After testing nuclear devices in 1998, Indian and Pakistani leaders genuinely believed — or stated for the record, while suspecting otherwise — that bringing bombs out of the basement would help make the region safer and more stable. They assumed, as did leading strategic analysts in both countries, that nuclear weapon requirements could remain modest and minimal. Subsequent developments made it is all too clear that, in South Asia, as elsewhere, the overlay of nuclear weapons onto existing grievances does not improve bilateral relations and reinforce conditions of stable deterrence. Pro-bomb constituencies grow stronger once the testing threshold is crossed. Testing nuclear devices opens up a Pandora’s box of requirements that can be relieved only by accepting a modus vivendi with an adversary or by accepting minimal deterrence and dropping out of the competition.
After the tests, Indian Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee declared that, “Ours will never be weapons of aggression.” Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif characterized the decision to test an act of national defense, reaffirming that “Pakistan will continue to support the goals of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, especially in the Conference on Disarmament.” The CD’s agenda has subsequently been moribund for multiple reasons, including that Pakistan has blocked negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty.
Jaswant Singh, India’s Foreign Minister, wrote in Foreign Affairs that “India shall not engage in an arms race, nor, of course, shall it subscribe to or reinvent the sterile doctrines of the Cold War.” One of these “sterile” doctrines is presumably the pursuit of nuclear war-fighting capabilities by means of counterforce targeting. It is unclear whether New Delhi can resist this temptation. A subsequent issue of Foreign Affairs carried a piece by Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmad asserting that, “By establishing mutual deterrence, [Pakistan and India] have served the interests of peace and stability in South Asia.” Caveats followed about the need for India to meet Pakistan’s security concerns at least half way.
To reduce nuclear dangers and to head off an arms race, Vajpayee boldly ventured to Lahore in February 1999 for a chaotic summit with Nawaz. At Lahore they pledged to seek the resolution of the Kashmir dispute, refrain from intervening in each other’s internal affairs, engage in a composite dialogue on outstanding issues, negotiate confidence-building agreements and other steps to prevent conflict. Nawaz reiterated his “earnest desire to avoid an arms race” at the summit.
Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in The National Interest on March 29, 2018. You can read the full article here.