Dangerous Deterrent: Nuclear Weapons Proliferation and Conflict in South Asia
Ali Ahmed ·       

Paul Kapur, Associate Professor in Strategic Studies at the Naval War College, Rhode Island, has fleshed out the nuclear debate in its sub-continental setting by making an insightful modification to the stability/instability paradox. The stability/instability paradox in nuclear literature states that stability, i.e., stable deterrence at the strategic level can lead to instability at the conventional level. This has been used to explain the South Asian situation, with nuclear deterrence and stability deemed to be prevailing between India and Pakistan. The unlikelihood of a nuclear war between the two raises incentive for resorting to conflict at the sub-nuclear level (conventional and sub-conventional) in order to pursue their political goals.

This analogy drawn from the US-Soviet interaction during the Cold War has been contested by Kapur. His position, on the contrary is that instability at the strategic level encourages conflict at the conventional level. Limited conventional war is not likely to provoke an immediate nuclear confrontation. A limited conventional conflict could spiral into a full blown conventional war and thereafter into a nuclear conflict. However, this danger of nuclear conflict not being immediate, permits limited conventional initiatives by revisionist Pakistan without provoking a full scale conventional response by India. Kapur takes this thesis further to underline the conditions under which instability at the sub-nuclear level could presage conflict between nuclear powers.

The difference between stability in the South Asian strategic situation and that prevailing in the Cold War central strategic balance in Europe owes to the US tightly coupling its conventional and nuclear capability in NATO to heighten deterrence. This defined the instability/stability (strategic/conventional) situation during the Cold War. Since the Soviet Union was a status quo power and conventionally superior, it was not interested in changing this situation. The South Asian case differs on both counts.

The author highlights this difference by posing the question: What impact has nuclear proliferation had on conventional military stability in South Asia? His argument is that instability at the sub-nuclear level has emerged due to two factors: one that the weaker side has revisionist territorial aims and seeks to concentrate the attention of the international community to resolve the conflict by flirting with nuclear weapons. He also questions the concept of stability at the nuclear level by highlighting that escalation of a conventional conflict to the nuclear level cannot be ruled out. Therefore, conventional conflict is feasible if it is kept limited. This has encouraged aggressive behaviour in Pakistan and an increasingly robust counter by India below the nuclear threshold. Thus he modifies the stability/instability paradox to instability/instability paradox for the South Asian case.

Further, he demonstrates empirically that the progress towards overt nuclearization over the past three decades has led to an increasing incidence of muscle flexing by both states. He divides the period after the 1971 war into three periods. The first till 1987 is the non-nuclear period. The period 1987-98 is the de-facto nuclear period, and the period thereafter is that of overt nuclear capability. He employs quantitative tests for these periods to urge that greater aggression by both states has accompanied nuclear proliferation. This is an important finding requiring wider dissemination since it questions the linkage sought to be established by nuclear optimists between nuclearization and deterrence based peace dividend.

The author makes two additional contributions to theory. In terms of methodology, his dividing a single case into multiple time periods has, in effect, created three cases out of one. Second, he tests his observations on the Indo-Pak dyad with three cases from outside South Asia. He sees a similarity in Chinese behaviour during the Sino-Soviet Ussuri incident of 1969 with the Pakistani initiative in Kargil, in which both the nascent nuclear powers were conventionally weaker, but had revisionist territorial ambitions. He also applies his findings to North Korea and Iran and finds that there is little likelihood of aggressive behaviour by these two states, since the pre-conditions for sub-nuclear aggression - territorial claims and conventional weakness - are not present. This has policy relevance for his American audience.

There is therefore a lot that the author has managed to achieve within this book. He has covered the period since the nuclear question arose in the subcontinent in detail to include nuclear and military developments that have occurred, and the related crisis management. It is therefore very informative, but is not an easy read on account of the authors scholarly inclination and the publisher's use of a small font size. This, however, does not detract the reader from his major contribution in challenging the notion that we are safer today on account of nuclear weapons a complacency reflected in a host of writings on the issue on both sides of the border.

The author has rightly pointed out that 'instability' also exists at the strategic level and that it is possible for a conventional war to escalate into a nuclear war. Below this level, he believes that there exists space for continued political utility of this military instrument, thereby permitting instability at the conventional level. This belief echoes the dominant position in India, which seeks to use this space for constraining Pakistani propensity for sub-conventional proxy war. The problem with this perspective is that it takes the Pakistani nuclear threshold as being fairly high, but neglects the psychological and emotional aspects of hostilities in the India-Pakistan context. This factor has become more fraught since Indo-Pak wars, especially the one in 1965, which was famously described as a communal riot with tanks.

The author's style restricts his message only to the cognoscenti; it would be a service if his perspective gains a wider audience through peace commentators, incorporating its finer points for those who are not nuclear experts.