No Nuclear Threat in South Asia; only Dilemmas



At large, proliferation dynamics in South Asia are driven by a need to establish some measure of relative parity against their principal adversaries-India against China and Pakistan against India. Such competing security agendas ensure that nuclear modernization, through production of fissile material and development of more effective delivery systems will continue for the time being. In a war-striven region, like that of South Asia, a desire for peace must demonstrate a change in priorities, reflected through increasing intercourse among institutions, public interest groups, and people of neighboring countries through cultural exchange, communication and economic linkages. (Chattopadhyay, 2010). Prior to the test, the BJP-led NDA government in India carried forward the generosity of the “Gujral Doctrine” but in post-Pokharan, concerns were raised at the government’s genuine approach to her neighborhood policy in South Asia. Yashwant Sinha, External Affairs Minister of the NDA government clarified India’s moves by stating, “In a world where weapons of mass destruction are still to be eliminated, nuclear weapons sadly remain the ultimate guarantor of a nation’s security”. After the tests of 1998, the first thing India did was to declare a ‘No First Use’ (NFU) policy and a unilateral ban on testing. India has repeatedly reiterated its commitment to a complete and universal elimination of nuclear weapons. Despite attempts to politically isolate and economically weaken India, its response was to engage the leading nations of the world in patient dialogue. Cognizance must be taken of the fact that India is a mature nuclear power which takes the responsibility of possessing this awesome capability very seriously (Sinha, 2003). In post-1998, the spirit and euphoria of Lahore process disappeared soon and doctrinal and conceptual clarity on nuclear strategy became fundamental to the existence of stable deterrence. Although the strategic elites in both countries have pondered over their nuclear doctrines ad nauseam, they seem to have overlooked the ways in which credible cooperation may occur in order to achieve feasible nuclear risk reduction measures and nuclear stability.

In contrast to India’s nuclear doctrine and overall policy towards neighbors, Pakistan’s ambiguous nuclear doctrine has plunged India into a deep dilemma on how to respond to the proxy war that it believes Pakistan has unleashed upon it. Pakistan has apparently kept its nuclear doctrine ambiguous to continue to perplex Indian strategists. It has dismissed the credibility of India’s declared NFU doctrine and but has not elucidated the conditions under which it would be prompted to use its nuclear weapons. Apart from outlining some painfully general conditions of potential nuclear use, Pakistan has deliberately kept its ‘threshold levels’ or the ‘red lines’ unclear, contending that this is its only possible option to prevent an Indian attack (Jacob, 2012). This ambiguity in the India-Pakistan conflict-dyad has led to deterrence instability in the region, rather than deterrence stability. In a conflict-dyad, theoretically speaking, when both parties clarify their nuclear postures, be relative stability. However, when both maintain doctrinal ambiguity there is likely to be increased stability; paradoxically, under such conditions deterrence has the maximum advantage.  On the other hand, when one party maintains doctrinal clarity and the other maintains doctrinal ambiguity there is likely to be instability rather than stability. This happens because the party that chooses to keep its doctrine ambiguous is also assumed to keep its various options open-flexible responses’ including the tactical use of nuclear weapons. This generates a dilemma for its opponents, which has denied the option of similar flexible responses due to its pre-declared postures and resultant concerns about public opinion. In the circumstances, “Cold Start” is the undeclared policy of Indian military which is assumed to be a response to this dilemma. Indian strategists believe that India were to use its “Cold Start” doctrine, it would have a flexible response option that may counter the open-ended Pakistani nuclear strategy. South Asian countries often had different security paradigms and the fact that national security often becomes part of electoral dynamics further complicates the issue. Security policy is molded by the interests of the ruling elite, thereby making an emergence of a collective security system rather difficult. The different strategies have adversely affected bilateral relations among the other countries of the South Asian region as well.

  Strategic Challenges

Consequently, the region now faces four political and strategic challenges. Two political challenges must be met to assure stability within the context of enduring India-Pakistan rivalry. The first challenge is how to break the current gridlock in bilateral relations. The second challenge is how to maintain a credible minimum deterrence force without engaging in an economically debilitating arms race. This challenge is greater for Pakistan than for India, but failure to address it will have negative implications for both countries. In their march into 21st century, India and Pakistan have essentially two paths from which to choose. The first is a confrontational path-based on cognitive biases. This path will involve an unconstrained arms race, dangerous military practices, and possibly the open deployment of nuclear forces in a “hair-trigger” alert status, resulting in increased security requirements. The Second path is that of mutual accommodation and development of a cooperative security framework. This path would imply a major political attitudinal change in both countries toward resolving outstanding political disputes, eschewing an arms race by building restraint regimes, and creating an environment that improves the socio-economic welfare of their citizens.

