Nuclearisation of South Asia:
The geopolitical dimension

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Contributing Editor Dr SHIREEN M MAZARI

discusses the geopolitical parameters of the

next important question confronting SOUTH ASIA




The Pakistan-India relationship has defined the strategic disunity of South Asia since 1947. Since independence, Indian leaders have sought to play the role of a hegemon in South Asia. They have used a two-pronged strategy to achieve this purpose:

One: A diplomatic offensive at the global level to compensate for its military weakness — including seeking leadership of the NAM and the Panch Sheel Doctrine in relation to China.

Two: Laying the base for its indigenous military capability as well as building up its military arsenal. The second aspect gained prominence after 1962 and the Sino-Indian conflict.

The development of India’s nuclear programme must also be seen in this framework.

In the Indian perception being a dominant state in an area does not mean that it actually controls the policies of the neighbouring countries. It simply means that it is with India’s acquiescence that any other great power exercises influence in this area.1 India has always considered herself to be an important nation, in her own right destined and determined to play an important role in world affairs.2 In this connection, for India her foreign relations were especially important since she felt that despite not being a great power, her geography, size and history made it difficult for the world to ignore her. Nehru was aware not only of India’s shortcomings in the economic and military spheres in 1947, but also of the psychological impact of the creation of Pakistan upon the Indian psyche.3

And so non-alignment for India was a strategy for participating in global politics from a militarily weak base, in order to promote national interest. Nehru believed that India, constituted as she is, cannot play a secondary part in the world,4 and he attempted to utilise diplomacy as a substitute for economic and military power.

The Sino-Indian conflict

Although India herself had used military force to incorporate Goa into the Indian state in 1961, she was unprepared for the conflict over territory with China. The 1962 Sino- Indian war signalled the failure of India’s attempts to rely on diplomacy and moralistic appeals to the world at large as substitutes for economic and military resources necessary for a great power role. From this point on, India accepted the massive inflow of military and economic assistance that was readily on offer from the West - along with military and economic assistance from the Soviet Union that had already been there. India’s security policy focus also shifted to more specific regional concerns - from China to Pakistan and the fear of collusion between these two states. The Chinese nuclear tests in 1964 acted as a further accelerator on India’s own nuclear development and at the declaratory level India became more vocal in demanding tangible progress towards disarmament by the super powers and the provision of positive security guarantees by the super powers for non-nuclear weapon states.


Pakistan saw itself as an important new addition to the Islamic world, but the central focus of Pakistan’s security concerns since 1947 was India. The historical origins of the conflict are well-known and even after over 51 years of independence, relations between Pakistan and India have remained in a state of flux with the two states having fought three wars against each other and been involved in numerous border skirmishes. With an immediate exposed weakness in the field of defence, and Pakistan’s ruling elite’s leanings towards the West, Pakistan not only failed to evolve a regional answer to the Indian threat, it chose to rely on US-sponsored defence alliances and pacts and imported weapons systems. No effort was initially made to lay the base for a well-planned indigenous defence production strategy. Also, despite the aid under the 1953 Atoms for Peace programme, Pakistan did not pay attention to developing a long-term nuclear strategy which would coordinate operational and declaratory postures.

From Tashkent to Bangladesh

The 1965 war showed the limits of the US alliances and the risks involved in relying almost solely on external sources of weapons supplies. But it was the creation of Bangladesh that finally showed the futility of Pakistan’s alliance with the US. Also, the reality of the threat from India and the reluctance of allies like the US to provide the necessary support compelled a complete restructuring of Pakistan’s defence potential— including laying the base for the development of an indigenous arms industry and an expansion of Pakistan’s almost non- existent nuclear programme. The Indian nuclear explosion in 1974 further accelerated the need to develop the country’s nuclear potential.

But throughout the most prominent feature of Pakistan’s security policy has been its reactive nature.

Present situation

The conflict between India and Pakistan continues to dominate the strategic disunity of South Asia, despite global and regional structural changes over the decades. After the 1971 crisis, and the signing of the Simla Agreement with India in 1972, Pakistan finally gave de facto recognition to India’s dominant status in the subcontinent. In the Simla Agreement, the framework was laid for future Indo-Pakistan relations and Pakistan agreed to a long-standing Indian demand by consenting to deal with all issues, except Kashmir which was already on the UN agenda, between the two states on a bilateral basis, but that framework has been subject to differing interpretations on both sides.

According to Indian analysts like Misra, never before in the history of the two countries an agreement of such far-reaching consequences had been concluded.5 Despite this, the conflictual relationship persists and continues to be a major influence in shaping intra-regional relations.

