Twenty Years of S Asian Nuclearisation By Moonis Ahmar

In May 1998, India and Pakistan tested their nuclear devices which plunged South Asia into a relentless nuclear arms race. Since then, the nuclearisation of South Asia has been a reality but the region is as insecure as it was before.
On May 11, 1998 when India conducted three and on May 13 two nuclear tests, Pakistan had the option either to respond accordingly or not to follow New Delhi’s going nuclear and subsequent systematic acts of provocation. From May 11 till May 28, two types of pressures were exerted on Pakistan: First, internal pressure particularly from those who wanted their country to give a matching response to India and second from external powers, particularly by American President Bill Clinton who asked Pakistan not to follow India and offered billions of dollars in economic aid and assistance. Pakistan exercised the first option and conducted five nuclear tests on May 28 and one nuclear test on May 30. Sanctions were immediately imposed on Pakistan by the United States and other world powers and the country’s economic predicament compounded with freezing of foreign currency accounts immediately after the nuclear tests.
Twenty years down the road one may ask: are India and Pakistan better off after conducting nuclear tests? To what extent is India responsible for plunging South Asia into this nuclear arms race? Is nuclear deterrence a guarantee for avoiding war in South Asia? In twenty years’ time, India and Pakistan have their respective nuclear weapon’s program claiming that their nuclear arsenal is in safe hands. The nuclear command and control system of the two countries seems to have been professionally designed to avoid nuclear disasters and inadvertent use of nuclear weapons on account of miscalculations and dangerous crisis.
Since last three decades, the two countries have been regularly sharing details about nuclear installations. Pakistan adheres to its minimum nuclear deterrence policy whereas; India still pursues its policy of no first use. Yet, despite all the safeguards, there exists the threat of a nuclear showdown between the two erstwhile neighbours in the event of an armed conflict as was the case of the Kargil war during the summer of 1999. Despite international pressure, neither India nor Pakistan have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968) or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (1996) and have no intention of doing so in the near future.
Sadly, the American appeasement of North Korea despite its crossing the red line and penalising Iran by withdrawing from the JCPOA has created a bad precedent as far as controlling nuclear proliferation is concerned
Three major realities account for the nuclear South Asia, particularly in view of existential conflicts between India and Pakistan. First, the so-called international community which had condemned the nuclear tests of the two countries and had imposed punitive sanctions changed its stance after 9/11 when sanctions were lifted thus enabling India and Pakistan to get away with their nuclear tests. Both India and Pakistan not only continued with their nuclear weapon’s programme but also gave an impetus to the nuclear arms race in South Asia. Undeterred from the recognised nuclear powers called as P-5, the two countries ventured into a relentless nuclear missile race thus threatening and jeopardising the peace and stability of the region. On this account, the reality that the lukewarm stance of P-5 countries on the nuclearisation of India and Pakistan encouraged other nuclear ambitious countries like Iran and North Korea to proceed with their own nuclear programs cannot be undermined. Second, nuclear deterrence may have made a conventional war in South Asia less likely, yet India and Pakistan are as insecure as they were before going nuclear. On the contrary, the deepening of nuclear arms race in South Asia tends to further deepen regional insecurity as the two nuclear states are unable to structure a nuclear regime which can at least prevent the threat of the use of nuclear arsenal of the two countries against each other. The so-called nuclear restraint regime in South Asia is fragile because of periodic phases of conflict escalation between the two nuclear neighbours, India and Pakistan.
Unending cold war between India and Pakistan causes further erosion of regional security because from time to time the two nuclear neighbours do not miss any opportunity of crossing the ‘red line’. Nuclear deterrence in South Asia is functioning only by default otherwise, given the level of tension and hostility of New Delhi and Islamabad against each other, any serious crisis can trigger the outbreak of an all-out war in the region. Furthermore, neither India nor Pakistan feel secure despite possessing a nuclear arsenal or the two countries have been able to use their nuclear program for dealing with their energy shortfalls. Nuclear energy, particularly in Pakistan is unsubstantial as compared to other sources of energy like thermal and hydel. It was expected that India and Pakistan will use their nuclear program for energy purposes but that has not happened so far. Third, nuclear arms race tends to augment military expenditures which the two counties in view of poverty and under-development cannot afford. The concept that nuclear weapons will slash conventional forces has not taken practical shape in case of India and Pakistan as the two countries are simultaneously involved in conventional and nuclear arms race. Pakistan spends around 3.5 percent of its GDP i.e. around US $ 10 billion on defence, whereas, India spends 2.5 percent of its GDP on defence amounting to around 50 billion dollars.
In reality, India spends seven times more on defence than Pakistan. The nuclear arms race of the two countries that has been ongoing since 1998 keeps on adding to the cost of their expenditures as the two sides are not willing to cut their conventional forces. A shrewd and calculated Indian strategy to drag Pakistan in nuclear and conventional arms race hopes to inflict unprecedented economic damage to Pakistan thus destabilising its eastern neighbour without firing a single shot. India, in view of its robust economy and its regional/global power ambitious is confident to further escalate its military expenditures so as to further lure Pakistan into a vicious arms race.
With such realities and facts in mind, nuclear status of India and Pakistan has not only augmented their security predicament but also heightened their defence expenditures at the cost of their progress and development. If the United States is spending 700 billion dollars and China 175 billion dollars on defence it doesn’t matter much to these countries because of their global economic standing, numbering as first and second.
Those who are the champions of preventing nuclear proliferation have been exposed because of their failure to compel India and Pakistan roll back their nuclear weapon’s program. More so, the selective policy of nuclear arms control and disarmament pursued by the P-5 members of the UN Security Council particularly United States has proved to be disastrous and responsible for horizontal proliferation. Sadly, the discriminatory policy of the US appeasing North Korea despite its crossing the red line and penalising Iran by withdrawing from the nuclear deal tends to create a bad precedent as far as the goal of controlling nuclear proliferation is concerned.
The writer is Meritorious Professor of International Relations at the University of Karachi. He can be reached at
Published in Daily Times, May 18th 2018.

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