Mandated by the MoU at Lahore, the foreign secretaries are to discuss nuclear CBMs. The last round of discussions on CBMs held in October 2007 was the fifth in a series that began five years after the agreement of 1999. The delay owed to both states recovering from the successive interruptions of the Kargil conflict and Operation Parakram. They agreed to resume talks on the sidelines of the SAARC Islamabad summit of January 2004.
The talks were earlier conducted at additional secretary level in the MEA. The gains made over the last period of engagement were in 2005 with the agreement on pre-notification of ballistic missile tests. This time around a joint secretary is to represent the Indian side as part of the foreign secretary’s dialogue. Even if the newly appointed serving military man in the NSCS is providing close support, for the nuclear issue to be part of several agenda items on the foreign secretary’s plate tells its own story.
Discussing nuclear CBMs assumes importance in light of both states having increased their nuclear arsenal over time. India is variously reported to have 70-90 weapons and Pakistan 80-100 or thereabouts. Both states are building up to their versions of a ‘credible minimum deterrent’, with India’s deterrent being influenced additionally by China. In Pakistan, nuclear developments have gone a step further, with a tactical nuclear cruise missile, Babur, and a short-range nuclear-capable ballistic missile, Nasr, making an appearance.
Track II initiatives such as the ‘Ottawa dialogue’ have thrown up pending CBMs that could be worked on. These include arriving at a shared nuclear lexicon, a project being undertaken independently also by the IPCS; including cruise missile tests in the pre-notification agreement; clarifying the respective understanding of alert levels; discussing NRRMs (Nuclear Risk Reduction Measures) and establishing NRRCs (Nuclear Risk Reduction Commissions).
However, while these are sensible suggestions, they are not enough. The nuclear dimension cannot be thought of in isolation. The three levels of conflict – sub-conventional, conventional and nuclear - are not distinct, but interdependent. While Pakistan has been on the offensive in its proxy war on the sub-conventional plane, India has an offensive stance on the conventional level through its ‘Cold Start’ doctrine. At the nuclear level, both states are ‘offensive’. In Pakistan’s case this assertion is easier to explain, since it does not subscribe to NFU. In India’s case, its promise of ‘massive’ retaliation and caveat to its NFU in covering ‘major’ attacks by chemical and biological weapons, places its doctrine in the offensive category.
The resulting linkage is fraught with an escalatory tendency. Take for instance this scare scenario that enlivens the impulse for CBMs. In response to a sub-conventional terror attack, India undertakes surgical military action. While doing so, it takes care to alert its other military formations. Mistaking their preparation, Pakistan over reacts. India is forced to go into ‘Cold Start’ mode, lest Pakistan seize the initiative. Pakistan, stampeded by India’s agility, launches Nasr as signal to India to halt. India would be faced with its doctrine of ‘massive’ punitive response, now in the form of a commitment trap.
Clearly then though nuclear CBMs are useful to discuss there is an underside. Firstly, the talks are likely to be insubstantial. There has been little movement on other strands of the dialogue, such as the meeting on Siachen only yielding up the intent to meet again. Secondly, keeping up the engagement for forms’ sake could lull the two states into believing ‘all is well’. Thirdly, CBMs are precisely that, just confidence-building. As the scenario suggests, there is a need to go much further and quickly.
For the two states to go down the NRRC route has had much backing since being first broached at the Stimson Center. Suba Chandran, for instance, has called for a ‘nuclear commission’ on this website. The idea behind such suggestions is to establish a standing body of high-level representatives that could prove responsive in both crisis and conflict in escalation control and de-escalation.
This writer has elsewhere recommended (Reconciling Doctrines: Prerequisite for Peace in South Asia, IDSA Monograph) a standing strategic dialogue mechanism for a doctrinal interface covering all three levels. Essentially, it is an ‘enhanced NRRM’ in the form of an ‘NRRC plus’. The argument that trust needs to be built first to establish and work such a mechanism misses the point that such an institutional interface is needed to build that trust. Over time, it can be more ambitious, taking on mutual and balanced forces reduction.
Pointing out the desired end-state here is useful for working out a roadmap. Currently, both states are in the process of building capabilities across the board, India much more speedily given its ‘two front’ argument. The past suggests that a singular track is not enough; a crisis can only get more intense and conflict more lethal. Strategic balancing through a dialogue mechanism is the answer.
The forthcoming talks can help serve as a starting point if the two states know that nuclear CBMs are necessary but not quite enough. Their seeming necessity needs instead to be defused.