Friends, foes, & the unstable future: the impact of nukes on security relations in South Asia

The volatile security environment of South Asia has traditionally been dominated by on-going tensions and conflicts between Pakistan and India, who have held a tense and inimical relationship since their emergence as separate nations in 1947. The threat perception arising out of the historical tension and enduring rivalry between both countries has put them in a security dilemma in which the risk of nuclear conflict simply cannot be ruled out.

Pakistan, as a pivotal regional player, has the potential to be either a major disruptive force or a major source of stability. Pakistan’s focus on the challenges posed by India affects virtually every aspect of its external relations. Despite the fact that India has publicly stated that it abides by a strict No-First–Use policy in regards to its nuclear weapons, Pakistan’s paranoia is exacerbated by the growing conventional military imbalance between both countries. India displayed great constraint after the 2008 Mumbai attacks and would likely find it very difficult to do so again. Pakistan sees no way of ever defeating India conventionally if conflict broke out and in order to level the playing field, Pakistan remains committed to increasing its nuclear arsenal (currently estimated at 90-110 warheads). It is worrisome that not only do both of these countries boast nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the other, but both nuclear weapons programs are not under international safeguards or standards like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Further to this, Pakistan positions nuclear weapons more centrally in its national security posture than any other nuclear armed state, and in the midst of persistent economic challenges and deteriorating ties with the U.S, Pakistan is reinvigorating its links with traditional partners China and Saudi Arabia, arousing concern of further strategic imbalance and the potential for proliferation.

In spite of all of this, it seems as though the international community’s concern about these two countries and their nuclear weapons has waned in recent years, almost certainly due to Western interest in Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the changing regional landscape of the Middle East, with the Arab Awakening profoundly altering key regional dynamics and regime perceptions. It appears that the evolution of postures and arsenals in both New Delhi and Islamabad no longer appear to evoke the same degree of alarm or apprehension. It is disconcerting that there is much less media, expert, and top level official attention given to the fully fledged, declared and operationally deployed capabilities of Pakistan’s increasing (insecure and largely unmonitored) nuclear arsenal which seems unconstrained by financial shortfall or strategic logic in Pakistan and where the government is unstable at best and the presence of terrorist actors is common.

Pakistan is a country under siege by its own domestic politics and strong tensions with neighbouring countries. There is a vulnerability deeply rooted in structural factors, namely its smaller territory and population relative to India, its limited resources and its persistent domestic instability. It is a complex nation, that is home to numerous militant groups such as Laskar-e-Jhangvi. Since late 2009, there has been a surge in militant attacks and thousands more have been displaced by the wave of violence and militancy sweeping across the country. Fears are now mounting about cross – border instability in Pakistan, as a further spike in violence has recently been reported as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of 2014. There is much at stake as these factors in addition to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal very much present the conditions for a somewhat ‘perfect storm’ for generating future international crises.

America’s relationship with Pakistan has been steadily deteriorating since President Obama’s first term. It is the reality behind the rhetoric of “ally” versus “strategic partner” that has led to constant tension with the U.S.; the killing of Osama Bin Laden providing a vivid demonstration in the eyes of the Pakistani’s that the U.S. does not respect its sovereignty or territorial integrity. It is unclear how their relationship will unfold after U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan have been withdrawn, and no longer need fuelling and feeding through Pakistani soil. There may be a further decline in the relationship which could potentially dictate further insecurity in Pakistan and impact on the wider stability in South Asia and the Middle East.

Pakistan and China have a long standing relationship and at its core the bond between them is strategic and grounded in military to military ties. An integral part of their ties is China’s support to help develop Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. China views a strong partnership with Pakistan as a useful way to contain Indian power in the region (India has been the main factor that has influenced China’s and Pakistan’s policies vis-a`-vis each other). For China, who views India as a potential challenger in the strategic landscape of Asia, there is no cheaper option than using Pakistan to keep India off balance. Pakistan’s utility is only likely to increase for China, especially as India continues its ascent in the global inter-state hierarchy. Pakistan has gained access to civilian and military resources to balance Indian might in the sub-continent. While China and Pakistan have shared regional interests and rivals, the crux of the bond is based on a reciprocal policy of non-interference in domestic issues, and avoiding a clash with each other’s core national interests, at least in the public arena. The China – Pakistan partnership thus serves the interests of both by presenting India with a potential two-front theater in the event of war with either country.

Over the years, Saudi Arabia has been a generous partner of Pakistan. The ongoing Saudi-Iranian rivalry for regional hegemony is now being played out in wider parts of the region and talks with Iran on its nuclear program are seemingly ‘going around in circles’. If Iran obtains nuclear weapons, some regional analysts and Western government officials assert that Saudi Arabia will react by entering into a nuclear defence pact with Pakistan. How likely it would be that Pakistan would actually participate in such a pact, is hard to say. However, it is clear that the strategic imperatives for doing so – especially with regard to balancing India and maintaining relationships with key states – would have to clearly outweigh the expected costs for Pakistan.

The strategic equation overall in South Asia and the Middle East remains precarious as these two regions remain in a period of great change and uncertainty, with shifting security relationships and intensifying rivalries. With the war in Afghanistan drawing to a close, the resumption of a regional one cannot be ruled out. It is therefore imperative that eyes are kept not only on today’s challenges but to also look over the horizon to the future strategic equation of the regions.




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