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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Twenty years of nuclearization of South Asia: Lessons, challenges and way forward

Syed Adnan Athar Bukhari |

2018 marks twenty years of nuclearization of South Asia. India, though implicitly conducted its nuclear tests under the garb of Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) in 1974, explicitly declared itself a Nuclear Weapon State by conducting five nuclear tests on May 11 and 13, 1998.

Pakistan, which called for many proposals to keep South Asia as a nuclear weapon free zone in pre-nuclearized South Asia, was shunned by India.

The international community pressurized Pakistan not to follow suit. The country was faced with a paradox of domestic pressures for going nuclear and respond to the Indian nuclearization and at the same time was facing external pressure to remain non-nuclear in exchange for aids and incentives. Pakistan did not succumb to the external pressure and conducted six nuclear tests on May 28 and 30, 1998. Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons was purely based on security imperatives. It has been a staunch supporter of arms control and disarmament but it was left with no other option but to go nuclear. Every year, Pakistan celebrates May 28 as “Youm-e-Takbeer”—the day of greatness.

Twenty years since the declaration of these two South Asian states as Nuclear Weapons States, the questions arise, what role did these nuclear weapons played for the security of South Asia? What lessons, if any, did India and Pakistan learn from this? What key strategic developments took place in the last twenty years? And what challenges are being faced by these South Asian states? This article will try to address these questions. It will also give some recommendations for a peaceful South Asia.

As far as the role of nuclear weapons in South Asia is concerned, there are two schools of thought known as nuclear optimists and nuclear pessimists.

The former school views nuclear weapons as a source of stability. For instance, John J. Mearsheimer claimed that nuclear weapons are a superb deterrent as they create fear for the attacker – a fear of a horrific nuclear response. In South Asia, nuclear deterrence worked in the 1999 Kargil Conflict, the 2001-02 Border Stand-off or the Twin Peaks Crisis and the 2008 Mumbai attacks crisis. In these three cases though, crisis situations developed but both states observed restraint. Tensions could not escalate into a full-fledged war. However, there are explanations that international mediation, particularly by the US, also played an important role in defusing tensions between the two nuclear arch rivals in these cases.

Read more: Nuclear weapons solidifying defensive fence

The nuclear pessimists consider the presence of nuclear weapons as an open challenge for the Nuclear Non-proliferation regime and a threat to regional and international peace and security. For instance, Scott D. Sagan fears the chances of preventive wars, crisis instability, and accidental nuclear explosions because of the very presence of nuclear weapons. This school believes that introduction of nuclear weapons in South Asia made it a tipping point of nuclear war. The region was also declared as the most dangerous place on the earth on the concerns of proliferation in South Asia. There are chances of unabated nuclear and missile arms race by the two developing economies of South Asia.

Both India and Pakistan adopt a policy of credible minimum deterrence but there are questions over the minimum numbers required for credible deterrence. This entangles both India and Pakistan in a fix of ‘how much is enough?’

The SIPRI estimated, in 2017, that India possessed about 120-130 nuclear weapons and Pakistan held 130-140 nuclear weapons. The growing numbers of nuclear weapons are viewed as a catalyst of deterrence but at the same time also poses challenges for their safety and security.

Both India and Pakistan learned to develop organized command and control structures in their respective states. India established Nuclear Command Authority and Pakistan developed National Command Authority. India has achieved its nuclear triad based on delivery systems in land, air, and sea. Pakistan is also capable of delivering nuclear weapons through land, air, and sea. Both states are modernizing their nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles. For instance, India is developing the Ballistic Missile Defense system to intercept and destroy any upcoming missile to save its major cities. At the same time, Pakistan developed ‘Ababeel’ Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs) to multiply the warhead within one missile. These kinds of developments are aimed at preserving the security of the respective states, however, they may be inherently perilous for the overall strategic stability of South Asia.

India makes its threat assessment by considering China and Pakistan as two main challenges for its security policy. For that matter, it is expanding its strategic partnership with the US and signed the Defense deal, Civil Nuclear partnership and Logistics Exchange agreement.

The US and Indian interests converge in the regional alignment. Both strive to check Chinese rise. India’s threat assessment has put Pakistan into a security dilemma. To ensure its security and survival, Pakistan has to spend heavily on its defense.

Read more: India conducts successful nuclear flight test

India adopted a ‘No First Use’ policy but there is speculation that India might abandon this policy and might transform to a policy of flexible response. This strategy, instead of relying on massive retaliation, stresses on using conventional weapons while nuclear weapons are sought as weapons of last resort. This transformation is mainly taking place because India is pursuing for its Cold Start doctrine and proactive strategy. Pakistan introduced Nasr missile as a Tactical Nuclear Weapon (TNW) that significantly dented Indian strategy of the Cold Start. Pakistan adopted the policy of ‘Full Spectrum Deterrence’ i.e. to achieve deterrence at both strategic and tactical levels. Through the acquisition of TNWs, there is an impression that Pakistan is capable of defending against limited war and thus conveys its adversary to reconsider its proactive strategy.

The two nuclear armed South Asian states are witnessing an ongoing low-intensity conflict across the working boundary and Line of Control since 2013.

The revelation of Kulbhushan Yadav, an Indian spy captured by Pakistan for fomenting subversive activities in Baluchistan. The Pathankot incident in January 2016, the Uri incident in September 2016 and the Indian claim of a surgical strike in late September 2016 indicate that India-Pakistan relations are moving towards a crisis like situation. Any crisis triggered by any event will endanger the whole region, inhibiting the 1.6 billion population, which constitutes 1/5th of the world population.

Given this scenario, three important steps are in need of the hour; first, India and Pakistan must develop a Crisis Management Mechanism to avoid any accidental or inadvertent use of nuclear weapons. Secondly, they must revive comprehensive composite dialogue in good faith and third, Pakistan’s proposal for Strategic Restraint Regime, which calls for limiting conventional and nuclear arms build-up, must be materialized with cooperation from India. These steps would contribute in making a peaceful South Asia.

Mr. Adnan Bukhari is working as a lecturer of International Relations at Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan and pursuing Ph.D. at the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies (DSS), Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU), Islamabad. He can be reached at s.adnanathar@yahoo.com. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.