ABC News Commentary

20 May 1974

India’s Nuclear Test

 By exploding its first nuclear device, India has become the first non-aligned nation to join the nuclear club. As might be expected, the Indian Government is claiming that the explosion of the device, said to be in the 10-15 kiloton range, was a purely scientific experiment concerned with the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

However, the implications of this nuclear blast are likely to be much more far-reaching than official statements would suggest.

The first and most obvious result of the Indian achievement has been to demonstrate to the whole world the ease with which any country, provided it is sufficiently determined, can develop its own nuclear weapons. The technology necessary for the development of the atomic bomb has been readily available for some time. As for the means of delivery, they can be purchased without much difficulty from one or other of the great powers. India, for example, has a number of Soviet surface-to-surface missiles as well as Russian and French fighter bombers, all of which could be used to transport a nuclear warhead.

The atomic blast just completed may not have made a nuclear power, but it has shown how easily the investment of talent and resources in nuclear technology can be converted into a military capability. Such a development will of necessity strengthen the political forces working towards nuclear proliferation. It is now ten years since the fifth nuclear power, China, exploded its first nuclear test. In the ensuing 10-year period, much of international diplomacy has been conducted on the assumption that the 5-power nuclear club would remain a permanently closed shop. India’s nuclear explosion should provide a rude awakening to all those who have been confidently predicting a period of future stability based on nuclear deterrence.

It is of course highly irrelevant and totally hypocritical for the great powers, and the western world in particular, to indulge in facile condemnation of India’s nuclear programme. So long as the rich and the powerful remain committed to the policy of nuclear deterrence, it is unreasonable to expect that weaker or poorer countries will forever abstain from acquiring what is universally branded as the ultimate symbol of power and security. It is, however, true that in India’s case, the development of nuclear weapons will seriously destabilise relations with Pakistan and even Bangladesh. It will undoubtedly add fuel to the flames of conflict which have dominated the history of the sub-continent, and which, even now, in spite of a number of negotiations and agreements between the three governments, remain far from extinguished.

The aggravation of this regional conflict will be all the more serious to the extent that it will involve the great powers, and particularly China and the Soviet Union which are committed to supporting opposing sides of the conflict. India’s close relations with the Soviet Union and Pakistan’s reliance on China, which will no doubt be reinforced by the Indian nuclear explosion, point to one of the most disturbing flashpoints in Asian and even world politics.

But an Indian bomb, should it become fully operational, will have another and perhaps greater impact on the world situation. It will highlight the grave dangers that are already discernible in the emerging confrontation between rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed, between those who are prepared to use violence in the defence of power and privilege and those who see no alternative but violence in their struggle for liberation. If we are to avoid such a collision course, it will be necessary for us to do more than sit in judgment of other nations. We shall need to reassess our own policies and our own reliance on the power of nuclear destruction.