India and Pakistan told to halt arms race

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THE "Big Five" nuclear powers last night mounted a concerted effort to halt the south Asian arms race, and persuade India and Pakistan to sign international treaties banning nuclear tests and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

At a hastily arranged meeting at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, the foreign ministers of Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - the five permanent members of the UN Security Council who are also the "official" nuclear states - called on Delhi and Islamabad to hold off from further tests and commit themselves to ending production of the fissile material required for nuclear weapons.

After the initial muddled response to India's tests, with the US imposing sanctions and most of its allies refusing to follow suit, the Geneva session was designed to show how the world's nearest thing to a "directorate" of dominant powers is retaking the initiative in the proliferation issue.

But the display of unity, and the shared fear that the Indian and Pakistani tests could encourage other states to go nuclear, belies wide differences among the Five on how to proceed, now that sanctions, and the threat of sanctions, have been proved useless as a deterrent.

"This will not be a punitive meeting," British officials said, thus endorsing the argument of the Russian foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, that punishing India and Pakistan will only make them less inclined to go along with the wishes of the international community.

But the Americans are adamant that the two must not be rewarded for their tests by being given some form of enhanced nuclear status, and least of all by being reclassified as fully-fledged nuclear states alongside the P-5 countries under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), cornerstone since 1970 of international efforts to keep such weapons in as few hands as possible.

Any step in that direction, Washington warns, would simply encourage other countries, including some in flashpoint regions like the Middle East, to try and join the club and thus render the NPT a dead letter.

But for all the new tension they have generated, and whatever the undeniable risk of further proliferation, last month's tit-for-tat tests, five by India and six by Pakistan, have at least shaken up the global nuclear debate, and forced some of its basic assumptions to be re-examined.

At a minimum it will give the US and Russia cause to speed up negotiations on further cuts in their arsenals, accounting for over 90 per cent of all nuclear weapons, and which provide India its main argument in refusing to join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, signed by 149 countries. Why should we renounce nuclear weapons, Delhi asks, when other countries insist on keeping theirs ?

Washington and Moscow signed the Start II treaty in the early 1990s. But the Duma has failed to ratify it, and until this happens the US says it will not embark on the far more ambitious Start III talks on which both sides are agreed in principle. And before these negotiations reach fruition, Britain and France refuse to contemplate getting rid of their weapons.