The nuclear dilemmas of South Asia

An accelerating nuclear arms race between a fragile Pakistani government aiming at a strategic balance with India and an Indian state that ignores its neighbor's security concerns is on the verge of spiraling out of control, says Yogesh Joshi
Yogesh Joshi
2 June 2011

The first five months of the year 2011 do not augur well for the nuclear situation on the Indian sub-continent. During a meeting of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) earlier this year, Pakistan - again - categorically rejected the proposed Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, the bone of contention being the imbalance between India and Pakistan in terms of fissile material. Without a guarantee that India will not use its stocks for the production of nuclear weapons in future, Pakistan feels compelled to continue its production of nuclear material as well as nuclear weapons to catch up with India and maintain the fragile balance in the region.

India on the other hand, disregarding Pakistani sensitivities, continued testing its Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system, claiming that BMD has now been sufficiently developed to be fully integrated into its air defence framework by 2014. Pakistan reacted by test-firing a short-range nuclear ballistic missile in April. The introduction of these missiles into the arsenal of Pakistan's military forces would turn South Asia into a host of tactical nuclear weapons – miniaturised nuclear weapons intended for frequent use against conventional armies, thereby lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict and hence increasing the threat of a nuclear fiasco.

The arms race contributes to the security dilemma in the region that is on the verge of spiraling out of control. The situation is bound to deteriorate further due to the complete neglect of the other party's security concerns on both sides. Against the background of the prevalence of terrorism in the region and the danger of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorist groups the need to stop this arms race and mutual negligence is imperative.

Who’s dilemma?

It is true that India's continued production of fissile material, successful testing of the BMD, establishment of an aggressive military doctrine termed 'Cold Start', and avoidance of serious negotiations on Kashmir have made Pakistan extremely nervous. India's fissile material inventories are huge, totalling more than 600kg of weapons grade plutonium and 1300kg of reactor grade plutonium. Even after IAEA safeguards were put in place, thanks to the Indo-US nuclear deal, India’s fissile material production continues unabated. All heavy water reactors which produce reactor grade plutonium are not under IAEA's supervision. Moreover, the Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) programme - with a capability to produce large quantities of weapons grade plutonium - is entirely out of reach for inspections. Therefore, theoretically India could divert its fissile material to weapons production whenever it wishes to do so.

India also follows a strategy denying Pakistan any strategic space in the region. The BMD is directly motivated by the desire to blunt Pakistan's nuclear capability vis-a-vis India. The desire to emasculate Pakistan is also evident in the Indian Cold Start doctrine. Cold Start seeks to deliver a conventional punitive blow against Pakistan while avoiding a nuclear war. The fear in Pakistan is further aggravated by India's growing stocks of conventional weapons.

Pakistan, on the other hand, clearly focusses on the nuclear option. The integration of nuclear weapons into the basic security structure of Pakistan is on-going while nuclear red lines - thresholds under which a nuclear strike against the primary adversary India would be initiated - have been drastically reduced. Pakistan's national security discourse is mainly motivated by the revision of its borders with India and competition for regional supremacy. Therefore, nuclear weapons for Pakistan are not means to attain relative stability but a medium to challenge the status quo. As Shaun Gregory suggests, Pakistan's preference is for a 'managed nuclear instability' in order to keep the pot of Kashmir and more broadly South Asia boiling for years to come. To this end, Pakistan has made nuclear weapons its primary asset. Today, the country claims the world's fourth largest nuclear arsenal and is striving hard to increase the numbers even further. The process of rapid nuclear expansion in a state already torn apart by fundamentalism and economic destitution portends extreme danger.

Neglecting the other

India seeks to isolate itself from the dilemmas faced by Pakistan. It claims that its fissile material inventories are meant for energy purposes; that BMD is defensive in nature; that Cold Start has never been officially recognised; and finally that Kashmir can be brought to the negotiating table once Pakistan makes good on its promises to stop terrorism.

