Indian Nuclear Trajectory: From Peaceful Ploys To Proliferation – OpEd

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India’s nuclear test of 1974, codenamed “Smiling Buddha,” signalled a critical shift from peaceful nuclear technology to military applications in the history of South Asia. This alleged Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) was the first case of horizontal nuclear proliferation since the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) was formally adopted in 1967. The test, conducted at the Pokhran-1 site, used plutonium that was produced with the Canadian and U.S.-supplied CIRUS reactor, highlighting how India diverted peaceful nuclear technology toward military developments.

The impact of India’s nuclear detonations reverberated throughout the international community, raising concerns about the integrity of the NPT framework, and sparked an arms race in the region. The hostile political rhetoric that followed the 1974 test signalled India’s ambitions, which eventually followed the 1998 nuclear tests, where five nuclear weapons were detonated at the same Pokhran site. These events precipitated a delicate and potentially volatile scenario in the South Asian region. As a result, the risk of a nuclear arms race, primarily fuelled by India’s initiatives in the region presents a significant danger to regional stability and peace, with potentially profound global repercussions.

India has long harboured aspirations to establish regional dominance and ascend to the status of a superpower. To this end, it has focused on strengthening its defence capabilities and attaining technological supremacy. Moreover, in the context of China’s rising influence and perceived threat, India has sought to bolster its military capabilities in both conventional and nuclear domains. This strategic orientation has enabled India to seek alliances and derive benefits from Western nations, leveraging partnerships to enhance its military technology and position in the global arena. 

A crucial component of this approach was the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear deal, which granted India access to advanced nuclear technology for civilian applications and presented potential indirect advantages for its military program. This deal highlighted a significant shift in U.S. policy toward India, underscored by the absence of sanctions, despite India’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 missile defence systems. This action might have triggered the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The robust defence and political support that the U.S. extended to India, alongside these developments, elevated the risk of nuclear escalation in the already tense South Asian region, raising concerns about the potential for intensified conflict and the broader implications for regional stability.

Currently, the rate of India’s nuclear modernization is unmatchable. India is investing heavily in modernising its conventional forces and military hardware. Despite the uptick in domestic weapons manufacturing, India’s arms procurement hasn’t experienced a significant decrease. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reveals that India is the world’s top arms importer and it continues to enhance its nuclear capabilities. This aggressive modernisation has raised concerns about India’s approach to international arms control and non-proliferation efforts. The country has consistently opted out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and resisted signing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), often without a clear justification. It is believed that India in future wants to test thermonuclear weapons, which is why it is not signing the CTBT.

India’s recent test of the Agni-V missile, equipped with Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) technology, underscores a significant shift in its nuclear trajectory. As India advances its capabilities with weapons like the Agni-V, hypersonic missiles, and a Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system, its nuclear strategy seems to be shifting from massive retaliation to an upcoming focus on a pre-emptive approach. This shift has the potential to disrupt the strategic balance with other players in the region, especially Pakistan, inflaming tensions and increasing the risk of nuclear instability in the region. 

While India is advancing its nuclear capabilities aggressively, thus drawing Pakistan into a nuclear arms race, it is noteworthy that Pakistan has consistently demonstrated responsible behaviour and restraint in its responses. Pakistan’s approach has been measured, emphasizing a credible minimum deterrent rather than seeking escalation. Unlike India, Pakistan has shown consistent support for international arms control efforts, including CTBT, signalling a willingness to engage in global non-proliferation initiatives. Pakistan’s stance is driven by a desire to maintain strategic balance in the region without escalating conflicts. It has made consistent overtures toward diplomatic dialogue with India, proposing confidence-building measures to reduce tensions and foster peace. In contrast to India’s rapid modernization and ambiguous nuclear policies, Pakistan’s focus on stability underscores a commitment to managing regional security while pursuing diplomatic solutions.

India’s evolving nuclear ambitions, driven by its strategic interests and a quest for regional dominance, present significant challenges to both regional and global security. The arms race in South Asia, triggered by India’s nuclear tests and subsequent military expansion, has created a tense environment that complicates diplomatic efforts and raises the risk of conflict with neighbouring Pakistan. India’s continued pursuit of advanced nuclear and missile technologies has fuelled a cycle of escalation, disrupted regional stability and is undermining global non-proliferation efforts.

The international community must engage India in constructive dialogue to prevent catastrophic outcomes, emphasizing accountability, transparency, and a commitment to non-proliferation. The U.S. and other Western countries, given their strategic partnerships with India, should advocate for responsible behaviour and arms control, urging India to reduce its nuclear ambitions and address the risks posed by Indian vertical proliferation—the development and enhancement of more sophisticated nuclear weaponry. By fostering a collective approach, the international community can work toward reducing tensions and ensuring a more stable and secure South Asia and the world.

Sharjeel Afzal

Sharjeel Afzal holds a Masters Degree in Strategic and Nuclear Studies and is working as Visiting research associate in Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad.

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