At the same time the Pakistani psyche has undergone subtle shifts in its perception of India as a result of its experiences in the three Indo - Pakistan wars and the creation of Bangladesh.

Increasingly, Pakistan has viewed its strength negatively in relation to India, abandoning the psychological ascendancy that was propagated in the early years of Independence through popularisation of the belief that one Muslim soldier was equivalent to at least four Hindu ones! This altered perception has had a tremendous impact upon Pakistan’s security perceptions-especially within the subjective context of the notion of security as the absence of fear of an attack on acquired values. So, noticeably, Pakistan perceives itself as having recognised the new power imbalance in the subcontinent and as having made concessions on a number of issues in relation to India since the Afghan crisis all of which are perceived as having gained little substantive response from India. For instance, compare General Zia’s no-war pact offer to India with Indian incursions into Siachin; Benazir’s conciliatory policies towards India - where the agreement not to attack each other’s nuclear facilities means that either Pakistan will have to reveal all her nuclear programme (which unlike India’s is not public) or the non-declared facilities will continue to be under threat of attack - with India’s response to the Kashmiri freedom struggle; the Sharif government’s renewal of talks and an offer of a non-aggression pact with Indian hostile posturing, throughout 1997, from the MiG incursion to the deployment of Prithvi to the testing of Trishul.

So, Pakistan’s prevailing threat perception remains India and with the present freedom struggle in Kashmir, this threat perception becomes more acute. And the situation on the ground continues to highlight Pakistan’s physical vulnerabilities that prevailed in earlier decades. For instance, it continues to face the problem of spatial depth. And its main and transport communication link, running North to South remains susceptible to air and ground interdiction and its urban population and industrial centres remain concentrated within easy reach of the Indian border - as do its defence installations. In addition, India’s force posture is such as to aggravate Pakistan’s threat perception. For instance, out of 35 divisions, 32 are placed within striking distance of Pakistan. The land forces deployed against China have since been pulled out and reoriented towards the Pakistan border and Indian-Held Kashmir. Only one brigade has been left on the Chinese border.

Given this imbalance of conventional power against Pakistan and the failure of a viable defence through alliances, for Pakistan there is no option but a nuclear deterrence. Within this context, the conduct of nuclear tests by India and the use of this opportunity by Pakistan has presented Pakistan with an opportunity to establish a stable nuclear deterrence in South Asia. Such a nuclear deterrence/defence will allow Pakistan the flexibility to engage in limited military encounters with India and compel India to keep such engagements limited. And, imbalances in nuclear forces do not have the same significance since nuclear weapons are absolute weapons.

Of course, now that both Pakistan and India have chosen to become overt nuclear weapon states, the reasons for their decisions have been written about and discussed all over the globe, in the press and the electronic media. But some clear and relevant differences, not only in the raison d’etre of the two countries to go nuclear but also in the manner in which they moved to that end, need to be highlighted for they help in understanding the nature of the two states and the psyche of the decision makers.

The nuclear rationales - India

External policy: Undoubtedly India has been aiming for nuclear weapon status since the inception of its nuclear programme and it has always tied its commitment to nuclear disarmament to the provision of equitable international treaties on this issue. At the same time given India’s huge conventional military forces (which tilted the conventional balance heavily in India’s favour in relation to Pakistan) and China’s commitment to a nuclear no-first-use- as well as the growing detente that was developing between China and India — there really was no pressing security need for India to test a nuclear device. There was already a covert, non-weaponised nuclear deterrence prevailing in South Asia which had maintained a minimal level of strategic stability.

So what were India’s external policy reasons? Firstly, for those of us who had been predicting that India would test again before it eventually signed the CTBT, one clear reason was India’s global ambitions. Even during the ‘panch sheel’ period, India flexed its military muscle wherever it could - Kashmir and Goa being two early examples. After the war with China, India focused on developing its weapons capabilities and also chose to go the great power route by first asserting itself as a regional power. Its quest for a UN SC permanent member seat made it realise that it would have to acquiesce to the major international treaties, like the CTBT. But it also knew that it could never accept these, except on the basis of being recognised as a nuclear weapon power. And so, ever since the CTBT opened for signatures, some of us were anticipating the Indian nuclear tests.

Linked to this desire for great power status was the issue of national pride - especially Hindu pride - that underlay the rise of the BJP. In fact, the BJP symbolises the merging of Hindu fundamentalism and Indian militarism - a deadly combination - and the BJP’s rhetoric as well as its political agenda reaffirm this symbiosis.

