David B. Carment, Associate Professor of International Affairs, NPSIA

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Nuclear Proliferation and Security in South Asia


A) Assumptions:

1)  Working assumption is that for both states (Pakistan and India) nuclear weapons are at hand;
2)  Evidence - 1974 India exploded a nuclear device (and again in 1998 for both states);
3)  In 1979 India's PM Desai declared that India would not build nuclear bombs but his government fell before invasion of Afghanistan. So not all Indian governments are necessarily predisposed to developing a sustained nuclear programme and a coherent nuclear strategy to go along with it.


B) Since domestic factors cannot explain all of India and Pakistan's behaviour what might be the strategic reasons that would explain why these states have nuclear weapons?

In general nuclear weapons serve three purposes:

-  to counter conventional forces
-  as a weapon of mass destruction/terror that would terminate a war
-  to counter other nuclear weapons

If any of these points were informing a sustained and coherent nuclear strategy then we would expect that:

-  For India: as a contingency against future conflict with China;
-  For Pakistan: nuclear program would be undertaken to not only to deter India with its larger conventional army but also its more advanced nuclear capability. Precipitating event was the loss of East Pakistan in 1971.


C) However the evidence tends to suggest that there is no coherent nuclear strategy for South Asia:

1) No evidence of sustained or systematic development of nuclear doctrine that incorporates the use of or the threat of use of nuclear weapons;

2) Both claim that nuclear weapons would be used in retaliatory measures. However, India pursued normalization of relations with China in the early 1990s calling into question its claim of a threat from China;

3) Some argue that India's nuclear weapons programme would be a status weapon; one that might accord them a seat on a revamped UNSC;

4) For Pakistan the logic goes - extended nuclear deterrence allows Pakistan to continue high-level support of Kashmir knowing that India is unlikely to retaliate quid pro quo;


D) The last point would suggest that, within a regional context, the existence of nuclear weapons programmes is primarily a response to second order threats. Stephen Cohen has argued that both Pakistan and India's nuclear weapons programmes are a response to second order and not first order threats (Cohen 1994).

So it could be concluded that nuclear proliferation in South Asia will continue to permit ongoing low intensity conflict...very low intensity conflict. It might even serve to promote stability. Consider the amount of diplomatic attention the region is now receiving, probably more than the Middle East and Bosnia put together. It could also be argued that nuclear weapons may help to sustain regional interstate peace.


E) Evidence from the International Crisis Behaviour Project shows that the presence of nuclear weapons in S Asia (since India acquired weapons in 1974) has indeed prevented vertical escalation (interstate war) and has also created opportunities for low intensity horizontal conflict:

Evidence from evaluation of crises in South Asian Region, 1947-1994

- few wars, many crises, no wars since 1971;
- most if not all crises between India and Pakistan are associated with decolonisation
- there is a shift from interstate to intrastate conflicts and crises since 1971;
- all post 1971 conflicts are low intensity and contained in terms of violence - few crises are salient beyond subsystem;
- conflict between India and Pakistan since the 1980's has moved from interstate conflict to diffusion and terrorism and other horizontal forms of conflict;
- Most Pakistani activity in the region focuses on supporting insurgencies in Kashmir but also in the Punjab, Assam and Sri Lanka...


F) Conclusion:

South Asia's low intensity conflicts are not likely to go away over the short term because of Pakistan's decidedly weaker position on the nuclear issue.

India's actions this spring may have pre-empted Pakistan and forced it into to pursuing a policy that it cannot sustain.

If this is the case then Pakistan may simply revert back to its role of supporting insurgencies in the region until it gets what it wants on Kashmir.

Policy implication: Kashmir may be the key to ensuring that relations between India and Pakistan do not go awry. However, solving this dilemma does nothing to prevent ongoing proliferation in the region.




Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

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