Pressure builds on Pakistan to sign test ban

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THE FIVE nuclear devices Pakistan exploded yesterday in Baluchistan threatened Pakistan itself with economic collapse, the region with frighteningly heightened tensions, and the world with a new nuclear arms race.

Optimists, however, argued that if national passions in the region can only be held in check, both India and Pakistan couldbe induced to sign the Non- Proliferation and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaties. Both nations had balked at signing treaties which would have cut off for ever the possibility of testing their nuclear arsenals and becoming declared nuclear states.

Pakistan's explosions, unlike India's, were closely monitored by American intelligence, which announced yesterday morning that a nuclear device had been inserted in the ground at the test site, and the hole filled up with concrete. The first of the five explosions took place at 3.30pm.

When the news reached the Indian parliament about an hour later, the lower house adjourned in disarray. A senior Communist deputy declared: "What a mess [Prime Minister] Vajpayee has got us into - this man is not fit to govern!"

On the other side of the border, a grim-faced Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told Pakistan in a television broadcast that the country had been forced into detonating the explosives by India's tests which had violently tilted the balance of power in the region. Preparing Pakistan for the sanctions that will inevitably follow, and the damage they will inflict on the country's fragile economy, he announced that he had decided "to give up the prime minister's palace and go for simplicity..."

"Without sacrifices," he went on, "nations don't stand on their own. This is a golden opportunity to be self-reliant. Even if we have to starve, we must not allow this moment to be wasted."

Pakistan's decision to test was the conclusion of an anguished national debate. The shock of India's tests prompted an immediate demand for Pakistan to respond in kind, both from ordinary people and from the political parties. As the economic implications sank in, however, Mr Sharif's demand for a "national consensus" on the issue paradoxically led to an increasing polarisation of views.

The opportunistic and legally embattled leader of the Opposition, Benazir Bhutto, demanded that India's nuclear facilities be bombed (though not necessarily by Pakistan). One after another, the nation's numerous extremist Islamic parties demanded that the prime minister press the button. But in the press, more and more voices called for saner counsel to prevail.

"Let's not jump into the same well," urged one commentator. "Emotive response to Indian nuclear tests could wreak havoc on the economy," warned one economics commentator. Some suggested Pakistan could enjoy a lucrative halo of sanctity if she refrained.

But the envoys Mr Nawaz sent fanning out across the world to learn what rewards were on offer for abstinence came back empty handed. Plenty of stick was available, but very little in the way of carrot. No regional security guarantees from the United States, for example. All the world would promise was debilitating sanctions if Pakistan went ahead.

Foreign Minister Gohur Ayub Khan's statement last Sunday that "it was not a matter of if, but when" proved to be the last word. If there had been serious doubts in the Cabinet, the loose-cannon bellicosity of Indian Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani, threatening a new offensive in Kashmir, and his colleague, Madan Lal Khurana, reportedly saying that if Pakistan wanted a fourth war "all they have to do is tell us the time and place", must have dispelled them.

Conspiracy theorists even suggested that India's whole strategy was aimed at deliberately goading Pakistan into testing, to drive the old enemy into bankruptcy.

If there is anything worse than the spectacle of two of the world's poorest nations pouring vast sums into nuclear testing, it is that they should start a race to weaponise.

But both India and Pakistan now have suitable indigenously developed missiles, India the Agni and Prithvi, Pakistan the Ghauri. The temptation to take the next logical step will be overwhelming. And the 75 per cent of Pakistanis without access to drinking water, and the 44 per cent of Indians living in absolute poverty, will have to learn to wait their turn.