HOW STABLE IS SOUTH ASIA 14 YEARS AFTER POKHRAN II?
Author : C.Uday Bhaskar
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
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.
(This article first appeared in Reuters Blogon May 10, 2012.)