to the Pokharan tests was predictably negative. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif laid on India “the responsibility for delivering a death blow to efforts at global non-proliferation…”. He further indicated that Pakistan would “contend with new realities, heightened dangers and an imminent threat to our security.” This was manifested in Pakistan’s own nuclear tests shortly thereafter. The nuclear tests of India and Pakistan have heightened fears of a nuclear arms race between the two states.

The impact of India’s nuclear tests was exacerbated by perceptions of Indian efforts to develop its position as a regional power. This has included the progressive development of its military capabilities reflected in its introduction of ever more sophisticated arms into its arsenal, most notably those which contribute to its evolving force projection capabilities, such as advanced naval vessels.

India and Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation

The balance of opinion within India holds that the Pokharan tests heralded a strengthening of India’s resolve to pursue its “Look East” policy. This has involved efforts “to draw, as much as possible, investment and co-operation from the Asia-Pacific countries in consonance with our common concept and solidarity and … common destiny.”

India’s past record of involvement in East Asia has been marked by indifference and policies which alienated it from many states in the region, such as its support for the Vietnamese-installed Heng Samrin regime in Cambodia. It has gradually expanded the scope of its interaction with the region. This has included participation in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and ASEAN Post-Ministerial Meetings (ASEAN-PMC) and a broader array of economic contacts.

The Pokharan tests may have a negative impact on the “Look East” policy, however. In economic terms, this may result in declining investment in India. India’s attractiveness as a site for investment was based in part on its relative inoffensiveness from the perspective of Southeast Asian states, which has been called into question by its nuclear tests.

The impact of the Pokharan tests has been most apparent in security terms. India’s enhanced relationships with East Asian states were insufficient to prevent criticism of these tests. This produced a sense of frustration on the part of India and a reexamination of the “Look East” policy. This decision was reinforced by the lesson of the Asian Economic Crisis, which did not affect India to the extent it did a number of East Asian states due India’s relative isolation in economic terms. The modified “Look East” policy that has resulted is more selective than its previous incarnation. It enjoins India to involve itself as a stabilizing force in the security and economic spheres and only to the extent that the states in the region “value India’s contribution and participation.”


India’s more assertive nuclear policy which was reflected in the Pokharan tests continues to have an impact on its foreign and defence relations. It appears that Indian expectations regarding the extent of the negative reaction are proving correct. This is evident in the ongoing US efforts to negotiate Indian compliance with the CTBT and in the recent announcement by the US of its intention to further reduce the scope of sanctions imposed on India following the Pokharan tests.

Ultimately, India may find its nuclear ambitions constrained more by economic realities than by external actors such as the US. With an estimated price tag of some $ 178 billion at current prices, an arsenal of 350-400 weapons may prove beyond India’s capability to afford.

What is clear is that the Pokharan tests of 1998 heralded a new era for India as a security actor, both at the regional and global levels. The international nuclear equation has been transformed by the advances in India’s nuclear aresenal, and India has emerged from its traditional “nuclear ambiguity” to take its place as an acknowledged nuclear power

(Arabinda Acharya is research coordinator at the Centre for Peace Development Studies, Bhubaneswar, India, and a specialist on South Asian security issues. The author would like to thank Amitav Acharya and J.D. Kenneth Boutin of York University, Canada, for comments and suggestions. All correspondence concerning this article should be directed to A. Acharya, Centre for International and Security Studies, York University, 4700 Keele Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M3J IP3. Fax: 416 736 5752, e-mail:

Nuclear India And

Post-Cold War Asia-Pacific Security

Paper submitted to ‘Asian Defence Journal’

Arabinda Acharya

Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies