The 28th of May this year marks the 19th anniversary of Pakistan’s nuclear tests in response to India’s nuclear tests earlier that month in 1998. It is a reminder of the tough choice Pakistan had to make to evade the existential threat that it faced; had it opted not to go nuclear. Faced with a hostile neighbor with conventionally superior forces; it had to decide between more economic sanctions, international isolation or survival. Along with the threat of crippling sanctions, the US tried to coerce Pakistan from conducting nuclear tests, using tactics such as economic assistance and provision of supply of the F-16s that Pakistan had already paid for. However, Pakistan’s decision to test depicted in unambiguous terms the fact that its national security did not have a price. The country had realised that any bargain short of an independent nuclear deterrent would jeopardise Pakistan’s security and stability for years to come. Both the civilian and military government echoed in unison that India’s hegemonic ambitions would not sit well for Pakistan’s future.
Nineteen years hence, as India continues to augment its nuclear arsenal sans any international pressure, the strategic environment in South Asia is shifting in its favour once again. The Indo-US nuclear deal, which was one of a kind and customised to India’s demands, has had serious ramifications for the precarious nuclear balance in the region. The spin-offs of the nuclear deal and the subsequent Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver are still fueling the regional strategic anxieties. Originally, some 14 out of its 22 power reactors were to be put under IAEA safeguards, however later an additional four reactors were added to the list. The remaining eight nuclear reactors and fast breeder reactors (FBR) program remains conveniently outside any safeguards; which essentially means that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) legitimized vertical proliferation in a state outside the Treaty for Nonproliferation of Nuclear weapons (NPT). This exceptionalism not only undermined the NPT framework; but has also questioned the IAEA’s role as an independent international body mandated to promote peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology while curbing the use of nuclear technology for military purposes.
The deal ensured the supply of fissile material to India with no-strings attached, while benefiting its nuclear weapons program in two significant ways. Firstly, India’s existing stockpile of fissile material alongside the material kept outside the IAEA safeguards can be directed, without any check and balance, towards its military program. Secondly, the excess material can be used by India to produce plutonium, a key ingredient in compacting and miniaturizing nuclear warheads, in essence allowing India to produce large quantities of multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), submarine based ballistic missiles (SLBMs), ballistic missile interceptors and Inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). A recent report on India’s Nuclear Exceptionalism, released by the Harvard Belfer Center states in this regard that, “outside safeguards, the breeder reactors are … likely to directly contribute to an exponential increase in weapons-grade plutonium production compared to India’s entire production history of this material for the past six decades [emphasis added].”
With both India and Pakistan developing credible sea-based second-strike capabilities the same old predicament faces Pakistan again. The Indian acquisition and development of Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) systems, nuclear submarines (SSBNs) equipped with SLBMs, both with and without MIRVs, have opened up new avenues of competition. Coupled with India’s nuclear weapons modernization and continued fissile material production, the issue of intent is also undergoing a visible change. The recent debate emerging from statements made by Indian policymakers as well as former officials, about a possible shift in India’s No-first use nuclear policy to that of a preemptive first use strategy; highlights some important points to consider about the Indian nuclear strategy. Such a shift to a preemptive nuclear strategy by India would be ominous for the South Asian security while it confirms Pakistan’s fears of Indian preemption against its nuclear arsenal. At another level, the shift exposes India’s aggressive state policy as opposed to the oft-propagated ‘responsible nuclear state’ narrative. One cannot but underline the impact of current geo-politics in promoting such dangerous policies. More so, the western powers led by their economic interests, are conveniently looking away from the strategic stability implications of India’s defence and nuclear build-up. The geopolitical consequences of countering China’s rise have also lead these global powers to aid and abet India’s conventional and arms build-up, trumping the stability and nonproliferation implications of such a policy.
The current Indian strategy essentially impels Pakistan to takes measures for maintaining the strategic stability in South Asia. Pakistan’s nuclear policy, which envisaged maintaining a ‘credible minimum deterrent’ without entering into a costly arms race; should stay its course irrespective of countering each and every modernisation aspect in India’s arsenal; while at the same time it should ensure the credibility of its nuclear deterrent as well as the robustness of its command and control infrastructure.
Finally, though the nuclear weapons have kept both states from fighting wars; the peace has been precarious at best, interrupted often by crisis and tensions. The current attitude of war mongering and jingoism undertaken by India portends a dangerous behavior, which would fuel regional instability.
Dialogue and communication is the key to dispel the mutual distrust and ensure regional stability between both nuclear-armed adversaries. However, it takes two to tango. While India is bent upon making efforts to ‘isolate Pakistan’ and invest in destabilizing it internally; Pakistan’s efforts should be focused, in the meanwhile, on consolidation of its national power; as nuclear weapons are not a panacea for all the ills that afflict Pakistan’s comprehensive security.