Nuclear Weapons in South Asia

The testing of nuclear weapons in both India and Pakistan in 1998 emphasized the importance of a South Asian non-proliferation strategy. President Clinton has already said it is necessary to have “some new thinking on South Asia to help create a consensus between the Administration and Congress for a satisfactory solution” regarding regional issues on the subcontinent.

The South Asia Congressional Resolution was adopted as part of the Foreign Aid Reduction Act of 1995 (S. 961) and was signed into law by President Clinton. The resolution calls for a new strategy based on “A regional peace process in South Asia with both bilateral and multilateral tracks.” The Resolution also calls for “A commitment to work with the United States to limit, rollback, and eliminate all nuclear weapons programs.” Among the problem areas it addresses are territorial disputes, economic cooperation, counter-terrorism, narcotics eradication and missile proliferation.

The resolution is non-binding, and it does not outline how the United States and the South Asian nations should work together to achieve these goals. A primary goal of the American Security Council is the development of a new regional security and economic growth strategy. As the Congressional Resolution emphasizes, a new regional security and economic growth strategy is necessary to address the following problem areas:


Racial, ethnic, religious and economic tensions are clearly visible throughout South Asia.

For the past two decades, the proliferation of sophisticated conventional and strategic weapons programs has been apparent.

The South Asian population of 1.2 billion is definitely impatient in waiting for many of the benefits of capitalism.

A new strategy is needed to assist the South Asian region in anticipating, preventing, and, if necessary, retaliating against terrorism.

Criminal cartels are likewise an active danger in promoting the illegal drug trade in South Asia. Moreover, efforts to maintain stability and economic growth in South Asia are menaced by drug gangs that are sometimes allied with political terrorists.

The interests of the four most powerful nations in the world, the United States, Russia, China and Japan overlap in South Asia. South Asian uncertainty in this still heavily-armed region could lead to new rivalries among the major states.

An excellent definition of the current situation in South Asia was given by James Woolsey when he left his post as Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. “With the end of the Cold War, the Free World has slain a large dragon. But we now live in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of very poisonous snakes,” Woolsey said.

These deadly snakes thoroughly inhabit all of Asia, and South Asia in particular. They are coiled in the dark corners of the region, waiting for a misstep. The 1991 Persian Gulf War demonstrated to many nations how easily a sudden, sharp shift in a regional balance of power can jeopardize the entire international security outlook.

Additional reasons for the development and adoption of a new South Asia strategy have been emphasized by former U.S. Senator Charles Percy (R-IL), who previously served as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. In the policy journal Foreign Affairs, Percy outlined the need for a coordinated U.S. and international effort to maintain stability and provide for regional economic growth:


“Governments in South Asia now realize that insular, state-run economies have not achieved the levels of growth needed to catapult their large populations out of poverty. Instead these policies isolated their countries and denied them the benefits of international trade and investment. While isolationism may have seemed an attractive course, political and business leaders across the region now acknowledge the need to integrate into the global economy.

“In the past the United States supported autocratic regimes in South Asia, primarily for strategic reasons. In today’s post-Cold War environment Washington is largely neglecting the region even though it now better meets American democratic standards. Similarly, the United States needs to do more to ensure that the region’s economic liberalization is irreversible and that there is no backsliding into the tried and failed socialist past. U.S. policymakers do not fully appreciate the potential impact of South Asian trends on America’s long-term economic interests.”

Yet another reason for the necessity of a key leadership role by the United States on the subcontinent is because of the inability of the South Asian nations to make significant progress. For example, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was created at a summit meeting in Dhaka, Bangladesh on December 8, 1985.

This so-called “poor man’s club” of 1.2 billion people was designed to foster regional cooperation, but it has unfortunately fallen far short of the resounding rhetoric of its past. “The fact is, SAARC has not taken off,” Pakistani President Farooq Leghari told his Association colleagues last May. “The reason is not far to seek. The suspicions and insecurity generated by the unsettled political issues in our region stand in the way of SAARC moving forward at the pace that it should be.”

The result has been numerous and stubborn bilateral military and economic disputes. Many of these have arisen because of deep suspicions regarding India’s intentions. With a gross domestic product of $214 billion, India is clearly the area’s largest economy. Past efforts to amend the SAARC charter so it could consider political disputes among its members have not been successful. Specifically, Pakistan wants the group to become a forum where it can press its territorial claims in Kashmir, and criticize India for brutalities and human rights violations in two-thirds of the territory that New Delhi administers.

Any new strategy must be based on the principles and goals of regional security, shared democratic ideals and economic opportunities. The United States should recognize that stability and market-oriented reforms underway in the region are consistent with U.S. interests. Accordingly, another effective course for this strategy program could be raising South Asia’s profile in the corporate community, and directing greater resources for commercial programs on the subcontinent.

It should also be noted that a rapidly growing South Asian middle class — coupled with industries that demand investment and technology — is helping to create one of the world’s most important emerging markets. This economic expansion is improving the region’s living standards. The South Asia Center would seek to develop a strategy with these security and economic principles in mind, and it would focus the attention of U.S. decision makers on the problems and opportunities of the subcontinent.

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