Internal policy: India’s BJP was stuck with a coalition to maintain itself in power and was inherently a weak government. So it undoubtedly hoped to improve its domestic position by the nuclear explosions and Hindu jingoism. Also, the morale and discipline of the Indian military was eroding - especially in Indian-held Kashmir in the case of the army. As for the Indian Air Force, it suffered public strikes by its officers last year. So, the nuclear tests were also seen as a morale booster for the Indian military.


External policy: In contrast, for Pakistan there was a very real security threat from India in terms of the conventional imbalance. Yet Pakistan’s decision-makers had chosen, over the years, to maintain an ambiguous, non- weaponised nuclear posture - despite the history of Indian aggression and despite suffering sanctions on account of being accused of having nuclear ambitions. The Indian nuclear tests immediately exposed the vulnerability of such a posture as well as removing all credibility from this covert deterrence. So Pakistan’s tests were a direct response to its security needs - no more and no less.

Internal policy: In the case of Pakistan, the government in power had been elected with an unprecedented mandate and was focused on restructuring the economy. There was also growing talk of defence cuts so that more resources could be redirected to the social sector. While there was also pressure to rectify the declining conventional capability of the forces, especially the Pakistan Air Force, this was not directly linked to the nuclear issue.

In fact, the Sharif government seemed to be content to continue the ambiguous nuclear posture of the previous governments, while supporting the development of a greater indigenous weapons capability, until India altered the strategic milieu by its nuclear tests. Already, Pakistan had had to respond to India’s deployment of the Prithvi missile by test-firing the Ghauri missile. The Indian nuclear tests once again created a new security dilemma for Pakistan.

Nuclear Pakistan Rationalising policy options

Pakistan’s nuclear weapon status requires a re - framing of policies not only with an end to rationalising this status but also to asserting the altered political and security dimensions that the nuclear status implies. This paper lays down the military and political policy initiatives now required to accommodate the nuclear reality - with the underlying implication that the two dimensions must work in tandem rather than in isolation.

The military dimension

By conducting the nuclear tests, Pakistan reestablished the stability of the nuclear deterrence in South Asia - a stability that had been destroyed when India conducted its nuclear tests. But the maintenance of this stability requires more extensive policy formulations at the strategic level. For the parametres have altered with the South Asian nuclear deterrence moving from a covert, non-weaponised status to an overt, weaponised status. The new nuclear realities call for more specific doctrines and policy initiatives.

To begin with, Pakistan needs to rationalise its nuclear deterrence in the long-term; and that it can only do if it can credibly present to the other side the scenario where the enemy knows that in the face of any aggression Pakistan will have no choice but to go nuclear - since it cannot meet the enemy’s threat in conventional terms. Thus it makes no sense for Pakistan to enter into a no - first use agreement with India - apart from the fact that in relation to the swift time/space of the delivery systems involved, who will establish who fired the first nuclear salvo, in any case?

Instead, for Pakistan to maintain a credible nuclear deterrence it must now go for mutual conventional arms cuts - focussing on offensive systems and troop thinnings along the border. An appropriate model to follow is the Paris Treaty which established conventional arms cuts for Europe. And in relation to offensive weapons on the ground, India cannot use the China - threat argument since most of these weapons, especially offensive armour, are Pakistan specific and primarily deployed against Pakistan.

Nor do the conventional arms cuts deprive either country of their military capability - in terms of defence. And given the pressure for defence cuts from society, the nuclear capability now offers both countries the chance to trim the defence budgets and the fat off its conventional forces. For Pakistan, the pressure for defence cuts will continue to grow - notwithstanding the present nuclear euphoria - so it must move in that direction before it is pushed into it willy nilly. At the very least, it must put before India a viable conventional arms cuts proposal - which, if India rejects it, will allow Pakistan a diplomatic/ political booster.

Along with conventional arms cuts, Pakistan and India need to strengthen their confidence and security building measures - especially in the military field. The various hot lines and advance notice agreements need to be kept more steadily in operation. Finally, Pakistan has to rationalise its nuclear doctrines. After all, the fact of the matter is that as long as war remains a rational instrument of state policy - and the international community has not outlawed war per se so far - every state must have the right to fight it as efficiently as possible. And that is what the nuclear weapon states have been doing by incorporating their nuclear weapons into their military war-fighting doctrines. From tactical nuclear weapons to neutron bombs - which the Americans wanted to deploy in Europe so that in case of a war the industrial infrastructures would not be destroyed, only the people would —the five so - far de jure nuclear weapons powers have never renounced the nuclear option. Nor can Pakistan renounce this option, for the nuclear option answers Pakistan’s security concerns more soundly and completely than conventional weapons ever could - and never did, given India’s preponderance in this field.