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Thursday, December 21, 2023

A Nuclear South Asia: More Secure?

by Nidhi Goswami (Research Intern, ICWA and Post-graduate Student of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi)

In the last week of September 2016, the newsrooms in India were blasting with heated debates between political commentators and military experts about a nuclear threat to India declared by Pakistan’s then Defense Minister Khawaja Asif. The threats were in the wake of attacks on an Indian army camp in Uri district of Jammu and Kashmir earlier that month that killed eighteen Indian soldiers. In response to India’s claim of possessing evidence that proved that attackers came from across the border and uncertainty over the counter- measures that India would undertake against Pakistan, Khawaja Asif remarked, “We will destroy India if it dares to impose war on us. Pakistan army is fully prepared to answer any misadventure of India . . . we have not made atomic device to display in a showcase. If such a situation arises we will use it and eliminate India” (PTI, 2016). The Indian side, however, was undeterred by the nuclear threats and nearly ten days after the attacks in Uri claimed to have conducted a successful surgical strike in the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) that was highly adulated in the Indian mass media but was refuted by Pakistan (Times, 2016). But despite the declared nuclear threats in case of a surgical strike by India, situations did not escalate to the level of a nuclear confrontation between the two countries.

This was in contradiction to the fears of the other states that have watched with trepidation every potential warlike situation between the two historically hostile neighbours since their acquisition of nuclear weapons in 1998. Post-1998, in fact, several uneasy encounters- military and political, did not deteriorate into conventional full-scale wars, instead bringing in ‘long peace’ between the two states that the optimists of the nuclear revolution attribute to their possession of nuclear weapons. This could well be explained by the logic of ‘deterrence’ taken forward by optimists like Kenneth Waltz who argue that “the probability of major war among states having nuclear weapons approaches zero.” Therefore, the paper aims to analyse the logic of nuclear weapons and the resulting ‘nuclear deterrence’ that could explain this situation of relative peace between India and Pakistan.


What works for deterrence is “fear”. This fear is associated with the memory of the inconceivable horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and of the enormous destructive capabilities of a single nuclear bomb. The fear factor ingrained in human psychology has an influential role in how nuclear deterrence works.

Deterrence is a very realist conception that sees the world as essentially a self-help system where anarchy prevails. According to Waltz, in such an anarchic system where states live in a state of insecurity, weaponry and strategies change the situation of states in ways that make them more or less secure. Nuclear weapons are coercive credible threats that invite retaliation and therefore puts at risk a state’s survival. According to Waltz, therefore, war between nuclear states remains unlikely as states will have little incentive to fight if states can score only small gains because large ones risk retaliation.

Further, Robert Jervis reiterates that nuclear weapons have given rise to a mutual condition of strategic vulnerability that keeps the peace. Deterrence, thus, works on the fear of ‘mutually assured destruction’. Nuclear weapons give states enormous power but, on the other hand, make them more vulnerable as this display of power could create security dilemma among states. With nuclear weapons, notes Thomas Schelling, it is not a matter of ‘overkill’ but of ‘mutual kill’-the side that is ‘losing’ can inflict unprecedented destruction on the side that is ‘winning’ as easily as the ‘winner’ can do so on the ‘loser’. The places of losers and winners in a nuclear war are not absolute as there will be a ‘mutual loss’. According to Eqbal Ahmad, speaking on the same line of the deterrence logic, says that between adversaries that possess nuclear weapons, there exists a balance of mutual destruction that renders irrational, and therefore unlikely, the pursuit by either adversary of a decisive conventional war. One of the most important contributions to ‘deterrence’ theory comes from Bernard Brodie who famously writes in one of the most influential books on nuclear weapons ‘The Absolute Weapons: Atomic Power and World Order’ that “thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment had been to win wars but from now on its chief purpose must be to avert them and it can have almost no other useful purpose”.


There could be contesting reasons that could be given as to why and under what conditions India embarked on a nuclear weapons acquisition mission that could be categorized in light of Scott D. Sagan’s three models, namely – the Security Model: Nuclear Weapons and International Threats, The Domestic Politics Model: Nuclear Pork and Parochial Interests, and The Norms Model: Nuclear Symbols and State Identity. Kenneth Waltz, a neo-realist, attributes international threats, especially from China and Pakistan to nuclearization of India, while A.H.Nayyar saw India’s treading of the nuclear path as the fulfilment of its ambition to match the nuclear weapons states, so as to carve out a global role for itself which is broadly the Norms Model emphasizing on nuclear symbols and state identity. Sagan himself, understood India’s choice of going nuclear as driven by domestic considerations and not by any immediate external threats. Therefore, there could be multiple perspectives for comprehending India’s case but almost a unanimity in understanding Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. Eqbal Ahmad reiterates this by saying that while Delhi’s nuclear programme has been linked to the quest for power, Islamabad’s is related to security and a shield against India’s nuclear power. Waltz supports this by saying:

“When asked why nuclear weapons are so popular in Pakistan, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto answered, “It’s our history. A history of three wars with a larger neighbour. India is five times larger than we are. Their military strength is five times larger. In 1971, our country was disintegrated. So the security issue for Pakistan is an issue of survival.”

Bhumitra Chakma dates back India’s initial efforts towards building nuclear weapons as decisive instance in adding the ‘India Factor’ to Pakistan’s nuclear policy that clearly manifested itself in Islamabad’s refusal to sign the NPT in 1968 in reaction to a similar decision by New Delhi.

