India tested bomb to `counter China's threat'

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WHILE Pakistanis continued to dance in the street and fire guns in the air yesterday in celebration of their country's six nuclear tests, the scientists responsible returned to Islamabad from the test site in Baluchistan to a rousing welcome.

Pakistan's top nuclear scientist said Islamabad's newly tested nuclear weapons were more efficient and reliable than those of India and could be delivered by superior missiles. Abdul Qadeer Khan said Pakistan could deploy its nuclear weapons in days if needed and had begun mass production of its medium-range Ghauri missile, which could carry nuclear warheads.

Declining to commit his country to a moratorium on tests, Pakistan's foreign minister, Gohur Ayub Khan, told a private Indian television network: "We are ready to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) along with India - but India has conditions. What are they?"

In Washington, President Clinton formally ratified sanctions triggered by Pakistan's first tests which will affect billions of dollars in loans.

India's and Pakistan's tests have also helped lift the dollar against most currencies, as investors seek refuge in the US currency both from economic troubles in Japan and Russia and the military tension between Delhi and Islamabad.

In Delhi, an intriguing explanation for India's nuclear initiative surfaced in the Sunday Times of India. India's nuclear tests were neither a bid by the government for domestic popularity, nor a gratuitous outburst of aggressive nationalism, the article claimed. Citing unnamed "high-level sources", MD Nalapat wrote that they were, rather, a response to intelligence that China had given Pakistan the means to carry out a nuclear test, and that Pakistan planned to do so on 28 May (which as it happens was the actual date of the first Pakistani tests).

According to the article, India's tests were thus designed to pre-empt Pakistan's. Had Pakistan got its bang in first, the idea was for China then to have convened a special session of the UN Security Council at which Pakistan's test would have been deplored, and international sanctions mandated on any country that followed Pakistan's lead. If India had gone ahead and tested anyway, it could have faced far harsher sanctions than those that have actually been imposed.

In support of this theory, one could point to the testing of Pakistan's long-range missile, Ghauri, developed with Chinese assistance and tested in April, which at the time rang alarm bells in Washington as well as Delhi about Islamabad's intentions. It would also help to explain the universal support extended to the Indian Prime Minister, A B Vajpayee, by his political opponents after the first Indian tests, and the anti- Peking rhetoric which the Indian government has indulged in since taking office in March. It would also make sense of Mr Vajpayee's otherwise bizarre remark, following Pakistan's first tests, that India's tests had now been "vindicated".

If the theory is correct, India has dodged a Chinese-Pakistan attempt to stymie its atomic weapons programme, or make it prohibitively expensive. If the attempt had succeeded, Mr Nalapat says, it would have given China "a clear road ... to dominate Asia strategically in the next century".

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