According to Key Concepts in International Relations by Martin Griffiths and Terry O’Callaghan, in its simplest form, deterrence consists of the following threat, intended to dissuade a state from aggression: ‘Do not attack me because if you do, something unacceptably horrible will happen to you.'
Based on the above subject, one can argue that the concept of deterrence is as old as the existence of this world, with periodic transformations which took place in its application from time to time. Weapons form the core of deterrence, which was demonstrated when nuclear weapons began to shape state policy with the purpose of deterring the other side and signaling refrain from aggression. For deterrence to work reliably, the three ‘Cs’ are critical: capability, credibility and communication. If any of the Cs is missing, deterrence will not work.
The history of nuclear deterrence goes back to the post-1945 era, when the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union acted as a useful way to prevent the outbreak of another global war. Nuclear weapons are supposedly supposed to deter the other side and are not to be used, because they conclusively create a ‘zero sum game,’ in which there are no winners and losers. Talks for nuclear arms control yielded muted results, because the nuclear stockpile held by the five de jure and four de facto nuclear states are capable of destroying the world several times over. De jure nuclear powers are the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the de facto nuclear states are Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.
Coming back to the nuclearization of South Asia, with the testing of nuclear devices by India on May 11, 1998 and Pakistan on May 28, 1998, the two countries ended a policy of nuclear ‘opacity’ and embarked on manufacturing nuclear weapons and missiles. That caused enormous fear and concern in the influential capitals of the world, that both countries, in view of their unresolved issues, may be tempted to use their nuclear weapons against each other. Yet, in order to ensure the world over responsible handling of their nuclear arsenal, India and Pakistan established nuclear control and command authority, and took measures to ensure nuclear safeguards and nuclear restraint, along with pursuing a policy of minimum nuclear deterrence. While the Indian nuclear program is two pronged i.e. directed against China and Pakistan, Islamabad’s nuclear program is India specific.
In December 1985, after attending the first SAARC summit in Dhaka, the President of Pakistan General Zia-ul-Haq made a stopover in Delhi where after meeting the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the two countries agreed to exchange information about each other’s nuclear installations, an arrangement which was given practical shape when in December 1988, on the sidelines of SAARC summit held in Islamabad, India and Pakistan signed an agreement in which the two countries agreed to exchange a list of their nuclear installations every year by December 31.
Twenty-five years after the nuclearization of South Asia, the region is grappling with the prospect of a nuclear arms race, with India taking the lead in land, sea and air based nuclear weaponry, by expanding the range of its nuclear missiles with an ambition to deter China and Pakistan in the Indian Ocean region. It means nuclear weapons have come to stay in South Asia, and continue to act as a credible means to avoid an all-out war.
In order to project their nuclear weapon’s program as credible and safe, India and Pakistan came up with their respective nuclear doctrines and also signed agreements for ensuring safety of their nuclear arsenal. In December 1985, after attending the first SAARC summit in Dhaka, the President of Pakistan General Zia-ul-Haq made a stopover in Delhi where after meeting the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the two countries agreed to exchange information about each other’s nuclear installations, an arrangement which was given practical shape when in December 1988, on the sidelines of SAARC summit held in Islamabad, India and Pakistan signed an agreement in which the two countries agreed to exchange a list of their nuclear installations every year by December 31. Called nuclear confidence-building measures, the idea was to induct trust, responsibility and professionalism by India and Pakistan about their respective nuclear programs.
Likewise, in 1991, India and Pakistan signed an agreement not to attack each other’s nuclear installations. Prior to that in 1990, India and Pakistan agreed to establish a hot line between Director General Military Operations (DGMOs) to manage military crises situations. In 2005, New Delhi and Islamabad signed an agreement for giving advance notice of ballistic missile tests.
While nuclear confidence-building measures formed the core of nuclear deterrence, India and Pakistan are unable to bridge their trust deficit and eradicate a mindset based on paranoia and hostility, which is responsible for putting a question mark over their professional approach to dealing with threats of nuclear escalation.
One needs to analyze the phenomenon of nuclear deterrence in South Asia in three ways. First, both sides claim that a level of maturity and prudence is reflected in their nuclear programs after a quarter century of their overt nuclearization. The standoff in Indo-Pakistan relations, and stalled comprehensive dialogue since the Mumbai attacks of November 2008 tends to deepen the vacuum in stabilizing a credible nuclear restraint regime. When there is the absence of Track-1 diplomacy under comprehensive dialog, which has a specific component dealing with the nuclear issue, the two sides are unable to engage in dialog on ensuring confidence, trust and transparency in their nuclear programs.
