Year After Nuke Tests, Is India Safer?

NEW DELHI, India -- For Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes, last month's test of the new Agni II missile was a satisfying climax to India's effort to give its military nuclear capability.

Moments after watching the long-range missile soar across an azure sky, Fernandes leaned into a microphone in the control room and proclaimed: "With this launch, no one, from anywhere, will dare to threaten us from now on."

The Agni II can deliver atomic warheads deep into neighboring rivals Pakistan and China, putting teeth in India's new defense mantra: "minimum credible deterrence."

But a year after going overtly nuclear by setting off test explosions, the debate rages on: Is India more secure or less?

The underground tests on May 11, 1998, were greeted in India's streets with jubilation over joining the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France in the nuclear club. To mark the anniversary, India has declared Tuesday National Resurgence Day.

But 17 days after India's weapons tests, Pakistan exploded its own nuclear devices, cheering its own people and sobering the euphoria in India. The Pakistanis also quickly matched the April test of the Agni II with a test flight of their own missile.

The underground explosions a year ago upset a world that was shedding its Cold War nuclear armories after decades of living under the threat of atomic annihilation. Anxieties rose over the prospect of a dangerous new arms race.

Within days of the blast, 152 countries registered protests. Fourteen countries declared economic sanctions, depriving India and Pakistan of trade, aid and loan guarantees when the economies of both countries were already at a low ebb.

Both stood defiant. Many people worried that global arms control agreements could be in danger and that the two countries were pushing their long rivalry into a catastrophic phase.

Twelve months later, anxiety levels are down:

?India and Pakistan have taken tentative steps to control their enmity. In February, India's Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee inaugurated a new bus line to Pakistan and signed the Lahore Declaration outlining the first steps to avoiding accidental war.

?Strained relations between India and the United States have eased and Washington has scaled back sanctions against both India and Pakistan.

?China, furious at being pinpointed by India as the target of its long-range defense shield, received an Indian delegation in Beijing on April 26 to resume negotiations over their disputed border.

?The two new nuclear powers have signaled their readiness to sign international arms control treaties, although the collapse of India's government last month may delay a final decision.

Advocates of the deterrent power of nuclear weapons argue the region is more stable, more confident and more peaceful.

"Coming out of the closet has helped India and Pakistan look at their problems more seriously,'' said defense analyst C. Raja Mohan, a member of the newly formed National Security Advisory Committee.

The region's peace activists, once a small and silent lot, are more vocal. They argue nuclear weapons have further destabilized a region that witnessed four wars in 50 years, three between India and Pakistan and one between India and China.

"The logic of deterrence is instability. Each side tries to establish some superiority. This logic leads to an arms race,'' said Praful Bidwai, a columnist and member of the Movement in India for Nuclear Disarmament.

The Indian government budget approved last month calls for a 14 percent increase in military spending, a 59 percent boost for the Department of Atomic Energy and a 62 percent hike for the Department of Space.

Both India and Pakistan tested their nuclear devices before deciding how they might be used. Since then, their nuclear doctrines have been formulated only vaguely.

India has pledged not to be the first to use a nuclear bomb. "We will absorb the first blow, but we are making it clear we will retaliate,'' said Mohan, the defense analyst.

Pakistan, smaller in resources and conventional military might, refuses to match India's no-first-use doctrine, but is offering a nonaggression pact instead.

Key questions remain unanswered: How many missiles and warheads will they produce? Will they be deployed? Who will command their use?

"We are nowhere near working out any of that,'' said Bidwai, the peace activist.