In line, the first strategic challenge is how to create a security balance in the asymmetrical environment of South Asia. The second security challenge is how to configure the nuclear command system to assure safety (preventing accidents), security (maintaining authorized physical custody, preventing unauthorized tampering, access, and use) and survivability (mobility, dispersal and hardening silos and command centers) under the harsh conditions of South Asia (Khan, 2003). In regard to the strategic challenges, unlike the Cold War, in terms of hardware, the technical stability of South Asian nuclear forces is currently lower than their Cold War counterparts. But peace-time experience will allow the command system to gradually mature. Safe management for nuclear weapons will also improve over time. However, the conditions of instability in South Asia have to do more with the software-the attitudes and policy choices than with hardware. In fact, India is the determining power as its “minimum deterrent” limits are measured against “unspecified enemies”, implying both China and Pakistan. But Pakistan is much more affected by Indian decisions than China, as the potential threat to Pakistan is real. The challenge is for Pakistan to make prudent choice by assuring balance, but not parity. Given current dynamics, Pakistani choices, not Indian restraint, will be the crucial factor in determining whether the region avoids the trap of an arms race. In the situation, Pakistan must maintain its nuclear and conventional capabilities at a level that will make an adventure costly for India. Both India and Pakistan are expected to rely more on personal and less on technology in their nuclear management systems. This emphasis will make the system prone to environmental and psychological challenges and human errors. In both societies, religious extremism is on the rise, and propaganda and campaigning is on the rampage. Therefore, reliance on human beings, who are affected by emotions and patriotism, will increase the requirements of personnel reliability programs. A middle course balancing reliance on personnel and technology will be more feasible because weapons are limited in numbers and are located within Indian and Pakistani territory.

In South Asia there is the existence of doctrinal ambiguities, security dilemma and deep mistrust of each other-combined with the lack of a clear civilian control of nuclear weapons in Pakistan means nothing short of a recipe for disaster for the people of both countries. Under normal circumstances, history suggests that achieving stability between nuclear antagonists requires years of confidence-building and willingness on both sides to make the concessions necessary for relations to mature into détente. In the region South Asia, political attitudes toward conflict resolution, domestic and regional compulsions, and conditions generating nuclear tensions continue to foster instability. Earlier, the demise of the Cold War made the strategic balance between the world’s two nuclear superpowers irrelevant. But similar concerns about stability then became applicable to other regions, especially South Asia. In the region the challenges will be far greater because the environment and conditions are not the same. On the one hand, there are the geophysical and strategic asymmetries between India and Pakistan that present challenges different from those faced during the Cold War. On the other hand, in both countries several aspects of the environment are identical and inimical to nuclear stability, including harsh climatic conditions, poor communications infrastructure, frequent power breakdowns, and a disturbed domestic climate with communal/ethnic violence. Thus, to maintain stability in a cooperative security framework by negotiation is needed in present context.

Policy analysis and Suggestions

Though there have been significant confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan, including an agreement on reducing nuclear risk as well as re-establishment of transport links, they have not yet brought about any significant progress on basic-security disputes, such as Kashmir and terrorist violence. Similarly, Sino-Indian negotiations on resolving the border question, while reiterating the need for a long-term solution, have not made any headway. In general, concerns of negative shifts in the future balance of power persuade the protagonists to adopt a more cautious policy. Thus, the driving forces for nuclear modernization remain in place. At the same time, the threat of horizontal proliferation has not abated due to various interest groups in the region. In the prevailing situation, any cooperation agreements or treaties that are signed without the bedrock foundation of mutual understanding will certainly not prove viable. This proposition has already proven true in South Asia where numerous attempts at establishing communications and “hot lines” between India and Pakistan have fallen into disuse when the crises came. A key to the region’s future lies in creating a foundation and framework for peace and security, which could function as a support base, especially during crises. Immediately after the 1998 nuclear tests, India and Pakistan conceded that since overt nuclearisation had occurred, the use of force and war were no longer feasible instruments of national policy. There remains an urgent need for a durable peace and security framework.