However, remaining in such a state of denial cannot satisfy Pakistan. On the contrary, it signals a serious lack of intent on India’s part to even understand the difficult situation Pakistan is in. The current state of negotiations on strategic matters suggest that Pakistan hardly figures in India's nuclear thinking. Whereas Pakistan is most active in international forums incriminating its neighbour, India on the other hand seems to play the role of a deaf elephant.

Three arguments can account for India's indifference. First, India's emergence at the global stage and Pakistan's concomitant slump into a vortex of political instability and economic chaos has created an impression in India that Pakistan is no worthy adversary any longer. With India's growing economic and political room to manoeuvre, the role of Pakistan in its external security dynamics is waning except when it comes to the issue of terrorism. Moreover, India considers the nuclearisation of the subcontinent to have settled the border dispute once and for all. Therefore, Pakistan's role as a negotiator in territorial conflicts is further diminished.

Second, the tenor of India's nuclear programme has always been influenced by the prestige-seeking nature of its scientific community. If testing a nuclear device was the overall objective of Indian scientists in the last century, both the FBR programmes as well as BMD have become the symbols of the 21st century. Control over such strategic technologies and their association with national security provide the scientific community with an unprecedented access to political power. Arms control therefore does not augur well with India's scientific community.

Lastly, unlike during times when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee undertook the 'leap of faith' during the Lahore summit in 1999, today both India and Pakistan lack the leadership which could jump start a serious process of arms control in the region. While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has shown some exemplary courage in starting a dialogue with Pakistan recently, the rapidly unfolding story of Pakistan's 'hand in glove' approach with international terrorism, evident in the killing of Osama bin Laden and the on-going trial of David Headley in connection with the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, has created a lot of skepticism in India over the viability of a dialogue with Pakistan. On the other hand, in the case of Pakistan, it has often been futile to talk to the civilian government since the real seat of power and influence rests not in Islamabad but in the military garrisons of Rawalpindi. The civilian leadership barely exists and the true leaders of the country – the army generals - hardly want to talk to India.

Time for unilateral gestures

India needs to start acknowledging the unfolding security dilemma in South Asia. Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal along with fundamentalism on the rise poses a grave threat to India and the region as a whole, the resolution of which requires empathy with the other side's concerns and a building of trust.

Unilateral gestures can play a crucial role. First, the Indian government should disavow the Cold Start doctrine, which is even questioned by the Indian army itself: Whereas many high level army officers have supported the doctrine in the past, the current chief of the Indian Army has called it a figment of India's think tank community. Moreover, there is a lack of coherence between the three defence services when it comes to fighting a limited war in the region. Both Navy and Air force blow their own, antagonistic trumpets: the former for air superiority and the latter for naval dominance. Cold Start has become a liability for the Indian government and has been used by Pakistan as an alibi for nuclear expansion.

Second, India’s objective in the region should be to maintain the offence-defence balance so that Pakistan is not prompted to increase its nuclear weapons arsenal drastically. Successful deployment of BMD in the region would pose an existential threat to Pakistan. Though India has a no first use policy, Pakistan has never accepted India's doctrine seriously. To stop Pakistan from unnecessary vertical proliferation, India must stop any further development of BMD. Such a move would send clear signals to Pakistan and the world that India is serious about maintaining the strategic balance in the region and does not seek to emasculate Pakistan. This would also embolden the civilian government vis-à-vis the military in Pakistan and motivate it to seek peace in the region.

Third, without understanding that Pakistan is a major stakeholder in the Kashmir conflict, India’s efforts to resolve the issue will remain futile. With growing unrest in the Kashmir valley, the timely resolution of the issue has become an imperative. It is important to start serious talks on Kashmir also in order to provide an amicable environment to discuss the lingering nuclear question in South Asia.

India needs to realise that even though Pakistan may be a troublesome neighbour it is there to stay and has to be engaged. A 'blind leap of faith' in uncharted territories is at times a better strategy than conscious brinksmanship.


The author would like to thank Prof. Nicholas Wheeler, Dr. Meenakshi Gopinath and Seema Kakran for organising a workshop on Trust Building in Nuclear Worlds. This article is inspired by the ideas shared during the workshop.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData