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Nuclear Proliferation Concerns in South Asia: Needs a pragmatic US approach


Paper no. 685           12. 03. 2004

by Dr Rajesh Kumar Mishra

Possession of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan has always been a matter of concern, as many believe that India-Pakistan conflict will eventually lead to nuclear exchange. With South Asia being called as nuclear flashpoint, few have even suggested denuclearisation of the region. But de-nuking in the immediate future is not at all a practical solution.  Rather, the imperatives of security require to focus on nuclear threat reduction. 

Today, threats are more related to the unstable nature of Pakistan as a nuclear weapons state than the existence of nuclear weapons as such in the region.  Frequent threats by Pakistan to use its nuclear arsenal and its refusal to adhere to No First Use have been the cause for worry not only to India but also to other countries interested in establishing a long term peace and security in the region. 

To divert the international attention from its own involvement in raising the nuclear security vulnerabilities to potential arms race in the region, Pakistan has proposed eventual denuclearisation of South Asia.  The Pakistani proposal lacks sincerity, as that includes conditions unacceptable to New Delhi. 

Behind a sustained proxy war against India, nuclear blackmailing and non-adherence to no-first-use (NFU) are two most deceiving elements of Pakistan’s nuclear strategy.  Further, the proven lack of reliability on the non-proliferation commitments made by Pakistan has added to the fears of weapons of mass destruction falling into the wrong hands. 

Even those who suggest for “limiting” or “capping” the existing arsenals in the region, they need to review the contending national security interests of India, China and Pakistan.  New Delhi believes that Pakistani nuclear development programme is entirely India specific whereas its own endeavours are not restricted to Pakistan only and reflect on greater strategic needs of the country for long term. 

With its ongoing military modernization  programme, China remains unchallenged with relatively much superior stock against India.  Though having an edge over Pakistan’s nuclear assets, India still has to acquire the credible deterrence capability against China. With an India-centric nuclear strategy and the status of possessing an Islamic bomb, Pakistan, despite its rhetoric to the contrary Pakistan is unlikely to give up its nuclear assets. 

In the presence of differing threat perceptions with the commonality of desire to hold nuclear arsenals as deterrence against each other, only risk reduction and confidence building measures can ensure a long lasting peace in the region.


The Pragmatic Approach:

Hunt for terrorist networks and international terrorist leaders like Osama-bin-Laden and the search for the possibility of their acquisition of weapons of mass destruction capacity are far from being over. Disarmament process in Iraq is yet to finish.  Nuclear crisis in Korean peninsula has been deepening since the North Korean clandestine uranium enrichment programme has come to light. Revelations of secret nuclear weapons development programmes and their collaborators related to the so called axis-of-evil states draw inevitable international attention on the credibility of the suspected proliferator nuclear weapons state like Pakistan. 

The US national security strategy has embarked upon pre-emptive strikes in the post September 11, 2001 for its fight against international terrorism and as a policy of counter-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.  For the recent exposures of proliferation as Pakistan being the easy source of men, materials and technologies for clandestine nuclear and missile development programmes worldwide, American concern for non-proliferation in South Asia may not be called unreasonable. 

In fact, ever since the inception of atoms for peace, world has been facing the challenge of universal acceptance for nuclear weapons as tool of national defence.  The cold war experience has taught that nuclear wars cannot be won, so should not be fought. However the existence of weapons of mass destruction on the earth is reality today for varying threat perceptions.  In past few years, the changing realities of new emerging links between WMD and international terrorism have further complicated the nonproliferation concerns of international community. US also seems committed to pay more attention than ever before to nonproliferation issues in minimising nuclear threats worldwide. In the case of South Asia, the course of US policy is still evolving both in nature and scope. 

The US has so far refused to acknowledge the nuclear weapons status of India and Pakistan and has imposed sanctions after the tests in 1998. Imposition of sanctions was followed by the American demand from the two countries to sign NPT and CTBT.  Meanwhile, though not accepting the nuclear status of the two countries, in post September 11, 2001 phase, with the hope of mending fences, Washington lifted many of the sanctions.  This action of US was more a gesture of reciprocity to their support to Washington in its war against terrorism than to genuinely follow its previously maintained policy of “carrot and stick”. Implicitly, US denies the status officially in public, but tacitly it is reconciled to the irreversible nuclear programmes in South Asia. 

