Dateline Islamabad

India-Pakistan: Nuclear Weapons and Crisis Diplomacy

12 May, 2014    ·   4432

Salma Malik analyses the role of nuclear weapons in the India-Pakistan relationship, and suggests practising routine diplomacy more than crisis diplomacy

18 May, 2014, will mark the 40th anniversary of India going nuclear. ‘Buddha smiled’ mightily for the first time, in the scorching desert of Pokhran, India, in May 1974 and then again, in 1998. In reciprocation, Pakistan too entered the nuclear club with a series of tests that somewhat changed the destiny of the entire region. 

The tests were hailed as a symbol of prestige and honour by domestic actors in both countries. Though the programs were initiated under different circumstances in either nation, one common motivation both countries had was the security threats originating from across the border – The 1962 Sino-India war for New Delhi, and the breakup of Pakistan for Islamabad. This motivation resulted in the creation of a security dilemma that had a singular answer: weaponising their nuclear programs. Although introduced as force-enablers and viable deterrents to a superior threat, the inclusion of nuclear weapons into the South Asian conflict trajectory thus transformed the dynamics of relations between the neighbours. Since then, intentionally or not, all forms of crisis between the two neighbours have been coloured by the nuclear dimension alone, regardless of whether the nuclear status is ambiguous or declared. 

At the time of the creation of these two countries, flawed border demarcation and colonial biases resulted in many problems. Some of those problems got settled, while the others – such as the settlement of migrant population, distribution of pre-partition resources etc. – underwent transformation over the time.

Over the decades, there were several incidents that led to a war-like situation and even war, which took mutual belligerency up a notch. However, interestingly, external interventions were employed to mitigate all these hostile situations. Still, some larger issues – such as the Kashmir issue, unsettled border demarcations, and water sharing – still remain a moot point between the two neighbours. 

Timely interventions, whether through silent or open signaling by either concerned party can be termed as successful examples of crisis diplomacy. According to a Princeton University project, “seemingly independent crises that evolve in a geographically confined space over a period of time have a propensity for mutual interaction, reinforcement and intensification. In a strategically important region already in upheaval and flux, such developments could clearly influence the international system and attract the intervention of neighboring and outside powers that might exploit the crises for the advantage of their respective interests.

Furthermore, great powers’ interests can have the potential to aggravate the ramifications of such crises and to challenge regional and international crisis management capabilities and efficiency.” This situation is further affected by the domestic concerns and problems of the key actors, which have an adverse impact on both crisis diplomacy and stabilization efforts. A combination of time, costs, stakes and perceptions, which can lead to several scenario rising out of unintended consequences, wild cards, accidents and particular policy options can trigger inadvertent chain reaction that inevitably leads the belligerents to a downward spiraling syndrome. 

Similarly, in case of India and Pakistan, none of the crises that have erupted from time to time have an independent origin. In fact, their roots lie deep in the conflict which dates back to the creation of these two states, and in certain respects, prior to it. So long as the main sources of conflict are not properly dealt with, crises and resulting diplomatic efforts will remain the norm. Many consider meaningful interventions towards crisis management by neighbouring or outside powers as a hallmark of success. However, such interventions, at best, only deal with the symptomatic occurrences, and instead of offering a permanent or lasting solution to the main problems, freeze the issue. This stalemate holds until the next crises surfaces in another shape, and with more intensity. 

With the inclusion of nuclear weaponry, the India-Pakistan conflict equation has become more complicated and more intervention heavy, as each time both countries inch closer to a confrontation, external actors remain watchful and wary of the implications an inadvertent escalation could hold. Yet, once the crisis is settled through cooperative or coercive diplomacy, the focus shifts to other issues instead of deliberation on a permanent or lasting resolution to the underlying causes.

Instead of advocating for comprehensive nuclear disarmament, which is not possible, all concerned actors (domestic and international) need view South Asian conflicts and crises through a wider lens and not through the nuclear prism alone. Undoubtedly, these strategic assets have achieved the purpose they were created for: primarily to increase the cost of armed exchange and stakes involved to a level where deterrence ensures that war, even of a conventional nature, remains a least favorite option. However, crises still take place, limited conflicts have taken place, and the two countries have, over time, inched closer to more confrontational attitudes than cooperation.

Nuclear weapons are considered to be a source of problems and not force-multipliers and enablers which they actually are. Cooperative and meaningful diplomacy that brings positive dividends is always good and welcomed, but crisis diplomacy must not become a norm and/or a substitute for routine diplomacy and lasting conflict resolution measures.