Is Pakistan smiling?

March 15, 2006

As ironies go this one is in a class by itself. George Bush went to Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction, stayed to search for democracy and is finding out that democracy has become Iraq’s weapon of mass destruction. But this may not be the most significant irony of Bush’s second term, now wallowing in the swamps of popular regret.

The bipartisan perception in Washington is that Bush’s nuclear deal with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be reaffirmed by the US Congress, probably with a rider capping any further production of fissile material by India. The appetite for agreement is so strong in the Indian government that it might overcome local opposition with a lightly veiled fudge and sign. Washington’s acceptance will be bipartisan because India’s credibility is slightly higher than that of the Bush administration, at least at the moment. The Washington strategist views India as a multipolar partner, in trade at one end of the spectrum and a counterweight to China at the other.

The American voter, to the extent that he is aware of India, welcomes the idea of friendship with a secular democracy. If the London-based, Indian-origin steel baron Lakshmi Mittal wanted to run six American ports instead of Arcelor, Europe’s biggest steel company, there would have been nary a ripple in New York harbour.

The irony is that the US-India handshake could turn out to be the best thing to happen to India’s neighbour and rival, Pakistan. Why is Pakistan fortunate to have escaped Bush’s embrace?

Pakistan went formally nuclear with less than four weeks of India in the summer of 1998. Since then it is estimated to have developed an arsenal of at least fifty nuclear bombs, while improving its missile capabilities to a range of some 3000 kilometres and accuracy levels on par with India’s. When Bush stopped by for a frosty day in Islamabad after three days of warmth in India, President Parwez Musharraf proposed that they work out a deal similar to India’s. Bush barely disguised his sneer when publicly dismissing the plea for parity at a joint press conference with Musharraf, who watched with a frozen face. The Bush view is that India is a superior and more responsible power.

And so what happens to the ‘inferior’ and ‘less responsible’ nuclear power? If the India-US deal goes through, India, the more responsible of the two, enters an inspections regime with its fissile material production capped but with the capability, through indigenous fuel, of continuing its weapons production.

Pakistan, however, has signed nothing, and is therefore under no obligation to declare or curb its weaponisation program. If anything, it has a bit of the moral edge, since it asked for an inspections regime but was denied one. Pakistan’s response to the US-India partnership had, in fact, preceded the Bush visit to the subcontinent. Musharraf said that Pakistan had its options. China has promised Pakistan three new fast-breeder nuclear reactors. Since there are theorists in both Washington and Delhi who seek to play the India card against China, it makes sense for Beijing to use the lower-cost option of propping Pakistan’s military capabilities against India. Never shy of upgrading its military strength, Pakistan in effect gets a licence to weaponise, with materials and technology from China.

None of the five victors of the second world war, who have given themselves the right to be the pre-eminent nuclear powers as well the power of veto in the Security Council, has suggested any plan or proposal to curb Pakistan’s nuclear appetite. Not one has the capability of intervention in Pakistan, even if it wished to do so. At least one of the Big 5, China, views a nuclear Pakistan as essential to its own strategic interests.

Welcome to a more exciting, and naturally more expensive, chapter of the subcontinental arms race, this time propelled by nuclear fuel.

The whisper in Washington is that Bush pushed through the Delhi deal at the last hour despite the reservations of his senior bureaucrats. We shall have to wait for a few memoirs to know the facts. But this much we do know already. No one in Washington had the time to connect sequence to consequence.