Pak-US relations are now subject to circumstances dictated inversely by the ongoing war on terror: the worse the war, the better are the relations and vice versa.
South Asia, where two nuclear rivals — India and Pakistan — are situated, is unique in the sense that in this region peace is enforced through the fear of nuclear strike, which is called nuclear deterrence. To sustain the quest for deterrence, a nuclear arms’ race is going on. The pile of nuclear arms and the stack of related carrying tools, such as missiles, have imperiled the region’s security.
In 1998, there was no apparent provocation for India to test a nuclear weapon to re-affirm its resolve to assert nuclear deterrence against any country, even if it were China. This act of India gave birth to two schools of thought. The first school of thought considers that, in 1998, it was the entry of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) into the power corridors that actuated India into conducting a nuclear test. The act could be construed as an attempt to heighten the BJP’s political following in India, as the same occurred subsequently. However, the second school of thought opines that India cannot stay far from the international mainstream for a long time. As the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was concluded in 1996 (without India and Pakistan signing it), India thought it appropriate to go nuclear in 1998 before another regime was formulated to rope it in and forestall nuclear tests. It is also possible that both schools of thought concurred to make India test a nuclear weapon in 1998. Nevertheless, India’s quest to circumvent its isolation and join the international mainstream continued.
It was the Kargil war of 1999 that brought India closer to the US by exercising restraint from launching any counter-offensive on Pakistan across the Line of Control (LoC) or the international border. Indian retaliation could have spiralled into a nuclear conflict with Pakistan not desired by the US. The consequent strengthening of India-US diplomatic ties allowed them to enter a 10-year defence pact called the New Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship (NFDR) in July 2005. The pact offered India the facility to acquire a missile defence system, which was anti-ballistic in nature. On the ground, the system rendered the concept of nuclear deterrence (imposed through strategic nuclear weapons) in South Asia insignificant. Moreover, the pact allowed India to enter into a nuclear energy deal with the US, which also ended nuclear export (commerce) restrictions placed on India after the 1998 nuclear tests. This development endeared India to the allies of the US active in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Consequently, India became the only country having nuclear weapons, whilst being a non-signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to seek permission to carry out nuclear commerce with the rest of the world. The same development offered India quasi-legitimacy for its nuclear programme. India has become the first member of the second tier of the nuclear club. There might be genuine energy needs of India to be met through nuclear energy reactors but India has been successful in staying close to the internationally recognised nuclear surveillance regime before the regime takes on India.
The diplomatic posture of Pakistan is to the contrary. Pakistan neither makes an all-out effort to preclude its isolation nor does it struggle to engage the US to its benefit. Pak-US relations are now subject to circumstances dictated inversely by the ongoing war on terror: the worse the war, the better are the relations and vice versa. Though Pakistan has sought the help of China to get a counter-nuclear energy deal outside the ambit of international nuclear vigilance, Pakistan is making all efforts to join India not only in the NSG but also in the second tier of the nuclear club by coaxing the US. This effort of Pakistan is to save its nuclear programme from all types of vulnerabilities hovering over it.
It seems that Pakistan’s India-centric (nuclear) model is failing and becoming counter-productive in the sense that it denies Pakistan the option to adopt an independent nuclear posture and stay ahead of India. Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence theory is applicable if India stays as a counter-weight to China but the theory flops if India becomes a partner to China. Interestingly, in May 2015, India became successful in securing China’s pledge of investing about $ 22 billion in its mainland. In this way, by engaging China economically, India has secured the financial stakes of China whereas, through the investment, China has broken the nuclear deterrence cycle that had engulfed both India and Pakistan. India is fast transforming its image from a counter-weight to China to China’s trade partner in Asia. Secondly, India is fast coming out of the China-India-Pakistan sequence of nuclear deterrence leaving both China and Pakistan behind.
The efforts by Pakistan to increase the number of its nuclear weapons can be viewed from three angles. First, Pakistan wants to create a nuclear equilibrium with India in the region. Secondly, Pakistan wants to increase its bargaining position to be considered an inevitable contestant for the entry into the nuclear club, even if it were the second tier. Thirdly, Pakistan is telling the world that the nuclear rollback option does not exist anymore.
To claim control on the nuclear stockpiles and their delivery systems (such as missiles), Pakistan founded the National Command Authority (NCA) in February 2000 whereas India founded a similar body in January 2003. In this way, both countries tried to convey it to the world that their (nuclear) weapons of mass destruction were in safe hands. However, that was a peacetime move. No one knows if the kind of command and control in place can withstand the risks and uncertainties brought along by a war. Secondly, the mere existence of nuclear command and control in both countries does not guarantee nuclear restraint. No doubt, the cost of the nuclear race in South Asia can be gauged in economic terms but, more than that, the cost in terms of amplified nuclear threat is alarming.
The writer is a freelance columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org