The safest way to reduce the subcontinent’s nuclear dangers is through consistent efforts to improve relations between India and Pakistan, particularly economic ties

While India focuses on China’s strategic modernisation programmes, Pakistan competes with India. This triangular nuclear interaction is too complex for traditional arms control and too dynamic for laissez-faire policies. Beijing and New Delhi have adopted a relatively relaxed approach to implementing the requirements for nuclear deterrence. In both countries, national security is equated primarily with strong economies and domestic cohesion. Chinese and Indian leaders value nuclear weapons primarily as expressions of national will and power, rather than as military instruments. In Pakistan, the situation is different. Economic growth is hobbled and the country is plagued by bloodletting. Decisions about nuclear requirements are made by a few individuals with military backgrounds who view these weapons as having both political and military value.

The face-off

There is rough parity between India and Pakistan in nuclear weapon-related capabilities. By some indicators, India is ahead; in others, Pakistan leads. Both arsenals appear to have doubled in size over the past decade. Pakistan is the hare in this competition, while India is the tortoise. The tortoise will win this race because of its significantly larger industrial capacity and economy. But the hare continues to run fast, in part because nuclear weapons are a sign of strength amidst growing weaknesses.

Rawalpindi’s nuclear requirements were set high initially, and appear to have grown higher still after the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement. Growing disparity in conventional military capabilities on the subcontinent has also fuelled Pakistan’s nuclear programmes. Initially, Pakistani authorities embraced a doctrine of minimal, credible deterrence. Presently, Rawalpindi’s nuclear posture emphasises credibility rather than minimalism.

Current and prospective production rates in Pakistan are sized to support ambitious nuclear targeting objectives that are set with minimal civilian oversight. At the low end of these requirements, Rawalpindi can warn New Delhi and the international community of the necessity to prevent or to end hostilities promptly. One means to do so is by moving short-range, nuclear-capable missiles toward lines of military confrontation. It is not yet clear what Pakistan’s warhead requirements are for short-range systems. At the high end of the targeting spectrum, Rawalpindi appears intent to deny India victory and to destroy it as a functioning society in the event of a complete breakdown in deterrence.

Pivot for change

Altering Pakistan’s near-term, nuclear growth trajectory will be difficult. Nuclear weapons are widely perceived as the nation’s Crown jewels. Most Pakistanis who bemoan the problems they face in every day life feel pride in their country’s accomplishments related to nuclear weapons. They begrudge governmental corruption and incompetence, but not money spent on the Bomb. At the national level, nuclear weapons have been imbued with great powers, including the power to keep India at bay and to lift Pakistan onto the world’s stage.

What might change Rawalpindi’s calculation that more nuclear weapons equates to more security? One way is for New Delhi to take dramatic steps to improve relations with its neighbour and to “take away the enemy image,” similar to what Mikhail Gorbachev did to the United States after becoming leader of the Soviet Union.

New leaders can be capable of surprising shifts in long-standing nuclear and national security policies, as exemplified by Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, and Deng Xiaoping.

Game-changing leaders are, however, a rare breed — for Pakistan and elsewhere. Besides, there seems to be little appetite within India for bold steps that have the potential to alter civil-military relations in Pakistan — and to reinforce the Pakistan Army’s obvious need to focus on internal security threats.

Another potential game-changer is severe perturbations in Pakistan’s economy. An even more accelerated decline in Pakistan’s economic fortunes might affect budgetary choices. Game-changing events could, however, have negative as well as positive effects. Growing economic travails within Pakistan are likely to create even more domestic instability.

The safest route to reduce nuclear dangers on the subcontinent is through concerted, persistent, top-down efforts to improve relations between Pakistan and India.

Success in this pursuit is dependent on the recognition by Pakistan’s military leaders that their current path does not strengthen or stabilise deterrence, and that economic growth requires more normal economic ties with India. At present, there is evidence of Rawalpindi’s recognition of the second proposition, but not the first.

The leaders of major political parties in Pakistan have vocalised their interest in improving relations with India — not just with respect to trade — but follow-up steps are moving slowly in the run-up to national elections. Progress can be stopped short by another mass-casualty attack on Indian soil designed to disrupt improved ties.

Deterrence 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 in Washington.)

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