By Manpreet Sethi*
On 11 and 13 May, India completed 18 years as a nuclear-armed state. A couple of weeks from now Pakistan will do so too. And yet despite sharing the same age as overt nuclear weapons states, the two countries are far apart in their understanding of nuclear issues and behaviours. Both have chosen dissimilar objectives for their nuclear weapons, are pursuing diverse capability trajectories, and projecting deterrence in disparate ways. As China continues to block India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and seeks the same treatment for its ‘all weather friend’ Pakistan, it would be a good idea to understand some of these stark differences that undercut the very demand for uniform treatment.
The first and most evident difference lies in the purpose of the nuclear weapon in the national security strategies of the two countries. For India, the nuclear weapon performs a narrow, limited role of nuclear deterrence – to deter only the nuclear weapons of the other side. It is for this reason that acceptance of universal nuclear disarmament also comes naturally to India since if there were no nuclear weapons with the adversary India would not need such weapons either. For Pakistan, on the other hand, nuclear weapons serve the purpose of deterring India’s conventional superiority. The Indian conventional strength bothers Pakistan because it fears its coming into play in response to its continued support for terrorism on Indian territory. In one sense then, the objective of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons is to provide it with the space and the immunity to continue its policy of bleeding India through a thousand cuts while shielding itself against a conventional Indian response.
With the purpose of nuclear weapons being what it is, the second difference shows up in the approach of the two to establish credible deterrence. Seeking to deter only the use of nuclear weapons, India has a strategy of deterrence by punishment whereby it eschews the first use of such weapons but promises punitive retaliation in case of their use by the adversary. No first use (NFU) supported by massive retaliation is, therefore, the bedrock of Indian nuclear strategy. In contrast, the Pakistani nuclear strategy is premised on brinksmanship. It projects first use of nuclear weapons including their battlefield use, thereby threatening to take a conventional conflict to the nuclear level. This brinksmanship is projected through build up of ‘full spectrum’ deterrence – weapons of all yields, spread across all platforms, and from the tactical to the strategic type.
Given that Pakistan’s deterrence strategy is premised on uncertainty and projection of quick nuclear escalation to deter an Indian conventional response to an act of terrorism traced back to the Pakistan deep state, the country believes in keeping the adversary unsettled. In its thinking, arriving at a modus vivendi with strategic stability is not desirable because the more stable the relationship, the more constrained is its policy of support to acts of terrorism. Stability at the nuclear level will concede space to India to conduct conventional war without the risk of nuclear escalation. So, while India desires strategic stability in order to rule out the possibility of inadvertent or mistaken nuclear escalation in case of crisis, Pakistan would rather raise this risk to have India cowering.
While Pakistan considers such a nuclear strategy justified given its threat perception of India as its foremost enemy, the problem lies in the risks it thence creates for regional and international security. The requirements of full spectrum deterrence and credible first use with TNWs will lead to larger and larger requirements of fissile material and delegation of nuclear command and control. While there are currently no international treaties or regional/bilateral measures that hold Pakistan’s hands on this, the fact of the matter is that a country as severely infested with terrorist networks as it is, the situation threatens to spill beyond the control of its own commanders, as much as beyond the region.
It would therefore behove China as also the rest of the supporters of granting equal treatment to Pakistan, to not encourage irresponsible nuclear behaviour and its attendant risks. India can manage without an NSG membership till such time as the members realise the futility of keeping a major nuclear player out of the arrangement, but do regional and international security have the luxury of repeatedly condoning dangerous behaviour and still expect consequences to turn out less dangerous?
18 is the age when youth become eligible to vote in both India and Pakistan. Will Pakistan now like to vote for a different future for itself? One in which it can shed its self-created paranoia against India, and one in which it has not handed over the reins of the future of the country to nuclear weapons? The potential of Pakistan as a middle level power is immense. If only it would allow its nuclear adolescence to transition into a mature and responsible adulthood.
* Manpreet Sethi
ICSSR Senior Fellow affiliated with the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)