How stable is South Asia 14 years after Pokhran II?

May 10, 2012

(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Reuters)

On May 11, 1998, India carried out a nuclear test and became a de facto nuclear weapon power. A few weeks later, Pakistan followed suit and demonstrated its own nuclear weapon capability. The covert nuclear weapon status of the South Asian region had become unambiguous. India had crossed the nuclear Rubicon after it had first signalled its technological ability to do so in May 1974 — with what was described as a Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE).

Today, it is moot if the South Asian region has become more or less secure and stable as far as its strategic profile is concerned. The fact that Pakistan tested its Hatf III ballistic missile on the eve of the 14th anniversary of India’s Pokhran II nuclear tests is a poignant reminder of the dynamic and opaque nature of the regional WMD environment.

It may be recalled that on April 19, India tested its 5,000 km Agni V missile, thereby enhancing its deterrent capability — and the commitment to a NFU (No First Use) doctrine. The latter is predicated on absorbing a nuclear attack — should the exigency arise due to deterrence failure — but the Indian response would be ‘massive’ and overwhelming.

However, the regional framework is not limited to the India-Pakistan dyad and includes China — which is part of the extended southern Asian grid. Sino-Pak WMD cooperation is abiding and has both muddied and rendered more complex the challenge for India. The response matrix for India is to address two visible tracks — the Sino-Indian dyad and the Indo-Pak one — against the context of a subterranean Sino-Pak axis and define sufficiency in the most appropriate and affordable manner.

India’s status quo character is accepted by its principal interlocutor — China — and there does not appear to be any heightened anxiety about each other’s WMD capability, or that either side would resort to WMD brinkmanship to redress contentious issues such as the long standing territorial and border dispute. India has not sought equivalence with China in the WMD domain and is currently defining its own perch of sufficiency and mutuality.

But the same cannot be said about how the Pakistani WMD arsenal is perceived and Rawalpindi’s own comprehension of its strategic capabilities. Pakistan’s deep and congenital insecurity apropos India goes back to October 1947 and the loss of East Pakistan in the 1971 war for Bangladesh is embedded in the Pakistani military psyche. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who became the PM after the war, provided the political support for the Pakistani ‘bomb’ and A.Q. Khan was one of his protégés who provided the purloined technical support.

Pakistan, it was presumed, needed the nuclear weapon to assuage its anxiety and insecurity vis-à-vis India and a very promising start was made in February 1999 when India and Pakistan signed the Lahore Accord to lay the foundation for WMD stability. PMs Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz  Sharif seemed to exude the kind of maturity and restraint that the world welcomed.

Alas, this proved to be misplaced and was aborted in the May 1999 Kargil War. The world watched with bated breath as Pakistan under the flamboyant and feckless General Musharraf sought to alter a territorial issue by alluding to WMD capability. The nightmare of revisionism by taking recourse to nuclear capability had become a reality.

In the interregnum from May 1998, the world has gone through the enormity of 9/11 and the emergence of the non-state entity who is cognisant of the WMD capability; the A.Q. Khan nuclear Wal-mart iceberg which has been adroitly masked; anxiety about the physical safety of the Pakistani arsenal; radicalisation of elements within the Pakistani military and some disturbing linkages between North East and South Asia as regards WMD proliferation.

Cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles have become very visible in the inventory of both India and Pakistan and their deterrence stability index is suspect. Legitimate claims by the Indian scientists about the technical accomplishment acquired — as for instance in the case of the Agni V — have been imbued by the external interlocutor with strategic import that is both invalid and dangerous. Nationalist rhetoric has raced ahead of a jagged reality — and China has added its bit most recently in April.

There is limited dialogue between India and Pakistan at the official level about each other’s WMD capabilities and intent — and what little exists is in the Track II domain. WMD stability is predicated on proven techno-strategic capability, objective transparency and deft signalling.  During the Cold War, the U.S. and the former USSR had a stable of professionals and experts who were marinated in arms control minutiae. Yes, there was an element of good fortune in the manner that an actual nuclear exchange or accident was averted during the menacing Cold War decades but the professionals laid a sturdy foundation.

Southern Asia will need more than luck to manage its muddied and opaque WMD eco-system. The 14th anniversary of the May 1998 nuclear test is an opportune moment to embark on this arduous task.

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