However, US concern for nonproliferation remains still high in South Asia. But this concern now has got a new dimension attached with the regional and international security implications due to the threats emanating from nuclear Pakistan and for recent revelations of Pakistan as violator of nonproliferation norms.  Despite having credible evidence against unreliable Pakistan and associated international pressure, however, US for its own interest with Pakistan has shown reluctance to react appropriately.  Even if Washington unofficially recognises the need to pressurise Pakistan, it refuses to act with the apprehension of Pakistan being isolated.  It appears to treat on par of a state with an impeccable record of nonproliferation with another whose credentials have been suspect for a long time.

Though, India is committed to the world free from weapons of mass destruction, the security imperatives of the country addresses the building of minimum credible nuclear deterrence.  Pakistan stands as unstable nuclear weapons state in the neighbourhood.  China poses for greater strategic challenge to India in whole of Asia and beyond.  In the past, both Pakistan and China not independently but also jointly have conspired to violate international nonproliferation norms to make India wary of peace and security in the region. 

It appears to many that the historical animosity between India and Pakistan may eventually end up in a nuclear exchange.  The fear of potential nuclear flashpoint is such that the world community has been looking forward to an early diffusion of long standing India-Pakistan conflict on the issues related to Kashmir.  But, who is responsible to raise such unwarranted fear internationally for nuclear strikes in the region? India with its commitment to NFU certainly cannot be clubbed with any irresponsible nuclear possessor state like Pakistan in the international security environment. Primarily Pakistanis are responsible for raising the alarm by making repeated threat calls to nuke India.  The subsequent Indian replies in the war of words make the danger more apparent.  However, the real dangers of nuclear threats lie somewhere else. 

The advocates of confidence building measures between India and Pakistan should look into the following aspects: 

The roots of nuclear blackmailing: Pakistan sponsored cross-border terrorism 

In fact, the long drawn nuclear sabre-rattling between India and Pakistan has its root in Pakistan supported cross-border terrorism against India. Islamabad follows a strategy to keep the Kashmiri cauldron boiling and constantly India bleeding through fomenting anti-India terrorists activities. Having realised Indian superiority in conventional warfare, Pakistan adopted the nuclear route. With its existing nuclear capability, Pakistan tactfully makes hoax calls for nuclear strikes in the region every time India poses for punitive preemptive conventional steps against Pakistan.  By keeping the option open for nuclear first strike in retaliation to India’s punitive military measures, Pakistan has been perpetuating nuclear threats in the region. It is followed by rhetoric from both sides to further augment the international concern.  Unless, Pakistan is made to stop cross-border infiltration in to the Indian territory, supporting and harbouring terrorists with international links, it may be unreasonable to expect self-restraint from India. 

Dangerous nuclear weapons deployment strategy of Pakistan:

It should be obvious to Pakistan that any decision to nuke India will be suicidal and yet it has not failed to threaten to use nuclear weapons frequently.  It is worth remembering that the same General Musharraf was planning for intrusion in Kargil when Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif were drawing strategies for peaceful Lahore Declaration in 1999. Since then the Pakistani President at numerous occasions has threatened to take nuclear strikes against India in case of “eventuality”.  The “eventuality” as enumerated by the Director of Strategic Planning Division of Pkaistan reflects unreliable conceptualistaion and questionable nuclear decision making procedures.  The thresholds for any first strike are - space threshold, military threshold, economic strangling and domestic destabilization. 

Pakistan has shown intentions to use nuclear weapons even in unprovoked circumstances. At three occasions -in mid 1980s, in 1987 and April-May 1990, Pakistan had considered to take nuclear strikes against India.  The deployment strategy in Pakistan also suggests that the weapons are in deployed conditions even during the peacetime. Unlike India, where, the three components of weapons deployment-core, weapon frame and delivery systems, are presumably kept at three separate locations under different authorities, Pakistan’s weapons deployment components are singularly under the control of Army and are quite closely stored at Army bases.  In such circumstance, the possibility of any Pakistani strike for both advertent and accidental reasons remains high and constantly examinable. 

Jehadis and the bomb:

Both the state and jehadi establishments in Pakistan believe that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are solely against India.  The Lashkar-e-Taeba (LET) chief, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed has been quoted saying that his people control two Pakistani nuclear warheads and they were ready any moment to bring them down on the heads of Islam’s enemies.  LET has been responsible for numerous killings of innocent Indians and terrorist strikes in the Indian soil.  A recent revelation that the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was murdered because he had several information on Pakistan’s nuclear secrets and links with the Al-Qaeda, raises further concern for the nuclear safety and security of nuclear weapons in Pakistan.  Pakistan’s nuclear weapons components are highly vulnerable to unauthorised agents who have strong linkages with extremists and Islamic fundamentalists. 

