Off Ramps from Confrontation in Southern Asia – Book Review

Editors: Michael Krepon, Travis Wheeler and Liv Dowling
Publisher: Stimson Center Release Year: 2019 Pages: 178

by Zahoor Ahmad Dar 18 February 2020

Boundless and unfading are the reverberations of some contretemps that forces many to untimely embrace their deathbed, and if by a happy chance one escapes it, pulls it down into a perpetual state of fire and brimstone. A nuclear war is an apt embodiment of such a contretemps. The seemingly eternal triangle between India, China and Pakistan appears to be spruced up for a real “Missile Command”. The international relations theories of ‘counterforce compulsion’ and ‘security trilemma’ make a pitch to make additions to their treasure-trove. Cognizant of the tremors of the past and contemporary ramifications with alacrity to elude this day and age from it, the Stimson Centre’s South Asia programme launched a breakthrough initiative ‘Off-Ramps Project’ in 2017. With national governments failing to muffle military competition through the twin policy tools of diplomacy and mutually beneficial economic engagement, the Stimson Centre as part of its Off-Ramps project came out with a book titled Off-Ramps from Confrontation in Southern Asia by Krepon , Wheeler & Dowling. This book is an admirable compilation of out-of-the-box and novel ideas aimed at attenuating the unprecedented nuclear arms race between the two contentious pairings, India and China and India and Pakistan. While the caption of the book is appealing, it generates an intriguing observation by unfailingly making China a head honcho of Southern Asia strategically if not geographically. To the mounting challenges in the nuclear world, the book offers pragmatic solutions hinged upon six major themes namely, Expand existing confidence-building measures, Subscribe to nuclear restraint, Account for humanitarian and environmental consequences, Establish confidence-building measures with China, Increase transparency and Improve communication. These six themes are further explored through 18 chapters authored by doyens of the nuclear world.

High politics of conventional war beneath a nuclear umbrella by military and civilian leaders in both countries highlights shifting dynamics. China, albeit not being a part of Southern Asia is intricately settled in it. In the game of thrones with U.S., China, Russia and India as prospective contenders, India has to an extent given China bad dreams if not sleepless nights. The shifting of the tectonic tables beneath the security fabric of the South Asian region invokes structural changes that will have powerful bearings not only on the stability within South Asia but globally as well. Recognising the dynamicity of such systemic changes and subsequent manoeuvres, Frank O’ Donnell proposes To combine, harmonize and expand thebilateral missile flight-test pre-notification accords developed by India and Pakistan, China and Russia, and Russia and the United States” (pp.17). Nevertheless, this leaves one wondering whether such a proposal will ever crystallise given the qualms that the eternal triangle harbour for each other, China’s reluctance to accredit India as a peer nuclear rival and its tendency to keep its every move and operation under cover. Such deliberations and pondering are partially brushed aside when Donnell preachifies the ultimate benefits of this proposal in the form of diluted security dilemma. Apprehensions about vandalisation of one’s military infrastructure or nuclear facilities by the power on the other side of the fence can be relatively attenuated through the revamping of the’ South Asia Nuclear Facility Non-attack agreement’ which has turned banal with the acquisition of more technologically-advanced nuclear installations. Such an agreement will also assist nations in safeguarding their pot of gold from non-state actors suggests Toby Dalton. Without over-emphasising on the sanguinity of such an agreement, Dalton is well aware of the hurdles that this modernisation process will face. However, such hurdles don’t deter Dalton to have faith in the pertinence of this reformed, prospective treaty.

