Opinion: Are India and Pakistan heading for a NUCLEAR showdown?

TOM HUSSAIN — For the past few years, global diplomacy has been obsessed with preventing the spread of nuclear weapon ownership.

Indeed, the five permanent Security Council members, despite their many differences, have made a point of working together to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

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Or so it might seem, from the headlines. Almost unnoticed by the global media, the Indian subcontinent is on the verge of establishing itself as the indisputably most dangerous strategic theater in the world.

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Already bristling with about 200 warheads, divided more-or-less equally between India and Pakistan, the theater had been limited to “single-strike” capacity, because both sides were reliant on land-based missiles and warplanes to deliver nuclear warheads.

Strategic stalemate

Technological capabilities being roughly equal, a strategic stalemate of mutually assured destruction has prevailed since the two countries conducted tit-for-tat nuclear weapons tests in May 1998.

That will change when the Indian Navy completes the final trials, ongoing in the Bay of Bengal, of its first nuclear-armed submarine, INS Arihant.

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When these are conducted, very soon, India will possess, for the first time, a platform that would survive a land-based nuclear exchange and give it “second-strike” capability. India has not yet mastered submarine-launched ballistic missile technology, but rapid advances in its land-based program over the past two years indicate that it soon would.

Naturally, Pakistan wants to re-balance the strategic equation and has asked China, its closest ally, for the technology to reproduce its Jin class of “boomer”.

China hasn’t yet agreed, but considering the two countries’ close defense ties and common history of antagonism with India, Pakistan is likely to get what it wants, in due course.

Of course, that assumes Pakistan has not already modified its French submarines to be able to launch ballistic missiles, like it had the US-built F-16 warplanes procured in the 1980s.

Territorial disputes

Thus South Asia is being transformed into a strategic theater containing three nuclear powers, each with second-strike capability, sharing common borders. Their relationships are definable, largely, by the territorial disputes that have caused wars in which India has been pitted either against China or Pakistan.

And in the case of India versus Pakistan, there have been six conflicts, two of which qualified as outright wars: that’s an average of one for each of the seven decades since the two countries attained independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

Their attitudes and behavior towards each other have not changed since the May 1998 tests, either.

The two countries came close to war again in 2002, after jihadists attacked India’s parliament, prompting the deployment of about one million troops along the border.

‘Cold Start’ doctrine

India has since muddied the waters by talking up a military doctrine called “Cold Start”, whereby it would invade and seize a parcel of Pakistani territory, big enough to be useful as political leverage in negotiations, but small enough not to provoke nuclear retaliation.

That baby was thrown out with the bathwater in 2013, when Pakistan started testing battlefield nuclear devices that could be detonated over such an India-held parcel of Pakistani territory.

That is reflective of the mindset the two countries share.

Unless there is a highly improbable radical change in diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan, history suggests that a nuclear exchange in South Asia is merely a matter of time.

Tom Hussain is a journalist and Pakistan affairs analyst based in Islamabad. Hussain’s original article appeared in Aljazeera.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect PKonweb’s editorial policy.

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