Nuclear Race on the Subcontinent

An Aesopian nuclear competition is under way between Pakistan and India. Pakistan, whose economy and domestic cohesion are steadily worsening, is the hare, racing to devote scarce resources to compete with a country whose economy is nine times as great. India is the tortoise: Its nuclear program is moving steadily forward without great exertion.

The tortoise will win this race, and could quicken its pace. But the hare continues to run fast, because nuclear weapons are a sign of strength amid domestic weaknesses and because it can’t keep up with the growth of India’s conventional military programs.

At present, there is rough nuclear parity between India and Pakistan, with Pakistan having a larger arsenal and India having more advanced air- and sea-based capabilities. Both countries are expanding their capacity to produce bomb-making material, adding cruise missiles to their arsenals and planning to send nuclear weapons to sea. Pakistan’s arsenal now exceeds 100 warheads. India is not too far behind.

India, like China, has adopted a relaxed approach to nuclear deterrence. In both countries, national security is equated with strong economies and domestic cohesion. Indian and Chinese leaders value nuclear weapons as expressions of national will and power, rather than as military instruments.

As befitting the home of Mahatma Gandhi, Indian political leaders have great ambivalence about nuclear weapons. They seek the moral high ground while attending to national security imperatives. No other country has waited 24 years between testing its first and second nuclear devices.

In Pakistan, the situation is starkly different. Economic growth is hobbled, foreign reserves are dwindling and the country is plagued by bloodletting. Decisions about nuclear requirements are made by a few generals who view these weapons as a military necessity as well as a political instrument. In Pakistan, political leaders take their guidance from generals. In India, the requests of military leaders often land on deaf ears.

Pakistan’s nuclear requirements were set high initially, and grew higher still after the George W. Bush administration agreed to cooperate with India to build nuclear power plants. This civil-nuclear agreement has languished, while Pakistan’s military-nuclear programs have ramped up.

After testing nuclear weapons in 1998, Indian and Pakistani authorities embraced a doctrine of minimal, credible deterrence. Now the word “minimal” applies less and less, as their stockpiles have doubled over the past decade. There is little chance that Pakistan and India will end fissile material production for bombs anytime soon.

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons can be used to warn India not to advance on Pakistani territory. Its military doctrine has recently embraced short-range, tactical nuclear weapons to counter India’s conventional military advantages. At the high end of the targeting spectrum, Pakistan’s military appears intent to deny India victory in warfare and to destroy it as a functioning society in the event of a complete breakdown in deterrence.

Slowing this trajectory will be difficult. Nuclear weapons are widely perceived in Pakistan as the nation’s crown jewels. Most Pakistanis begrudge governmental corruption and incompetence, but not money spent on The Bomb, which has been imbued with great powers, including the power to keep India at bay and to lift Pakistan onto the world’s stage.

Finding stability in this competition will be difficult, in part because China weighs heavily in Indian calculations and because civil-military relations in Pakistan are so unbalanced. Fifteen years and two major crises have passed since India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998 — and they still haven’t engaged in serious, sustained nuclear risk-reduction talks.

What might change Pakistan’s calculation that more nuclear weapons equates to more security? One way is for New Delhi to take dramatic steps to improve relations and to “take away the enemy image,” similar to what Mikhail Gorbachev accomplished when he was leader of the Soviet Union in his dealings with the United States.

There is, however, little appetite within India for bold steps to reinforce the obvious need of the Pakistani Army to focus on internal security threats. Another potential game changer is severe perturbations in Pakistan’s economy. Economic upheavals would, however, create even more domestic instability without changing the Pakistan military’s dependency on The Bomb.

The safest route to reduce nuclear dangers on the subcontinent is through concerted efforts to improve relations between Pakistan and India. The surest way to do so is by greatly increasing cross-border trade. Leaders in both countries have endorsed this course of action, but underlings are moving slowly ahead of national elections. Even modest progress can be stopped short by another mass-casualty attack on Indian soil designed to disrupt improved ties.

A nuclear arsenal built on very weak economic foundations is inherently unstable, which is reason enough for India to pursue sustained and accelerated trade and investment opportunities with Pakistan. These methods, which have dampened tensions between China and Taiwan, could also serve a similar purpose on the subcontinent.

Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center, a think tank, and director of its South Asia and Space Security Programs.

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