Nuclear Deterrence in South Asia: Strategic Considerations Reconsidered

12 Jan, 1999    ·   166

Prof. Stephen P. Cohen argues that India’s security is not predicated on the rational control of its own command and control system but on the weakest link in the Pakistan’s military system

Prof. Cohen started by reviewing the debate in India on its nuclear stance that alternated between `continuing ambiguity’ and `overt weaponization’ over the years.



·                     One thing was evident. The Americans were not clear about their South Asia policy, partly due to the Clinton Administration being preoccupied with other issues. A positive good emanating from the nuclear tests is the establishment of the longest sustained Indo-US dialogue since the Kennedy administration’ engagement in the early sixties.


·                     Indian security has been significantly affected by Pokhran-II. The tests have alarmed China and Pakistan , and impeded the considerable progress made in Indo-US relations.


·                     The impulse to weaponize was always there in India . He drew a reference here to  going by K.C. Pant’s speech at Durgapur in 1965. Cohen said that India would be well-advised to go in for tactical nuclear weapons.


·                     Indians do not reckon with the fact that nuclear weapons are weapons. There appears to be a weapons-free debate about nuclear weapons in India . The Indian penchant to project nuclear weapons as symbols of prestige is alarming since it runs counter to the Pakistani perception of nuclear weapons as weapons. The Pakistanis view the bomb basically as a military weapon since their debate is monopolized by the military. Therefore, “ India ’s security is not predicated on the rational control of its own command and control system but on the weakest link in the Pakistan ’s military system.”


·                     The US is not intent on punishing India . The Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott talks are a learning process. For Talbott, the experience gained is in dealing with a major, non-NATO power, apart from China , and the talks provide an opportunity for him to assess how India perceives the world. Talbott’s speech at the Brookings Institution was much like Arundhati Ghose’s speech at the CD.


·                     Cohen said that he continues to recommend the transfer of civilian use nuclear technology to India .


·                     India and US should evolve a structure that involves keeping each other informed of their mutual strategic concerns. India does not have the American equivalent of a policy planning staff, but the bilateral relationship would benefit from talks between middle level, policy-oriented officials from both the countries. The policy-planners could interact to, discuss issues of bilateral and global interest. The US engages in systematic dialogues of this nature with Russia , China and Japan .


To a question on the US position on counterproliferation, Cohen stated that this notion was a public relations disaster. The posture was essentially designed against Iran , Iraq and North Korea . India was never included. One must understand that nuclear policy in the US is coordinated by people manning the Pentagon and the liberals. In that continuum, Iraq is conclusively a bipartisan issue. India is neither an ally nor an enemy primarily because it did not fit into the staple US post-War foreign policy that  centered around a strategy of building alliances.



The Clinton Administration took India at its word when it said it was interested in nuclear disarmament. This naive perception had to do with the formative experiences that shaped the worldview of those in-charge in the Administration who belong to the Clinton generation. Reared on the experience of Vietnam , they viewed India as a peaceable nation that produced Gandhi and Nehru. They did not realize that India ’s security changed dramatically after 1990. Arundhati Ghose’s speech at the UN was a wake-up call since it forcefully articulated that India is beset with security concerns. Till then, the US administration felt that India was a `rollover’ for signing the CTBT.



When asked about the possibility of the US agreeing to the time-bound elimination of nuclear weapons, Cohen said that Americans were divided on this issue. He hoped that the US will make a symbolic gesture accepting the possibility of eliminating nuclear weapons. Indo-US relations will be fostered if India manages to garner the legitimate attention of America . It should exercise a measure of patience, since the US is used to dealing with dependent allies. India should find a way to gain the attention of the US without settling for a subordinate role or coming through as an arrogant power. The attempt to cultivate American opinion is important since American Congressional interest in India is low. Of the 400 Congressmen on Capitol Hill about 10 might be interested in India , essentially because Indians comprise a significant component in their respective constituencies.



A participant asked whether the Republicans view India as a counterpoise to China . Cohen said that the extent of American economic dependence on China is so extensive that no Republican would seriously want to ignore China and did not foresee any GOP’s plans to ally with India against China . However, India ’s voice as a moral force in the international community and in the US has reduced considerably after the nuclear tests.



A participant asked Cohen of the possible US reaction if India tests the Agni-II missile. He also asked what was the belief in US policy-making circles to the idea of time-bound elimination of nuclear weapons. The Pentagon and weapons-labs were bound to scuttle any moves for the time-bound elimination of nuclear weapons. The institutional momentum towards developing more armaments is undeniable in any country. For that matter, the Pentagon-weapons lab nexus is the role model for scientists like Abdul Kalam. The elimination of nuclear weapons is a political issue and not a logical one at the moment and no one is willing to take it up seriously.



Cohen said the Americans would construe the Agni-II missile testing as a breach of faith if it was conducted after the January round of Singh-Talbott talks. If India does test the Agni-II, it should make sure this is part of a coherent strategic plan, as there would undoubtedly be severe repercussions.