At this juncture, the region South Asia can take lessons form the experiences of Europe and the Middle East. In Europe earlier the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) agreement was reached and in the Middle East the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) structure was followed. With these experiences along with its own recent experience the region should produce the contours of a structure for a future regional peace process. The first lesson derived from the above is that a peace process will collapse if progress toward the resolution of the underlying conflict is stalled. And second, a healthy conflict resolution process would lay the basis for military restraint and confidence-building measures, which in turn reduces the role played by military forces. Third, a process of conflict resolution between two countries is better than one involving multiple actors. Lastly, the facilitation provides room for less friction and dilutes biases and agendas. The United States in particular and the international community in general have major stakes in preventing a nuclear conflagration in South Asia. Outside actors can play a major role in assuring stability in the region. The United States is now in a unique position to have leverage on both countries. The US can seek assurance independently from each country that it will desist from dangerous military practices that could trigger a crisis and ensure that command systems are effectively working in peacetime under recessed and non-mated conditions.

Crisis Management can also be a useful strategy to avoid conflict in the absence of a dialogue and process to resolve issues. Indo-Pakistani crises must be avoided or, if this is not possible, contained. Aside from taking diplomatic measures, the United States can help provide crisis stability by strengthening technical stability measures in both countries. The US can help leadership in both countries by throwing light on the “blind spots” that currently exist. It might consider establishing a cooperative arrangement with India and Pakistan and assist them by providing timely information that could alleviate their concerns, especially in crisis situation. The US is also capable to involve Russia and China so as to placate any concerns of India and Pakistan regarding objectivity. However, the possibility of US intervention might be a dangerous paradigm emerges in the region-reliance on US intervention to ensure stability. Worse, there is a potential danger that US policy-makers may begin to believe that South Asian crises can always be managed with US diplomatic assistance, and therefore, they may leave the two protagonists in their current status quo, to sort it out between themselves, until the next crisis. Therefore, in the long run, India and Pakistan must themselves accord a high priority to achieving a bilateral agreement on aerospace developments for surveillance and satellite monitoring. Such a confidence-building measure will be critical to the nuclear future of both India and Pakistan.

The nuclear stability-instability paradox is alive and well in the sub-continent. Nuclear stabilization will likely to rest on a unique mixture of transparency and survivability for nuclear capabilities, as well as creative monitoring arrangements that provide reassurance without increased vulnerability. It would be a mistake to assume that the current environment will be the environment of the future. Like the first nuclear age, the Cold War, there are likely to be ebbs and flows in competition, with different problems and shocks developing over time, interspaced with periods of relative calm. India has mainly responded to Pakistan’s nuclear build-up not with one of its own, but with strategy innovation, improved intelligence, missile, and a nuclear triad. The appearance of strategic innovation in South Asia is important, therefore, in a way that goes beyond the particulars of any one innovation. “Cold Start” policy of India provides fascinating insight into the dynamic interactions that shows how both countries have shifted from conventional war fighting to escalation strategies. This is not a matter of a conscious choice by either country; rather it is an emergent property of the interacting nuclear systems in South Asia. While escalation strategies have always existed in South Asia, they are now front and centre. This marks a fundamental change from the conventional attrition strategies of previous wars. Thus, in the current situation, enhancing Indian and Pakistani capabilities to ensure stability and peace and providing incentives to reduce the risk of a nuclear was is a goal that necessitates reconsideration of previous accepted principles and practices. The analysis of all these facts and dilemmas makes it urgent for India and Pakistan to follow these specific steps to ensure peace, development, and prosperity of the region.

  1. To enhance trust and confidence, adopt Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in different spheres.
  2. Both sides (India and Pakistan) will have to start negotiations on Kashmir without any preconditions in order to sit at the table.
  3. Negotiation on disputed issues should be made only between them with fair mind and open heart.
  4. Since both cannot realistically roll back their nuclear programs, an effective command, control, and surveillance system of their nuclear weapons is more important.
  5. Top priority should be set for arms control in South Asia with the help of regional/global methods.

Today, South Asia faces numerous challenges, including a backlog of mutual distrust, suspicion and hatred. The nuclearized states have fought three wars besides the one at Kargil and are in the middle of a long drawn out low intensity conflict, which may spin out of control and lead to a nuclear catastrophe in South Asia.