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After a hiatus of almost twenty-four years, India startled the world in May 1998 by resuming nuclear testing at a time when the international community solemnly expressed a desire through the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to refrain from the field-testing of nuclear explosives. On May 11, 1998, the Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee tersely announced that New Delhi had conducted three nuclear tests, one of which involved the detonation of a thermonuclear device. As a stunned global community struggled to respond to this development, India announced two days later that it had conducted two more detonations, which purportedly “completed the planned series of underground tests.” In the aftermath of these tests, India declared itself to be a “nuclear weapon state” and formally announced its intention to develop a “minimum credible (nuclear) deterrent.”
This article seeks to examine the broader strategic implications of the Indian decision to develop a nuclear deterrent. It focuses on three distinct but related sets of issues: First, how does the formal Indian decision to develop a nuclear deterrent change the strategic environment in Southern Asia? Second, how does it affect the prospects of war and peace in the greater South Asian region? And, third, how will it affect American regional nonproliferation objectives and, in particular, India’s relationship with the United States? This article will argue that India’s prospective nuclearization is unlikely to dramatically alter the prevailing patterns of security competition in the region; that its prospective consequences for deterrence and crisis stability are more or less positive, though tinged with some uncertainty when subjective factors and third-party actions are taken into account; and that so long as it maintains a certain modicum of restraint India’s relationship with the United States is unlikely to be undermined. The article concludes with a brief comment on the role nuclear issues ought to play in the evolving U.S. relations with India.