Research Pages

Confidence-Building and Nuclear Risk-Reduction Measures in South Asia

in Program

Nuclear dangers grew on the subcontinent after India and Pakistan tested nuclear devices in 1998. Nuclear deterrence theorists have a term for this phenomenon: the “stability-instability paradox.”  In this concept, nuclear weapons provide a measure of stability against a central strategic exchange or an all-out conventional war, but they also prompt tensions at lower levels. This was true after China joined the nuclear club, when Beijing and Moscow engaged in border skirmishes. It has also been true in the India-Pakistan case. The stability-instability paradox holds that a state might be emboldened by its nuclear weapons to seek advantage or to engage in provocations in the confident expectation that its adversary would not escalate.  There are no guarantees that escalation will remain controlled.

Nuclear deterrence theory is now being tested against the complex realities in South Asia. India and Pakistan, like the United States and the Soviet Union, can take steps to reduce nuclear danger and to demonstrate responsible nuclear stewardship. Stimson’s workshops, research, and publications focus heavily on this agenda. Stimson has published extensively on this research agenda, including four books: Crisis Prevention, Confidence Building and Reconciliation in South Asia (St. Martin’s Press, 1995); Global Confidence Building: New Tooks for Troubled Redions (St. Martin’s Press, 1999); Cooperative Threat Reduction, Missile Defense and the Nuclear Future.(Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); Nuclear Risk Reduction in South Asia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Escalation Control and the Nuclear Option in South Asia (Stimson, 2004).  Stimson has also published dozens of monographs and reports on these issues.

The Stimson Center has been working to promote confidence-building measures in regions of tension since 1991. CBMs are diverse arrangements — such as hotlines, people-to-people exchanges, and prior notifications of military exercises — that can help reduce tensions and promote good neighborly relations.

Communication, constraint, transparency, and verification measures are the primary CBM “tools.” These tools are designed to make the behavior of states more predictable by facilitating communication among states and establishing rules or patterns of behavior for states’ military forces, as well as the means to discern and verify compliance with those patterns.

CBM programming in South Asia aims to expand the use of confidence-building measures and to strengthen measures that already exist.  To help researchers in this field, Stimson has compiled a chronological file of events relating to CBMs and NRRMs on the subcontinent.  Stimson has also compiled key documents relating to CBMs and NRRMs in the region.


CBM Tools

Communication, constraint, transparency, and verification measures are the primary CBM “tools.” These tools are designed to make the behavior of states more predictable by facilitating communication among states and establishing rules or patterns of behavior for states’ military forces, as well as the means to discern and verify compliance with those patterns.

Communication measures can help defuse tensions during moments of crisis. They can also be employed on a more regular basis, as consultative mechanisms designed to allow states to air grievances and ward off crises before they occur.

  • “Hotlines” such as those that exist between the United States and Russia, and between Indian and Pakistani sector commanders along the line-of-control in Kashmir, can provide reliable direct channels of communication at moments of crisis.
  • Regional communication centers can assist area states in conflict and crisis management. The European model of a communications and security center, established by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), is being adapted to suit the Middle Eastern security environment.
  • Regularly scheduled consultations, like the annual meetings established between U.S. and Soviet/Russian navies by the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA), or those between chiefs of staff of the armed forces of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay, can provide rare opportunity for direct military-to-military contact. Such forums allow parties to voice concerns and air any grievances they may have.

Constraint measures are designed to keep certain types and levels of states’ military forces at a distance from one another, especially along borders.

  • Thin-out zones, or limited force deployment zones, restrict the type and number of military equipment or troops permitted in or near a certain territory or boundary. Detailed provisions of the 1975 Disengagement Agreement between Syria and Israel established a demilitarized zone (DMZ) as well as an area extending 20 kilometers on each side of the DMZ in which forces and weapons were limited.
  • Pre-notification requirements included in the Stockholm Accord of 1986 placed constraints on military exercises by imposing longer lead times — 42 days for major military exercises and 1-2 years in the case of larger scale exercises — before activities subject to prior notification could occur.

