Make South Asia Nuclear-Weapon Free Again

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Current politicisation of the nuclear-weapons debate has made them innocuously ‘sacred’ and ‘holy’ for right-wing ideologists. The debate of changing India’s nuclear doctrine by reconfiguring it from ‘no-first-use’ to ‘first use’ policy option largely marginalises any scope for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in South Asia. In this article, I clearly advocate and argue that nuclear weapons are of ‘no-use’ and rather irrelevant to address India’s strategic concerns.

It is great to say that India achieved indigenous ability to build nuclear weapons in 1974, and demonstrated capability in 1998 as a responsible nuclear-weapon state. However, it is also important to retrospectively share the view that this nuclear deterrence is not capable of solving the problems that India today face on its national security front.

I mean, does anybody accept the view that nuclear weapon has helped India to curb the communal riots, slowing down the cross-border terrorism, punishing the illicit drug networks, and bursting out anyone involved in fake currency gangs? These non-traditional security challenges continuously try to haunt national security of India. Therefore, nuclear weapon is not a silver bullet to tackle these challenges. These challenges are transnational in character requiring multi-lateral engagements with countries having stakes to tackle these challenges.

Many may argue that the purpose of nuclear weapons is not to launch a nuclear missile but to create a fear and deter those enemies which possess nuclear weapons surrounding India. This view ends up arguing that nuclear weapons have played greater role for India to curb the situation in Kashmir by keeping low-intensity warfare like Kargil War or past surgical strikes carried out by India.

However, it is admissible to argue that without nuclear weapons the situation could have also been the same as the Kashmir issue is mishandled by the present and previous governments and in such situations India’s policy options would have been utilised with conventional military strategies which in fact is being used with the same strategy despite having ‘credible nuclear deterrence’ ! This simply shows the inability of nuclear weapons while addressing the bilateral and multi-lateral conflict situations. Therefore, nuclear weapon for India is luxury which is in long term seems to become obsolete. But it does not mean that India need to invest more on defence and security infrastructure. It has to be kept optimum.

Having said that what India has gained from the acquisition of nuclear weapons if viewed from hindsight?

Achieving nuclear deterrence was largely a case of pride and capacity building for India after losing the war to China in 1962.

It was widely argued those times that nuclear weapons would provide strategic bargaining ability to India vis-à-vis Chinese expansionism. However, this thinking was narrow and failed to achieve the outcomes that nuclear deterrence was supposed to reward India’s national interests. It failed to address the Indo-China boundary issue, to curb China’s involvement in Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) if any, and its power play with Pakistan to thwart India’s economic prospects.

India needs to admit the fact that changing nuclear doctrines though seems plausible to please people through propagandist ‘mediatised nationalism’ advocated by hooligans, however, is of no use if the problems are going to remain unresolved. Furthermore, those who subscribe the view that by arming Vietnam with Indian nuclear weapons one can hope better Chinese policies towards India is ridiculous and harmful in long-term interest. Such views are advocated for defence industries based in the world to invest in defence and security infrastructure in South Asia. Such views and policies does not only neglect but also compromise the basic needs such as food, water, shelter, health, education and economic prospects for the common South Asian people and incoming generation.

China’s aspiration to become regional hegemony in ‘Asian and the Pacific’ region (I am purposefully coining this term to connote the Asian nations, the Pacific Island nations, Australia and the New Zealand, the Indian Ocean as well as the Pacific Ocean) is nearing completion. Though Russia and the United States possess nuclear weapons in multiple of thousands, China has smartly outnumbered them by keeping only multiple of hundreds based on its ‘minimum deterrence’ doctrine. Though, the sequel of the START treaty between India and China is not possible at the moment, however, there is a way if India unilaterally reduces and thereby abolishes the nuclear weapons or comes with any mutual arms reduction treaty with Pakistan. Yes, this is one of the near future strategies to make South Asia nuclear-weapon free again.

United States foreign policy failed to restrain India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea becoming nuclear-weapon state. If the United States want to maintain full degree of nuclear deterrence and if it going to modernise its existing nuclear stockpile at the same time, there is no way to say that its rival would remain calm. It is unconvincing to believe that the United States policy of modernising existing nuclear weapons would automatically lead to disarmament in South Asia. The logic is simple. To adjust American nuclear deterrence, Russia and China are supposed to follow the modernisation path in the future. This in turn would not stop India to adjust its nuclear deterrence with China’s. And after viewing India’s nuclear modernisation plan, it is open secret that Pakistan will follow the same path with or without the help of China.

The war option between India and Pakistan is not the solution. The real threat from nuclear terrorism to India will not come from Pakistan as a political state actor. It is likely to come from Pakistan-based non-state actor(s); India based non-state actor(s), and any foreign-based non-state actor(s). Though Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency mandates the ‘terms and conditions’ for Pakistan-based non-state actors, the possible nuclear terrorism threat to India is from lone-wolf suicide attack on its nuclear power plants to bargain or jeopardise peace and security in the region. It is anybody’s guess that if such attack happens, India will be able to retaliate with nuclear weapons due to its Gandhian tradition of strategic restraint.

In addition, retaliating with nuclear weapons does not seem to be a practical option, if somebody uses Pakistani identity as a cover to provoke India. Even if we assume that to protect India from Pakistan-based lone-wolf suicide attackers based in Pakistan’s armed forces that is determined to propel nuclear missiles in India, one cannot guarantees that whether such views be addressed by acquiring nuclear weapons. Is it moral and ethical through retaliatory measures to kill hundreds of innocent people on behalf of the mistake committed by one lone-wolf attacker? Therefore, fear from such lone-wolf attackers though seems relevant, however in practical case admits the fact that nuclear deterrence is a myth. We need multi-lateral deradicalisation strategies to keep these lone-wolf attackers away from violence and intolerance.

India’s conventional military capability has proven success vis-à-vis Pakistan for last 70 years. It is an established fact that nuclear deterrence in crisis management fails in its entirety and therefore abandoning nuclear weapons will not harm the philosophy of strategic restraint neither India’s conventional military prowess or India’s capability of indigenously making nuclear weapons. The real success of keeping the strategic balance at the regional level comes from making sincere efforts in resolving the Kashmir issue, making nuclear weapons reduction treaties with Pakistan through tailor-made nuclear diplomacy, and abstaining from socially-engineered communal riots.

As the genie of nuclear weapons is outside since 1945, making world complete non-nuclear depends on the one who opened the lid of the bottle. Yes, it is the United States. However, at the moment in this anarchic international system the United States is unlikely to follow the path of disarmament neither it will achieve this path during the four year tenure of incoming Trump administration. Therefore, India and Pakistan are only two players in the South Asia who can change the course of nuclear proliferation in near term future.