The post-test nuclear postures of India and Pakistan had been different too. While India made a unilateral announcement of a moratorium on nuclear testing, no first-use policy and non-use against non-nuclear weapon countries while seeking to work towards a universal comprehensive and non-discriminatory disarmament as a central feature of India’s foreign policy, Pakistan on the other hand spelt out its nuclear strategy as being one of minimum nuclear deterrence which will call for continuing review and reassessment in light of India’s nuclear build-ups, including if necessary further build-up of its missile programme and ‘matching warheads’ all of which in effect means it will be a strategy that is India-centric.


Underlining the causes of acquisition of nuclear weapons and the resultant nuclear policy of both countries broaden our understanding of ‘nuclear deterrence’ primarily because the nuclear programmes of both emerged to serve as a credible deterrent to external threats posed by a powerful nuclear armed neighbour- China for India, India for Pakistan. Another factor that makes South Asia an appropriate theatre to understand the workings of deterrence is because according to Bhumitra Chakma, there were two types of deterrence that were in play between the two countries, India and Pakistan, one preceding the other. The deterrence before the May 1998 nuclear tests is what he calls the ‘opaque deterrence’. According to him, opaque deterrence develops in a situation when concerned actors, without openly acknowledging their nuclear capabilities, develop a state of mutual vulnerability which affects their strategic policies and relations. This came at play in South Asia after India’s first nuclear explosion in 1974 that India declared as being for peaceful purposes, but this was followed by Pakistan soon after in their equally clandestine nuclear projects. The uncertainty over the presence of nuclear weapons in both countries created an opaque deterrence relationship between India and Pakistan that did not let the 1990s Kashmir crisis degenerate into a full-scale war between the two in fear of a nuclear attack by the other. Another occasion where opaque deterrence avoided a major Indo-Pakistani War was during the Brasstacks Crisis in 1986. A military exercise of India was seen as a major security offensive by the Pakistani military and formed one of the most critical moments in history of India-Pakistan relations wherein a war was seen imminent. But Pakistan’s nuclear opacity filled New Delhi with uncertainty about its nuclear weapons status. Therefore, according to Chakma, optimists of nuclear revolution point out that opaque deterrence provided strategic stability and contributed to the avoidance of a major Indo-Pakistan war.

Followed by the period of opaque deterrence is the period of ‘overt deterrence’ that started with a declaration made by India of possessing nuclear weapons in May 1998 after successful nuclear tests conducted at Pokhran in Rajasthan. This was followed by nuclear tests by Pakistan in late May of the same year that made Pakistan a member of the nuclear club too. As both countries had small nuclear arsenals, the deterrence, although minimum, was efficient as could be observed by the absence of a full-scale conventional war despite occasions of heightened tensions between the two countries since 1998. This holds true to Waltz’s proposition that a minimal deterrent deters as well as a maximal one.

A major military confrontation at Kargil raised apprehensions of either a full-scale war between the two countries or severe crisis that could escalate into a nuclear war but neither of this happened. Instead, according to Waltz, Kargil showed once again that deterrence does not firmly protect disputed areas but does limit the extent of the violence while Bhumitra Chakma calls Kargil a ‘limited war’ highlighting the optimists’ view that nuclear weapons induced caution in both New Delhi and Islamabad and made them behave cautiously because of their fear that the crisis could escalate to nuclear level. Nuclear pessimists like S Paul Kapur, however, attribute New Delhi’s tactical and diplomatic calculations and not Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities to have deterred it from crossing the LoC that could have worsened the situations.

Another military standoff between India and Pakistan that remained limited due to nuclear weapons consideration was in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 and the ordering of a full-scale mobilization of armed forces by India under Operation Parakram. According to Chakma, an evaluation of the course of the crisis highlights that the leaders of both India and Pakistan had to show restraint because of the nuclear weapons. In the words of S Paul Kapur, however, nuclear weapons’ role in limiting the 2001-02 crisis is mixed, as in one instance they had little effect in ameliorating the dispute, though they were not the principal stabilizing factor.

Further, the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 and the recent Uri attacks could be traced back to Pakistan but the careful calculations that India makes before considering to declare a full-scale war on Pakistan is largely dominated by a careful thought over a situation of a possible nuclear exchange between the two sides that ensures mutual destruction that will be irreversible. Therefore, although nuclear threat rhetoric from leaders of both sides form part of the continued tensions between the two countries but the logic of deterrence discourages an escalation of these conflicts into wars.


In discussing the influence of nuclear weapons on India-Pakistan relations, what is important is to consider an observation of S.Paul Kapur, a nuclear pessimist who says that the Parliament and Kaluchak attacks were part of a broad pattern of Pakistani low-intensity conflicts which were promoted by Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capacity. Pessimists are also apprehensive of parochial interests and routine behaviors of the organizations who manage nuclear weapons and have the ability to limit the stability of nuclear deterrence. Other important debates revolve around the ‘Guns vs. Butter Dilemma’ and the nuclear insecurity posed by the possibility of an inadvertent release of nuclear weapons, a regional nuclear conflict, nuclear proliferation, or the acquisition of nuclear weapons by terrorists. With non-proliferation regimes in place, the world hopes for a no second Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

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