India defiant over nuclear test ban treaty

Pressure from the major powers has had little impact, writes Tim McGirk in New Delhi
India is refusing to sign a global treaty to ban nuclear test explosions, despite pressure from Britain, the United States and other major nuclear powers.

Alone among more than 40 countries attending the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, it has raised obstacles to the nuclear test ban treaty. India's UN envoy in Geneva, Arundhati Ghose, said that the current text of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) ignores India's security needs and gives an unfair edge to countries which already possess nuclear arms. India is demanding that the treaty set a time limit for the big nuclear powers to get rid of their arsenals.

Britain and the US are worried that India may block the pact from reaching the UN General Assembly for ratification in September. In Washington, the US State Depart- ment spokesman, Nicholas Burns, said that the Clinton administration was still trying to coax India into signing, but with little hope of success. "However, we will continue to expect in the negotiations that India will not seek to frustrate the will of the international community on this particular issue," the US spokesman said.

UN disarmament experts in Geneva thought they had achieved the impossible: an agreement by the world's five biggest nuclear powers - Britain, China, France, Russia and the US - to prohibit underground nuclear blasts. The CTBT also went a step further, binding countries to strict on-site inspections of nuclear installations by UN officials.

But India - which is considered to be a "threshold" nuclear power, along with Pakistan and Israel - is balking at the proposed treaty. The country has two hostile nuclear neighbours, China and Pakistan, and wants to keep the option of building its own atomic arsenal and carrying out underground tests. The threat of possible sanctions and widespread condemnation is unlikely to sway India into signing the test ban treaty, according to New Delhi officials.

India's new government is run by a fragile coalition, but the Prime Minister, Deve Gowda, can count on backing from all major parties, especially right- wing Hindus, in refusing to sign the Geneva treaty. As the Foreign Secretary, Salman Haider, recently said, "The acquisition of nuclear weapons is essential for national security and we have followed a conscious decision in this regard." India exploded a nuclear device in 1974 and is working on a long- range missile, the Agni, which is capable of delivering an atomic warhead.

New Delhi officials said India's objections to the CTBT are too strong for it simply to abstain from signing the pact before the Geneva conference ends on 15 August. The Clinton Administration would be content if India did not block the CTBT's passage. Otherwise, an Indian veto could either stop the treaty outright or cause it quickly to unravel.

If India refuses to sign, Pakistan may also pull out of the treaty, fearing that its enemy neighbour might gain an unfair advantage in developing nuclear weapons. China, too, has raised doubts against the treaty's insistence on nuclear site inspections, and it has required much coaxing by the US before agreeing to the CTBT.

Indian officials insist that the proposed treaty locks the major nuclear powers into a position of superiority. The "Big Five" no longer need underground tests, since nuclear explosions can now be simulated by computers or laboratory experiments, whereas India and other "threshold" nations have yet to reach that point, New Delhi officials explained.