A South Asian Nuclear Reconciliation?

South Asia is often cited as the most intractable bilateral nuclear dispute on the planet. Even setting aside the divisive issue of Kashmir, the dispute between India and Pakistan has the added complexity that it involves at root the very identity of the two states. In Pakistan, whose nuclear arsenal was built up to keep up with India’s nuclear program and to make up for an inferiority in conventional capability, there is a historic sense of threat from India with which it has fought three wars.  India feels strategically threatened by China and is worried by Beijing’s nuclear cooperation with Islamabad. Pakistan-based Islamic militants who may be bent on fomenting another war between the two states are perceived as a threat to both countries.

And so in this context Tuesday and Wednesday’s Delhi meetings between foreign ministers, to discuss the core disputes between the neighbors, is particularly welcome. Amongst other issues they expect to be agreeing on several confidence-building steps around nuclear security. India had previously left peace talks in 2008 in response to the devastating Mumbai attacks that were subsequently said by some to be indirectly linked to Pakistan’s military intelligence service, the ISI. In the more recent attacks less than two weeks ago when 23 people died in three coordinated explosions, Indian officials were particularly careful to avoid accusations at this most sensitive time. The attacks were not allowed to derail the foreign ministers’ meeting. Let us hope India’s restraint is rewarded by a breakthrough in the relationship, and cooperation between the two countries to root out the source of such terrorism.

Some analysts believe that the nuclear relationship between the two countries is moving into a more mature phase, with greater coordination and more transparent intentions. There is certainly a need for an explicit recognition of mutual vulnerability, discussions on security and crisis management, and effective hot lines of communication. As Pakistan continues to expand its fissile material stocks at an alarming rate, and India explores more sophisticated delivery systems, both states would do well to discuss further all elements of their doctrines and find ways of avoiding the slide into a more expensive and dangerous arms race.

One way of avoiding this would be to reconsider their distrust of current proposals for a Fissile Material Cut off Treaty (FMCT). Pakistan has been the principal veto on any FMCT discussions within the Conference on Disarmament which works by consensus, yet potentially has the most to gain from it.  India’s capacity to expand its production of fissile material is much greater than Pakistan’s, given its larger industrial capacity (potentially even greater as a result of the 2008 Nuclear Suppliers Group agreement and subsequent deals with U.S., Russia and France that Pakistan so bitterly complains about). Most intelligence sources suggest that Pakistan has at least caught up with India in terms of stocks, and an FMCT could effectively cap India’s capacity. An FMCT could have important regional, as well as global benefit.

U.S. officials have recently been more optimistic on their chances of persuading the whole P5 to move forward within the CD on discussions around an FMCT, although there is a recognition that such a process will take years. They should not give up on finding the means of persuading Pakistan to recognize its own interests in shaping the initiative from the inside.

Paul Ingram

These are the personal views of the author.

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