The volatility that underpins the regions calls for subscribing to the doctrine of nuclear restraint. Manpreet Sethi asks India to emerge as an avant-garde motivating others to follow the suit. However, the pro-nuclear cacophony drowning out the voices of those advocating minimalism, technological advancements, rapid developments of advanced conventional weapons trigger the build-up of nuclear weapons serve as speed breakers that are bound to give a bumpy ride to its drivers. MIRV(multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle), which is a powerful weapon with the capacity to intensify arms race should be subjected to ceiling in terms of  the maximum numbers that can be deployed per missile. Developing a mechanism to concretise this idea, Sitakanta Mishra suggests will avert the parties to get entrapped in the vicious circle of security trilemma. Nevertheless, the idea to many in defence circles for South Asia seems currently inconceivable. For Happymon Jacob ,“The Southern Asian region is entering a new phase of ballistic missile competition characterized by a constant search for countermeasures to defend against these missiles by means of ballistic missile defence capability”.(pp.50). To address this cloud on the horizon, Jacob proposes to develop a trilateral ABM treaty between India, China and Pakistan (similar to the one reached between United States and Russia in 1972) that would limit them to mutually acceptable limits. His argument may seem promising but he fails to capture the difference in actors, their understanding, time period, changed structures and many other variables. By the similar token, Sadia Tasleem proposes that ‘A trade-off involving Pakistan’s MIRVs and India’s BMD could help impede the spiralling arms race between India and Pakistan’. (pp.59) .This line of argument seems plausible given that both the countries will be encouraged to give up the type of defence equipment they specialise in. However, its essence of being voluntary in nature invokes genuine dubiety of such a proposal ever taking-off given India and Pakistan’s long history of non-accession to voluntary political commitments. Escalatory tensions can be subdued to a satisfactory magnitude if India and Pakistan pursue a mutual restraint regime on the flight-testing of MIRVs. Such contemplation raises eyebrows on its sustainability as it will pull India further behind China, if China is not a party to it and mar all the prospects of Pakistan building up an effective full-spectrum deterrence at nominal cost. Both Arka Biswas and Saira Bano agree to undertake a joint assessment of the environmental and humanitarian consequences of detonations.

 Mutual distrust between India and China for geopolitical space and influence in South Asia doesn’t leave the option for twiddling one’s thumb open. The book taking the advice seriously presents three possible responses to the uncertain nature of events that can open up between India and China. First is the need to create a channel of communication between U.S. and China on South Asia. A peaceful South Asia is in the better interest of both U.S. and China. Secondly, who is going to sail the boat of maritime dominance in Indian Ocean is more a competition than merely a question and both India and China wants to row this boat. Any victory isn’t ensured without few scuffles and the chapter by Monish Tourangbam seeks to avoid this scuffle at sea. The author proposes to conclude an India-China Incidents at Sea agreement on the similar lines of U.S.-Soviet Incidents at sea agreement. Toeing the line may be of help but not blindly. The author has been myopic in articulating scope and objectives similar to the U.S.-Soviet Incidents at sea agreement. Thirdly, clarifying and respecting the line of actual control has been a long-pending task which needs closure soon.  

Transparency is one of the core values that are hugely revered in the making of harmonious bilateral relations and it holds even more pertinence when the issue in question is of nuclear transparency. Sylvia Mishra and Sarah Bidgood feel that joining of Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty’s International Monitoring System by India and Pakistan could wipe off the mist surrounding their nuclear relations. Furthermore, placing all unsafeguarded civil fissile material stockpiles of plutonium and highly enriched uranium under IAEA safeguards could compound element of transparency between their relations. The chapter underpinning this proposition by Feroz Hassan Khan advocates the establishment of a channel of communication between the Indian and Pakistani Army chief as well as the National Security Advisors to discuss professional matters and security issues that affect the militaries of both countries. A 24*7 hotline between India and Pakistan’s Nuclear Command Authority, Harry I.Hannah argues will serve as a secure communication links between military command-and-control elements and reduce risk of misinterpretation eventually building trust.

This book is an admirable compilation of out-of-the-box and novel ideas aimed at attenuating the unprecedented nuclear arms race between the two contentious pairings, India and China and India and Pakistan. The book offers optimistic solutions and aptly fits into the role of a peacemaker. Nonetheless, in the midst of renewed structures and actors, the time demands an attitudinal shift from Cold War mentality to security trilemma in South Asia. Off-ramps from confrontation in South Asia will leave its positive footprint on the minds of its readers and is a value addition to the existing corpus of literature on South Asia. 

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