NEW DELHI Six years after they blasted their way into the world’s nuclear club, India and Pakistan have taken some welcome, if tentative, steps in recent days toward nuclear-risk reduction and confidence-building, which they say would “promote a stable environment of peace and security.”
But the steps are small and may prove inadequate in reducing the nuclear danger in tension-ridden South Asia.
The agreement signed on Sunday revisits and repeats some crucial formulations of the Lahore summit of 1999 on substantive issues.
But they include two significant new measures. One of them is to establish a “dedicated and secure” hotline between India and Pakistan’s foreign secretaries or chiefs of diplomatic service, and to upgrade the existing hotline between their directors-general of military operations, which is supposed to be activated once every week.
This measure is meant to prevent misunderstandings and “reduce risks relevant to nuclear issues.” The second new step is to “work towards concluding an agreement with technical parameters on pre-notification of flight testing of missiles.” Under this, the Indian and Pakistani governments will furnish each other more details on the timing of future missile test flights and their flight paths.
An eventual agreement on this will mark a minor improvement on the practice that India and Pakistan have followed for more than a decade, that is, even before their 1998 tests, to warn each other of impending flight tests.
These measures are welcome because they promote transparency and at least put the issue of nuclear-risk reduction on the negotiating table as part of the ongoing India-Pakistan dialogue process.
But they do by no means end, or even temporarily freeze, the Pakistan-India nuclear and missile races. They also do not address the gravest danger that South Asia faces the actual use of nuclear weapons, whether by intent or accident.
The only reliable way of reducing this danger would have been to agree not to deploy nuclear weapons and to separate nuclear warheads from their delivery systems (missiles, aircraft, ships, etc.). Once nuclear weapons are deployed in the field, there is a definite risk that they might be used unauthorizedly, unintentionally, or by design.
But New Delhi and Islamabad did not agree to non-deployment even for a limited period such as one or three years.
Equally necessary for security in South Asia is a bilateral agreement to freeze missile development and put a moratorium on test-flights. But New Delhi and Islamabad fought shy of this. They only agreed to notify each other about missile test-flights.
This means their missile development will continue unabated. This will bring the deployment of nuclear weapons closer.
The specific danger of missile development in South Asia is India and Pakistan’s physical proximity and the extremely short missile flight-time three to eight minutes in which it is near impossible to defuse a crisis.
Even more glaring is the hesitation by both countries in declaring an unequivocal and categorical moratorium on nuclear explosive tests through a bilateral pact.
Instead, each side only “reaffirmed its unilateral moratorium on conducting further nuclear test explosions.”
But they added a fatal condition in the very same sentence “unless, in exercise of national sovereignty, [either state] decides that extraordinary events have jeopardized its supreme interests.” This significantly devalues the value of a mutually agreed test ban.
A hotline between their chief diplomats is welcome and will facilitate communication and clearing of misunderstandings, especially in crisis situations. But these officers are not the key decision-makers in respect of nuclear military matters.
A hotline at a far higher, political, level would have been more relevant, similar to what existed between the U.S. president and the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in the 1980s. Functionally, such a communication link can better promote confidence-building and constructive engagement.
In South Asia, all recent positive steps toward a dialogue for peace and reconciliation have come from top political or even military leaders, not from establishment diplomats or bureaucrats, including foreign secretaries.
Nevertheless, the agreed steps could promote a modest degree of friendly confidence-building.
As Pakistani official Masood Khan put it: “There is progress. There has been a thaw. There has been an understanding and movement towards dialogue and confidence-building and constructive and consistent engagement. … The spirit right now in the nuclear realm is to transcend bizarre rhetoric and do something substantive and concrete. That is the intent of the delegations that met here.”
This must be balanced against the risk that India and Pakistan might be taking by aiming their nuclear confidence-building too low. That is exactly what they did at Lahore-1999, their first attempt at confidence-building and risk-reduction after the nuclear tests.
Despite an agreement there to promote security, and attempts to appear to be “responsible” nuclear states, India and Pakistan within a few months fought a bitter mid-sized conventional conflict at Kargil in Kashmir.
During that war, and again in 2002, they repeatedly exchanged nuclear threats. This exposed the inadequacy of the Lahore agreements on nuclear and missile confidence-building.
Two other points in the latest India-Pakistan agreement are noteworthy for their negative implications.
First, the two say their nuclear capabilities are based on their “national security imperatives” and “constitute a factor for stability.”
It is extremely doubtful if genuine security considerations or actual threat perceptions led them to cross the nuclear threshold in 1998. And it is plain that nuclear weapons have not promoted stability. Rather, they have been an immensely destabilizing factor in the security environment. Their possession has encouraged nuclear saber-rattling and adventurism.
Second, India and Pakistan have called for “regular working-level meetings to be held among all nuclear powers to discuss issues of common concern,” and agreed to “bilateral consultations on security and non-proliferation issues within the context of negotiations of these issues in multilateral fora.”
This means they demand some form of recognition of their nuclear status from the five original nuclear weapons states accepted by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
There is not a single word about nuclear disarmament in the India-Pakistan agreement, not even as a long-term goal, however distant.
This spells the danger of complacency and inaction in the face of South Asia’s extraordinarily high potential for a nuclear conflagration the highest such risk anywhere in the world.