Raising the stakes

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 May, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 May, 1998, 12:00am

Now that Pakistan has carried out nuclear tests, and with India's own economy facing decline because of international sanctions, the national euphoria which greeted India's series of bomb tests two weeks ago must be evaporating.

Instability in the region has surpassed the dangerous heights it reached in 1990, when the conflict over Kashmir brought the two very close to nuclear exchange.

Pakistan's claim that India plans to launch an attack on its nuclear installations may be a ploy to further justify extending the nuclear arms race. But while Delhi and Islamabad indulge in claim and counter-claim, the rest of the world is left to reflect that the possibility of nuclear conflict is now as great as it has been since the height of the Cold War.

In the sub-continent, without state-of-the-art satellite tracking technology for reliable information, and with few safeguards to defuse a tense situation before it gets out of hand, there is a danger of nuclear conflict beginning simply through overreaction.

If the major powers had reacted with more force to India's bomb tests, Islamabad may have been talked out of reciprocating. The Pakistani Government sees itself in an untenable position: 70 per cent of the population favour testing, and it is obliged to respond to Indian threats over Kashmir.

The sanctions India's action provoked from the international community were not enough to pacify Pakistan. Britain, the European Union and the G8 nations decided against action, and the Indian economy can withstand the estimated US$1 billion in sanctions that the US, Japan and other nations have imposed.

Pakistan will certainly be dealt a crippling blow by the sanctions that will now be imposed on its fragile economy; but there will be great rejoicing among those Muslim nations who regard it as a triumph for Islam.

Saudi newspapers have been urging Islamabad to carry out nuclear tests, fuelling the sectarian component of the Indo/Pakistan conflict. There is no doubt that today the world is a more dangerous place.