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South Asia: A Framework for Peace

By Paul Leventhal and Brahma Chellaney

International Herald Tribune, February 1, 1989

WASHINGTON---The recent agreement by India and Pakistan not to attack each other's nuclear facilities is a belated but significant confidence-building measure that could lead to a new era in bilateral relations. It should spur the countries to work together on two of the most pressing concerns in South Asia: the expansion of nuclear weapons capabilities and the escalation of domestic terrorism.

India and Pakistan should establish a framework for periodic discussions on counterterrorism and nuclear safety and protection. Greater transparency in nuclear programs could begin with exchanges of information and reciprocal site visits.

The new pact will help by requiring each side to declare its nuclear facilities to the other at the start of each year. Efforts to build on this arrangement could help ease regional tensions and nuclear rivalry; they also could lead to a wider agreement on a mutually binding regional system of safeguards and inspections.

The nuclear programs of both countries have implications beyond the threat of a nuclear arms race: There is a danger of nuclear terrorism in South Asia. This stems from an escalation of conventional terrorism, from the growing number of nuclear installations, and from the greater availability of materials that can be used to make the weapons. The threat is reinforced by the growing sophistication of terrorists and the increasing availability of portable weapon systems, such as shoulder-fired rockets, that could be used to strike nuclear facilities and convoys.

South Asia has emerged in the past two years as the world s most terrorism-battered region. Last year, more than 3,500 civilians were slain in terrorist violence in the region. Combating terrorism has become the biggest political challenge for the leaders of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The introduction of billions of dollars worth of sophisticated weapon for the Afghan mujahidin has spurred criminal activity in the region; large quantities of the arms have ended up outside Afghanistan's borders. Illicit arms trade could make Pakistan an attractive shopping place for international terrorists.

Physical protection systems at the principal government nuclear installations, such as the Bahba Atomic Research Center in India and Kahuta center in Pakistan, may be relatively strong, but safety measures and security standards at dozens other facilities are understood to be less stringent. Both countries have undertaken ambitious nuclear expansion programs without investing adequately in the development of technologies to help ensure safety.

The seizure of a nuclear plant for purposes of blackmail or the truck-bombing of a nuclear reactor could undermine citizens' confidence in their government and unleash a reign of terror. The theft of weapons-grade plutonium or uranium could lead to a credible threat or to a hoax with highly coercive results. The probability of such acts may still be relatively low. Yet, because the consequences could be so far-reaching, the risk of nuclear terrorism must be considered to be high. Beyond the terrorism threat, the rival nuclear programs on the subcontinent have clear implications for regional security. The clandestine uranium enrichment project in Pakistan is betrayed by a striking lack of commercial legitimacy. Similarly, India's breeder program which is explained as a long-term energy plan to overcome the country's limited uranium resources, can absorb only a small part of the plutonium being separated from spent fuel. Under current plans, India by the year 2000 will have separated more weapons-usable plutonium than China now has in its nuclear arsenal.

The mom favorable political environment now prevailing in South Asia should be used as a starting point to establish a regional nuclear confidence-building arrangement. The two nations could cooperate in civil nuclear power and research programs. While observing India's stated policy and Pakistan's apparent prefererence to remain outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The two parties could work out safeguards that would be more effective than anything international inspectors, with their limited authority and resources, would be able to apply under the broader treaty.

To satisfy India, such a system could not be established before China had been brought into a formal South Asian security framework with a no-nuclear-attack pledge. The difficulties of achieving such an approach to averting a nuclear arms race and preventing nuclear terrorism are formidable, but the new political climate seems right for advances to be made.

Mr. Leventhal is president of the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute. Mr. Chellaney is a research fellow at the Center for Science and International Affairs, at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. They contributed this to the International Herald Tribune.

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