Nuclear dangers in South Asia: More myth than reality | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 16, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, July 16, 2019

Nuclear dangers in South Asia: More myth than reality

The dynamics of nuclear proliferation in South Asia are driven by a need to establish some measure of relative parity against their principal adversaries—India against China and Pakistan against India. Such competing security agendas ensure that nuclear modernisation, through production of fissile material and development of more effective delivery systems will continue for the time being. In a war-striven region, like that of South Asia, a desire for peace must demonstrate a change in priorities, reflected through increasing connectivity among institutions public interest groups and people of neighbouring countries through cultural exchange, communication and economic linkages.


Statement of the problem

Prior to the tests of 1998 the BJP-led NDA government in India carried forward the generosity of the “Gujral Doctrine”, but in post-Pokhran phase, concerns were raised at the government’s genuine approach to her neighbourhood policy in South Asia. The then NDA government clarified India’s moves by stating, “In a world where weapons of mass destruction are still to be eliminated, nuclear weapons sadly remain the ultimate guarantor of a nation’s security.”

After the tests of 1998, the first thing India did was to declare a “No First Use” (NFU) policy and a unilateral ban on testing. India has repeatedly reiterated its commitment to a complete and universal elimination of nuclear weapons. Despite attempts to politically isolate and economically weaken India, its response was to engage the leading nations of the world in patient dialogue. Cognisance must be taken of the fact that India is a mature nuclear power which takes the responsibility of possessing this awesome capability very seriously. In post-1998, the spirit and euphoria of Lahore process disappeared soon and doctrinal and conceptual clarity on nuclear strategy became fundamental to the existence of stable deterrence.


Pakistan’s ambiguous doctrine and India’s dilemma

In contrast to India’s nuclear doctrine and overall policy towards neighbours, Pakistan’s ambiguous nuclear doctrine has plunged India into a deep dilemma on how to respond to the proxy war that it believes Pakistan has unleashed upon it. Pakistan has apparently kept its nuclear doctrine ambiguous to continue to perplex Indian strategists. It has dismissed the credibility of India’s declared NFU doctrine but has not elucidated the conditions under which it would be prompted to use its nuclear weapons. Apart from outlining some painfully general conditions of potential nuclear use, Pakistan has deliberately kept its “threshold levels” or the “red lines” unclear, contending that this is its only possible option to prevent an Indian attack. This ambiguity in the India-Pakistan conflict-dyad has led to deterrence instability in the region, rather than deterrence stability. In a conflict-dyad, theoretically speaking, when both parties clarify their nuclear postures, there could be relative stability. However, when both maintain doctrinal ambiguity there is likely to be increased stability; paradoxically, under such conditions deterrence has the maximum advantage.

On the other hand, when one party maintains doctrinal clarity and the other maintains doctrinal ambiguity there is likely to be instability rather than stability. This happens because the party that chooses to keep its doctrine ambiguous is also assumed to keep its various options open—including the tactical use of nuclear weapons. This generates a dilemma for its opponents, which is denied the option of similar flexible responses due to its pre-declared postures and resultant concerns about public opinion.

In the circumstances, “Cold Start” is the undeclared policy of Indian military which is assumed to be a response to this dilemma. Indian strategists believe that if India were to use its “Cold Start” doctrine, it would have a flexible response option that may counter the open-ended Pakistani nuclear strategy. South Asian countries often had different security paradigms and the fact that national security often becomes part of electoral dynamics further complicates the issue. Security policy is moulded by the interests of the ruling elite thereby making an emergence of a collective security system rather difficult. The different strategies have adversely affected bilateral relations among the other countries of the South Asian region.


Facing politico-strategic challenges

Consequently, the region now faces four political and strategic challenges. Two political challenges must be met to assure stability within the context of enduring India-Pakistan rivalry. The first challenge is how to break the current gridlock in bilateral relations. The second challenge is how to maintain a credible minimum deterrence force without engaging in an economically debilitating arms race. This challenge is greater for Pakistan than for India, but failure to address it will have negative implications for both countries. In their march into the 21st century, India and Pakistan have essentially two paths from which to choose from. The first is a confrontational path-based on cognitive biases. This path will involve an unconstrained arms race, dangerous military practices, and possibly the open deployment of nuclear forces in a “hair-trigger” alert status, resulting in increased security requirements. The second path is that of mutual accommodation and development of a cooperative security framework. This second path would imply a major political attitudinal change in both countries toward resolving outstanding political disputes, eschewing an arms race by building restraint regimes, and creating an environment that improves the socio-economic welfare of their citizens.

The first strategic challenge is how to create a security balance in the asymmetrical environment of South Asia. The second security challenge is how to configure the nuclear command system to assure safety (preventing accidents), security preventing unauthorised tampering, access, use and survivability under the harsh conditions of South Asia. In regard to the strategic challenges, unlike the Cold War, in terms of hardware, the technical stability of South Asian nuclear forces is currently lower than their Cold War counterparts. But peace-time experience will allow the command system to gradually mature. Safe management for nuclear weapons will also improve over time. However, the conditions of instability in South Asia have to do more with the software—the attitudes and policy choices than with hardware.

In that context, India is the determining power as its “minimum deterrent” limits are measured against “unspecified enemies”, implying both China and Pakistan. But Pakistan is much more affected by Indian decisions than China’s, as the potential threat to Pakistan is real. The challenge is for Pakistan to make prudent choices by assuring balance, but not parity. Given current dynamics, Pakistani choices, not Indian restraint, will be the crucial factor in determining whether the region avoids the trap of an arms race. In this situation, Pakistan must maintain its nuclear and conventional capabilities at a level that will make an adventure costly for India.

Both India and Pakistan are expected to rely more on personnel and less on technology in their nuclear management systems. This emphasis will make the system prone to environmental and psychological challenges and human errors. In both societies, religious extremism is on the rise, and propaganda and campaigning are on the rampage. Therefore, reliance on human beings, who are affected by emotions and patriotism, will increase the requirements of personnel reliability programmes. A middle course balancing reliance on personnel and technology will be more feasible because weapons are limited in numbers and are located within Indian and Pakistani territories.



Dr Rajkumar Singh is professor and Head of PG Department of Political Science, Bhupendra Narayan Mandal University, West Campus, PG Centre, Saharsa Bihar, India. Email:

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