Literature on the nuclearization of New Delhi and Islamabad spells out that “Pakistan is pursuing a policy of “full spectrum deterrence (FSD)” designed to prevent conventional conflict at any level by the threat of nuclear first use in response to aggression. Pakistan’s first response may, and probably would, be conventional. It would resort to nuclear use in response to a ‘large-scale attack.’ The full spectrum covers both short-range, low-yield weapons and long-range weapons to cover the most distant targets in India, which is identified as the sole adversary. While the capability to inflict unacceptable damage is inherent in the full-spectrum approach, the threat of the use of short-range weapons is meant to deny India the space for limited conventional war. India follows a policy of No First Use (NFU) against all nuclear-armed states, but with a commitment to retaliate in the case of any use of nuclear, or large-scale chemical or biological, weapons against its territory or its armed forces anywhere.”
In a useful and an informative monograph entitled, “Nuclear Deterrence and Stability in South Asia: Perceptions and Realities” published by Antoine Levesques, IISS Research Fellow for South Asia with Desmond Bowen, IISS Associate Fellow for South Asia, in May 2021, the authors argued that the “failure of deterrence leading to a confrontation between India and Pakistan could result in the first offensive use of a nuclear weapon since 1945 and potentially escalate into a broader nuclear exchange. Neither side would truly win such a war, the consequences of which, including the breakdown of the nuclear taboo that has held for more than 70 years, would extend far beyond the region. Unless national survival were truly at stake, it is hard to see what security gains would warrant nuclear use. India and Pakistan became nuclear-armed states when they both tested weapons in 1998.”
Fingers were pointed against Pakistan from several sides about the unreliability of its nuclear weapons program, because of the unstable character of the state and the growing influence of Jihadi forces. It is a nightmare and a doomsday scenario according to the West if the Pakistani state is seized by Jihadi elements and they also manage to seize control of the country’s nuclear installations and weapons. In order to dispel such fears and conspiracy theories, from time to time, Islamabad has reminded the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about the safety of its nuclear arsenal.
Second, nuclear deterrence in the context of India and Pakistan has been tested numerous times in the last several decades. In 1990, when the two countries had not overtly gone nuclear, crisis escalation in Indo-Pakistan relations took place over Kashmir, which reportedly forced Pakistan to activate its nuclear weapons. The so-called mission of Robert Gates, the then CIA Chief to both India and Pakistan to manage the nuclear crisis in 1990 is often quoted as a major challenge to the very concept of nuclear deterrence.
International players like United States, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia reportedly played a crucial role in defusing the 2019 crisis, which had the potential to escalate in the wake of Pulwama and the Balakot incident, leading to the shootdown of two Indian aircraft by the Pakistan Air Force.
Apart from other crises in Indo-Pak relations since 1990, the February 2019 crisis in Indian occupied Kashmir triggered a crisis which threatened a nuclear showdown in South Asia. According to Antoine Levesques and Desmond Bowen in their IISS monograph: “On 14 February 2019, a suicide bomb attack – for which the Pakistan-based Jaysh-e-Mohammad (JeM) terrorist group claimed responsibility – killed 40 Indian paramilitary personnel in Pulwama in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. In retaliation, India carried out an airstrike targeting what the Indian government described as a major JeM training camp in Balakot, a town in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of mainland Pakistan. Pakistan’s counter-retaliation resulted in the loss of an Indian aircraft and the capture of its pilot. (He was later released.) There are reports that India threatened to use, and possibly prepared, a small number of conventionally armed ballistic missiles against Pakistan. During the crisis, both sides engaged in deterrence signaling that alternated between provocation, and which was evidently clouded by misperceptions that could have led to miscalculation and unintended escalation. This episode, in which chance played an ameliorative role, challenged both countries’ long-standing claims of being able to contain a crisis well ahead of any resort to nuclear weapons. Such claims have been, at best, soliloquies, rather than resulting from dialogue between the two.”
International players like United States, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia reportedly played a crucial role in defusing the 2019 crisis, which had the potential to escalate in the wake of Pulwama and the Balakot incident, leading to the shootdown of two Indian aircraft by the Pakistan Air Force. American President Donald Trump, who was visiting Vietnam at that time, had to intervene and persuade the Modi regime to refrain from retaliating following the shooting of Indian fighter aircraft by the PAF.
Lately, the fragility of the Pakistani state because of a severe economic crisis and seemingly perpetual political instability tends to question the capability of Islamabad to secure its nuclear arsenal from a possible seizure by Jihadi groups. When the economy of Pakistan has narrowly escaped default and the country is under heavy burden of debt, will international lenders take advantage of the situation and pressurize Pakistan to put the country’s nuclear installations under the control of the IAEA? This may verge on the conspiratorial, but when a country is facing breakdown both economically and politically, how can it be expected to protect its nuclear arsenal from possible seizure?
The stability of nuclear deterrence in South Asia will continue to have a question mark if both India and Pakistan are unable to make significant progress in their nuclear confidence building measures, or if Islamabad continues to slide downhill, exacerbating the fragility of the Pakistani state.