Transparency measures are measures that states engage in to foster greater “openness” of their military capabilities and activities. Transparency measures merit a special focus as important first steps in the confidence-building process.

  • Pre-notification requirements of a certain time period for planned military exercises or troop movements of an agreed upon level also help make a state’s military intent more transparent. Notification mechanisms can also be applied to missile tests. Near contentious borders, this type of transparency measure can help eliminate fears that an exercise may be part of preparations for war.
  • Data exchanges detailing existing military holdings, planned purchases, military personnel and budgets can clarify a state’s current and projected military capabilities and provide advance notice of destabilizing arms build-ups. Data exchanges can take place bilaterally or multilaterally.
  • Voluntary observations of another state’s military exercises provide first-hand access to that party’s equipment and operating procedures.

Verification measures are designed to collect data or provide first hand access in order to confirm or verify a state’s compliance with a particular treaty or agreement.

  • Aerial inspections enable parties to an agreement to monitor compliance with force deployment limitations in restricted zones, to confirm data exchanges on the disposition of military forces, and to provide early warning of potentially destabilizing activities.
  • Ground-based electronic sensor systems, manned or unmanned, can also verify states’ compliance to agreed restrictions on equipment deployment or troop movements.
  • On-site inspections, challenge and routine, can help verify that states are complying with agreements. Inspections may be carried out by third parties, opposing parties, or jointly.

Back to Confidence-Building Measures in South Asia


Strengthening CBMs in South Asia

A brief summary of recent CBM accords follows:

Military Hotlines

Following the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, a dedicated communication link, or “hotline,” between the Pakistani and Indian directors general of military operations (DGMOs) was established. In December 1990, India and Pakistan agreed to reestablish the DGMO hotline and to use it on a weekly basis, if only to exchange routine information. At the February 1999 Lahore Summit, India and Pakistan agreed review all existing communication links with a view to upgrade and approve the DGMO and other hotlines.

The DGMO hotline has been used intermittently. However, during periods of tension, important information has not been communicated over the hotline in a timely fashion. During a serious regional crisis in 1987, the DGMO hotline was not used nor was the hotline used during another major crisis in Kashmir in the spring of 1990. Use during the Kargil conflict was sporadic and unreliable. The DGMO hotline is used once a week at an assigned day and time. Some skirmishes and stand-offs have been diffused by contact over this hotline. On December 24, 2013, the DGMOs ended a 14 year-hiatus from in-person talks, meeting at Wagah. This meeting had been agreed to during a September 2013 meeting between the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers in New York, and intended to reinstate the ceasefire and to diffuse tensions on the LoC.

Hotline between Prime Ministers

The first hotline was installed in 1989 by Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi. In November 1990, Indian Prime Minster Chandra Shekhar and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif re-established the hotline to facilitate direct communication. In May 1997, Indian Prime Minister I.K. Gujral and Sharif pledged to reinstate the hotline.

Nawaz Sharif used the hotline to express his interest in further developing bilateral ties with Chandra Shekhar. Prime Ministers Sharif and Gujral spoke on the eve of the revived Foreign Secretary talks in June 1997 to reaffirm their commitment to the dialogue process. They also used the hotline during a period of particularly severe skirmishes and heavy artillery fire along the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir in October 1997, and during the 1999 conflict over Kargil. Nonetheless, the repeated re-establishment of the Prime Ministers’ hotline suggests that its use has been intermittent, at best.

Declarations on Non-Use of Force, Bilateral Resolution of Differences

The 1966 Tashkent Declaration, facilitated by the Soviet Union, formally concluded the 1965 Indo-Pak war. It stipulated that “relations between India and Pakistan shall be based on the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of the other.” The 1972 Simla Accord which followed the 1971 Indo-Pak war obliges both countries to renounce the use of force as a means of settling outstanding disputes. In addition, both sides agreed to resolve their disputes in bilateral fora.