Pakistan as a proliferator state:

With the growing homogeneity of strong Pan Islamic affiliations worldwide, Pakistan may be an enabler of nuclear capabilities to those who have either helped it in past or who have motivation for acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. Pakistan as a state actor itself acts as a proliferator entity. 

It has been widely alleged that the scientific community of Pakistan brazenly undertook ventures in transferring know-how of nuclear and missile developments to both the state and non-state actors.  It raises suspicion for Pakistan being the most dangerous proliferator state in the world. (For details see the previous papers of the same author-Nuclear Scientific Community of Pakistan: Clear and Present Danger to Nonproliferation and Pakistan as a proliferator state: Blame it on Dr. A.Q. Khan, )   

The Indian responsibility:

Indian must work on a long term counter-terrorism strategy against Pakistan. As far as India’s diplomacy under nuclear conditions is concerned, the Indian emissaries should be more proactive in presenting the needs and expectations of the country at international forums.  To an extent, for the inadequate diplomatic efforts in countering the nuclear blackmailing strategy of Pakistan at international forums, Kashmir has been disproportionately internationalised.  No matter, whether Pakistan gains or not by ringing the nuclear terror alarm, India should participate in every bilateral or multilateral effort that involves risk reduction of nuclear exchange in the reason. Bilateral mutual understanding for nuclear risk reduction will provide better long term stability in the region.  As far as the US interests in the Asian region is concerned, Indian must persuade US to look beyond Pakistan for a better long-term US-India strategic partnership.  However, any US-India talk should give priority to the measures to effectively deal with the nuclear blackmailing of Pakistan. 

The road ahead for US:

US for its own interest wants to maintain a delicate balance in relationship with India and Pakistan.  It may, however, not overlook the Indian security concerns with a belligerent Pakistan in the region for long.  New Delhi’s demand, from US to prepare its coalition partner in war against international terrorism, Pakistan, to stop cross-border terrorism against India that has larger ramifications for international security as well, is quite justified. Islamabad’s efforts to meet the Indian demand will certainly help in reducing the nuclear sabre-rattling in the region. 

In dealing with Pakistan, US should devise policies for careful monitoring because stiff sanctions to control proliferation may produce negative outcomes.  Similar to the barter deal as nukes for missile with North Korea or transfer of nuclear weapons technology and missiles to Saudi Arabia in lieu of receiving financial assistance, Pakistan may position itself as an easy source of sensitive nuclear and missile technologies.  In such situation, more calibrated measures may be required, ranging from confidence building dialogues to technical assistance to finally forced disarmament.  Measures should also be taken to discourage Pakistan of its motivation for the use of nuclear weapons in any escalating conflict between India and Pakistan. Conditional economic and scientific assistance could be catalytic to such measures. 

On the basis of available literature and information, it is possible to catalogue the nature and extent of Pakistan’s proliferations activities.  Constant watch on the movements of nuclear scientists of Pakistan should be undertaken in time.  Technical assistance could also be provided to protect Pakistan’s nuclear complex from unauthorised entities. Material protection, control and accounting should be monitored at regular intervals. Pakistan must be dissuaded from maintaining links of official institutions with the extremist enteritis/groups both inside and outside the country. 

As a confidence building measure, both India and US should be more active and mutually cooperative in sharing of information.  America’s restrictive sharing of information for not disclosing methods of gathering information is understandable.  But the way Colin Powell once explained the reason regarding Pakistan-North Korea secret deal could prove counterproductive. The US Secretary of Defence had mentioned in an interview with Tim Russert in Meet the Press programme on NBC Television on October 20, 2002, that “….I don’t want to go back into the past because it would involve some sources and methods that I’d just as soon not discuss”.  It is worth remembering that as early as in 1999, at the Kandla port Indian officials had seized the North Korean shipment to Pakistan. US has shown reluctance in taking cognisance of such Indian information in the past too. 

Pakistan’s compliance with its commitment to stop cross-border terrorism “permanently” will immensely benefit early resolution of several disputing issues between India and Pakistan. Confidence building for long lasting peace and security can only be assured if both India and Pakistan respond to each other’s security concerns reasonably.

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