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Deterrence Stability and Reducing Nuclear Dangers in South Asia

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Agni Missile

India and Pakistan are the only two states possessing nuclear weapons that used to fire upon each other’s forces on a routine basis. These firefights along the Line of Control dividing Kashmir had severe escalatory potential. After Pakistani forces and militants occupied the heights overlooking Kargil in 1999, India and Pakistan fought a brief, intense military clash that was limited in scope and space. After the Indian parliament was attacked in December 2001, for most of the following year, both armies were deployed in forward positions.

Nuclear dangers grew, not receded, after each side tested 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. Of course, there are no guarantees that escalation will remain controlled.

The most dangerous time to control escalation usually comes in the years immediately after both adversaries acquire nuclear capabilities. During this awkward period, “red lines” – thresholds that, if crossed, could provoke intense retaliation – are usually fuzzy, the nuclear balance is unclear, and risk-reduction arrangements have not been implemented. The early stages of the US-Soviet nuclear competition were most harrowing, including a series of crises over Berlin and the Cuban missile crisis. Similarly, India and Pakistan have lurched from one crisis to the next after acquiring offsetting nuclear capabilities

Avoiding nuclear-tinged crises is important. Taking steps afterwards to avoid their repetition is even more important. After the Cuban missile crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union began a long process to reduce nuclear risks, beginning with the establishment of a rudimentary “hotline.” After the 1999 high-altitude war over Kashmir, the governments of India and Pakistan did not talk to one another for two years. Official dialogue finally resumed when Indian Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee invited Pakistan’s president, General Pervez Musharraf, to Agra in July 2001. This effort at unscripted summitry failed, and was followed by acts of terrorism that again placed India and Pakistan in dangerous waters. During 2002 and 2003, official dialogue was suspended. Only recently have relations warmed.

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. The Stimson Center views its role as helping to develop creative thinking and worthwhile proposals within the region to reduce nuclear dangers. Much useful analytical work can be done to determine what measures might be considered to reduce nuclear dangers on the Subcontinent. We also encourage the cross-fertilization of ideas. The “tool box” of risk reduction measures developed outside the region is quite full. More work needs to be done to determine how such measures might best be adapted to the unique circumstances that obtain in South Asia. Stimson Center workshops, research, and publications focus heavily on this agenda.

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

Photo Credit: By Antônio Milena (ABr) [CC-BY-3.0-br (], via Wikimedia Commons

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