Implementation has been weak. Many in South Asia believe that Indian and Pakistani intelligence services have been actively involved in cross-border acts of terror. Neither the Simla Accord’s letter nor spirit has been implemented. Pakistan argues that India refuses to negotiate the final status of Kashmir while India argues that Pakistan, by seeking third-party mediation of this dispute, is acting contrary to the Simla Accord. The 1999 conflict on the LoC over the Kargil region has further damaged the credibility of declarations renouncing the use of force.

Reducing the Risk from Nuclear Accidents

An Agreement on Reducing the Risk from Accidents Relating to Nuclear Weapons was signed on February 21, 2007, and reaffirmed for a five-year term in February 2012.

Ballistic Missile Flight-Test Pre-Notification

Pakistan and India signed an Agreement on Pre-Notification of Flight Testing of Ballistic Missiles in October 2005.

Military Exercises

An Agreement on Prior Notification of Military Exercises was completed in April 1991. Notification is required for exercises comprising two or more divisions in specified locations. Near the LoC, notification is required for any exercises involving division level or above. Troop maneuvers directed toward the international border are proscribed. Exercises at the corps level must be held forty-five kilometers away from the border. At the division level, exercises must be held twenty-five kilometers away from the border. No military activity is permitted within five kilometers of the border.

This agreement has mostly been honored. Most troop movements of concern, such as those involving special forces, would fall outside the purview of this agreement. On some occasions, division-level exercises have not been pre-notified.

Non-intrusion of Air Space

An Agreement on the Prevention of the Violation of Airspace, signed in April 1991, and entered into force in August 1992, stipulates that combat aircraft are not to fly within ten kilometers of foreign airspace. Unarmed transport and logistics aircraft are permitted up to 1,000 meters from the border; flights within this range for supply or rescue missions are permitted if advance notice is given.

There are periodic claims by both countries that the airspace agreement has been violated. In the Siachen Glacier region, where rules of engagement are more aggressive, helicopters have been shot down.

Non-Attack of Nuclear Facilities

An Agreement on the Non-attack of Nuclear Facilities was signed by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 1988. It was ratified by both countries and implemented in January 1992. The agreement requires an annual exchange of lists detailing the location of all nuclear-related facilities in each country. The measure further pledges both sides not to attack listed facilities.

Though lists of nuclear facilities have been exchanged each year, the definition of nuclear facilities to be declared is unclear. When lists were first exchanged in 1992, each side reportedly left off one facility.

Bilateral Accord on Chemical Weapons

A Joint Declaration on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was concluded in August 1992. Both countries agreed not to develop, produce, acquire, or use chemical weapons.

When the government of India joined the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), it declared having chemical stocks as well as production and storage facilities for the express purpose of dealing “with any situation arising out of possible use of chemical warfare against India.” Pakistan did not declare any chemical stocks, production, or storage facilities when it joined the CWC. Pakistan’s declarations have been met with skepticism.

Non-Harassment of Diplomatic Personnel

In November 1990 the Indian and Pakistani Foreign Secretaries worked out a code of conduct to protect diplomatic personnel, guaranteeing them freedom from harassment.

This code has often been violated in both letter and spirit. Pakistani authorities did not protect Indian officials and property in Karachi after the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid in India. Diplomatic personnel are often harassed by intelligence services in both countries, and reciprocal expulsions of diplomats occur periodically. In the wake of the Indian nuclear tests in May 1998, an Indian diplomat in Islamabad was badly beaten by a Pakistani security guard.


The track record of CBM implementation in South Asia is spotty, at best. Both India and Pakistan assert that trust is lacking and is the key ingredient to improved relations, but neither country has chosen to generate trust through CBMs voluntarily negotiated. Now that nuclear dangers and regional instabilities have grown, India and Pakistan might do well to implement existing CBMs properly. New nuclear risk reductions measures might also be considered in bilateral negotiations.

In a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries at the Lahore Summit in 1999, both countries agreed to pursue a list of confidence-building measures, which included measures aimed specifically at nuclear risk reduction. While the Kargil conflict has since stymied any progress on these issues, the measures enumerated in the Memorandum indicate common ground between India and Pakistan and highlight areas where future agreements may be possible.

To return to the South Asia program page, click here.

Photo Credit: By Yasir Imran, Creative Commons license,

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices