U.S. Accepts the Fact, if Not the Principle, of India's Nukes

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It all depends on the meaning of "accept." Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh announced Friday that the U.S. had for all intents and purposes "accepted India's minimum nuclear deterrent," but the acceptance to which he referred is one of fact rather than principle. Nuclear non-proliferation remains at the top of President Clinton's agenda as he prepares to depart for India on Saturday, with the focus being on reducing the danger level between two countries perennially on the brink of war. "The U.S. would like nothing more than to reverse India and Pakistan's nuclear programs, but Washington has no realistic way of doing that," says TIME State Department correspondent Doug Waller. "So the immediate concern is to stop the nuclear buildup on both sides and develop mechanisms that minimize the potential for nuclear warfare between the two countries. Remember, while each side has a collection of nuclear weapons, they have little by way of structures and procedures governing their use — mutual surveillance systems, hotlines and all the other comprehensive mechanisms developed by the U.S. and the Soviets during the Cold War to avoid a nuclear confrontation."

The focus of non-proliferation efforts during the President's visit will be on getting India and Pakistan to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which may be a long shot given Mr. Clinton's failure to have it ratified on Capitol Hill last year. "Naturally last year's vote undercuts U.S. bargaining power," says Waller. "The Indians will simply say, 'Why should we rush to sign when your own Senate won't even ratify it?'" Nonetheless, both sides are expected to sign on at some point in the future, and Washington also wants to draw them into discussions on an international treaty ending the production of the fissile material that provides the raw material of nuclear weapons. India is likely to gladly accept a role in shaping such international nuclear treaties and engage in dialogue with Washington on managing its weapons of mass destruction. After all, New Delhi justifies going nuclear as a way to claim geopolitical respect in a world where the only "countries that count" are those with nukes.