May and its Multiple Nuclear Resonances in Southern Asia

May and its Multiple Nuclear Resonances in Southern Asia

May is a month associated with some significant punctuations in the nuclear domain as related to Southern Asia and provides the trigger pulse to recall and review a critical, albeit opaque strategic determinant – namely weapons of mass destruction (WMD) stability. It is important to review this determinant in the context of the global and Asian strategic template, and how individual nations abide by their commitments to deterrence and disarmament.

The better recalled phrase is ‘nuclear South Asia’ with its attendant narrative and this has reference to the nuclear weapon tests of India and Pakistan in 1998 on 11 and 13 May, and 28 May respectively. In May 1990, (as per reports that appeared only in 1993) there was a major crisis on the Indian sub-continent that was ostensibly diffused by unobtrusive US intervention.

According to some experts that crisis had a nuclear element to it, even though Indian officials have denied knowledge of it. While India and Pakistan are part of what is often referred to as ‘South Asia’ and the perception is one of a binary adversarial relationship that is intractable, however, there is an embedded extended Asian template that is strategically more valid, which brings China into the tent. Disclosures by a former US nuclear weaponeer confirmed that, on 26 May 1990, China enabled a covert nuclear test of a Pakistani nuclear weapon design in the Lop Nor desert in the Xinjiang province, thereby adding to the resonance of May.

This shrouded narrative about matters nuclear in relation to China’s role is one of the more tenacious challenges to objectively comprehending the Asian nuclear template and recent reports in the public domain offer some assessments that merit review.

China-Pakistan cooperation in the WMD domain goes back to the mid 1970s and Beijing as a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) had entered into a covert nuclear weapon and missile technology strategic cooperation program with many nations involved in the transfer of such know-how. The role of Pakistani scientist Dr AQ Khan and the ‘nuclear walmart’ network that he ran for decades is part of the opaque nuclear narrative that rippled across the extended Asian region from Pakistan-Iran-Iraq to North Korea.

The current global estimate about Pakistan’s WMD arsenal is that it has 165 nuclear warheads (as of March 2022) and that it is “expanding its nuclear arsenal faster than any other country.” Two characteristics are distinctive, in relation to Pakistan’s nuclear weapon capability. First , that it is pursuing both, uranium and plutonium routes to enhance its arsenal; and second, it is the only nation among the eight nuclear weapon possessors, wherein the military has a dominant role in the command and control of the arsenal.

The US assessment of China is even more bleak and confirms many anxieties in a formal manner. In its annual assessment, the apex US intelligence institution notes: “Beijing will continue the most rapid expansion and platform diversification of its nuclear arsenal in its history, intending to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile during the next decade and to field a nuclear triad. Beijing is not interested in arms control agreements that restrict its modernization plans and will not agree to substantive negotiations that lock in US or Russian nuclear advantages.”

Pakistan has used its nuclear capability to pursue two objectives that have muddied the concept of deterrence, and the principle that a nuclear weapon has only one role – to ‘deter’ the threat or use of a similar capability by an adversary.

The first objective has been to carry out its Islamist terrorism option against India, enabled by its nuclear weapons capability. This was demonstrated by the Pakistani military using its nascent and covert nuclear capability acquired in May 1990 and use it as a shield in the Kashmir Spring crisis of 1990.

The second objective has been to force a territorial grab against India along the disputed LoC (Line of Control) – this was displayed during the Kargil war of 1999 when Pakistan engaged in nuclear sabre-rattling. The Pakistan Army’s feckless adventurism was successfully thwarted by India and the global community censured Islamabad for such transgression. India remained committed in word and deed to nuclear restraint and rectitude and in doing so also helped to strengthen the nuclear non-use norm. India was accorded an exceptional status in 2008 by the international community as part of a US-India civilian nuclear agreement, wherein it remained a non-signatory to the NPT but retained its strategic capability with certain self-imposed caveats apropos nuclear testing and separation of reactors.

Pakistan’s abiding objective post May 1998 has been to project an image of dyadic instability in relation to India, and Islamabad periodically makes reference to its tactical nuclear weapons as a military option to blunt what it perceives as India’s conventional superiority and circles back to the unresolved ‘Kashmir issue’ as a trigger for disequilibrium. This undesirable and uneasy status quo brings together nuclear weapons-terrorism and territorial revisionism, which has been at the core of global concern for the last two decades since the ill-advised US attack on Iraq for perceived WMD transgression and Baghdad’s support to terrorism.

Here the paradox is that while Pakistan is culpable of such transgressions, its ‘dog in the manger’ attitude at the Conference on Disarmament is preventing any meaningful deliberations on larger global policy matters related to fissile material ceilings, disarmament, and deterrence.

The Russian attack on Ukraine has rendered the global high table ineffective for urging and ensuring nuclear restraint. With the Iran nuclear imbroglio yet to reach satisfactory closure, North Korea flexing its WMD muscles periodically and Moscow attempting to play out its ‘escalate-to-de-escalate’ formulation by invoking its nuclear weapon capability in the Ukraine war – the extended Asian template and the global strategic framework are in varying degrees of tension and discord. If US-Russia relations are at a low point with little light at the end of the tunnel, the US-China bilateral relationship is equally discordant and the latest assertion by US President Joe Biden in relation to Taiwan has only exacerbated the animus.

In summary, the global and Asian strategic template is not in a satisfactory state and the need to review the commitment to both deterrence and disarmament by concerned interlocutors is even more urgent now than it has been in the past. We do not need a nuclear strand to add to the many challenges that the global community is trying to deal with already – the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and the war in Ukraine – alas, ineffectually.

About the Author

Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi retired from the Indian Navy in early 2007 after 37 years service – and has the rare distinction of having headed three think-tanks. He  was previously Director, National Maritime Foundation (2009 – 2011) and earlier with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi from 1989 where he served as a Senior Fellow, Deputy Director (1996-2004) and later as Offg. Director of  the Institute till late 2005. Subsequently he was appointed Member-Secretary of the Government of India Task Force on ‘Global Strategic Developments’ – a report submitted to the Prime Minister of India.

Bhaskar was Editor, Maritime Affairs and Strategic Analysis; and was on the Editorial Board of Contemporary Security Policy (USA). He has edited books on nuclear, naval/maritime and international security related issues; and has contributed over 60 research articles/book chapters to journals and books in India and abroad. He has been a guest lecturer at the Indian NDC ; NATO College, Rome and the Foreign Service Institute, US State Dept. He was a Visiting Scholar in International Security at the  McGill University, Montreal, Canada under the aegis of the Centre for International Peace and Security Studies (CIPSS); and a CICOPS Fellow, University of Pavia, Italy.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members.

Image: Pakistan’s mountain seen from the RCD road that leads from Quetta to the Taftan border, also known as London Road. These mountains are known for Pakistan’s nuclear explosion tests. iStock: commoner28th.