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The Potential for Developing Shared Nuclear Responsibilities in an Unstable South Asian Nuclear Relationship

South Asian dynamics and strategic stability between India and Pakistan have been in a constant state of flux ever since both countries came into existence. Relations between the two states flare up and down depending on the circumstances as well as in relation to specific strategic developments such as the 2019 post-Balakot air skirmish and the more recent Indian missile firing incident. The unstable dyadic relationship between the two states at present can be best described as precarious owing to a lack of dialogue and periodic cross-border skirmishes. 

The Nuclear Responsibilities Framework, developed by BASIC and the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham, is aimed at understanding and ameliorating the risks of conflict in such relationships. One of the objectives of the framework is to identify shared responsibilities between adversarial states as a means to reduce nuclear dangers. The framework defines ‘Nuclear responsibilities’ as the responsibilities of states and other actors encompassing the full range of activities and policies associated with nuclear weapons, including declaratory policy, force structure, safety & security, non-proliferation, risk reduction, and disarmament.

The current state of relations between Pakistan and India is perhaps one of the most pertinent examples to understand how the framework can be applied to adversarial states with the aim to potentially reduce nuclear risks between the two. However, at the very onset it is important to note that such frameworks can only be successfully implemented once both states are agreeable and open to such accommodations.

Pakistan and India have not been engaging with one another at the Track-1 level, following the Balakot crisis of Feb 2019 and the Indian revocation of Kashmir’s special status on 5 Aug 2019. Nuclear jingoism, which can refer to chest thumping and inflammatory statements threatening nuclear use, is rife and lines of communication between the two states, which includes the Director Generals of Military Operations (DGMO) and Foreign Secretary hotlines, appear to be in a state of non-use. 

All the above identified issues culminate in a regional environment which can be termed as unstable at worst or precarious at best. In this environment of instability, animosity and communication blackout, the prospects of nuclear risk reduction, identification of shared responsibilities, and resumption of dialogue appear to be bleak. An added complication in such relationships, where adversarial states are not effectively communicating with each other, is that of media, especially social media, being used as the primary source of information. 

In the absence of trusted government-to-government lines of communication, hyper nationalist sentiments by contending publics over different media platforms have become the channels through which these two adversaries, especially the Indian side, communicate with each other. The media discourse, following the Indian air-strike in Balakot against an alleged militant camp in Feb 2019 and Pakistan’s response the following day, remained focused on chest-thumping and congratulatory messages for having taught the other side the right lesson. The calls for using the nuclear option were high, aided and abetted by statements threatening nuclear use (statements by Prime Minister Modi mentioning “Katal Ki Raat (Night of Murder) for Pakistan” and that the Indian “nuclear weapons are not firecrackers for Diwali”). 

Lack of official communication and nuclear jingoism remained the main theme of the crisis which began with the Indian cross-border air strike on 26 Feb 2019 followed by Pakistan’s response the next day. A dog-fight between Pakistani and Indian fighter jets resulted in the downing of an Indian aircraft, following which an Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman was taken prisoner by the Pakistani military.

Following the skirmish, social media added to the misinformation and whipped up the jingoistic fervor. Multiple viral posts wrongfully showcased footage of Russian military drills as evidence of Indian military might. On the other hand, another video post went viral which showed Pakistani tanks moving towards the Indian border. In reality, the video footage was from two years before. The Indian news agency AFP published more than thirty fact-check blogposts aimed a debunking the false claims made over various social media platforms.

It was only following the release of the Indian pilot by Pakistan as a goodwill gesture that the media discourse shifted to statements from Indian officials which now focused on “maintaining peace and stability in the region” and indications of “no further armed action.” 

Three years on, a similar situation developed on 9 March 2022, when an unidentified supersonic flying projectile, originating in India, traveled 124 km at 40,000 feet, crossed Pakistani airspace and crashed near the Khanewal District. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) released a statement the very next day on 10 March, detailing the parameters of the projectile (which matches with the Indian supersonic BrahMos Missile). However, it was not until two days later (on 11 March) that the Indian Ministry of Defence officially confirmed the incident, citing an accidental firing during routine maintenance. The statement appeared to be rudimentary and many commentators, from both countries, believed it to be a pacifying measure. Therefore, it did not come as a surprise that Pakistan demanded a joint probe into the matter after India announced a high-level enquiry. 

The media discourse in both countries, especially Pakistan, focused immediately on the irresponsibility shown by the Indian side in not informing Pakistan about the accidental launch at the time since the incident took place on 9 March however the Indian statement came two days later on 11 March. The Lahore Declaration of Febuary 1999 between India and Pakistan clearly states that, “The two sides undertake to notify each other immediately in the event of any accidental, unauthorised or unexplained incident that could create the risk of a fallout with adverse consequences for both sides, or an outbreak of a nuclear war between the two countries…” 

Being nuclear adversaries, and, in the absence of clear lines of communication, there is always a likelihood that the adversary could infer the worst and retaliate accordingly. The incident has also raised questions regarding the general sense of irresponsibility within the Indian nuclear command. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry released a statement which said, “the grave nature of the incident raises several fundamental questions regarding security protocols and technical safeguards against accidental or unauthorized launch of missiles in a nuclearized environment.”

While both countries maintain two hotlines between Foreign Secretaries and DGMO’s respectively, neither of these channels of communication were utilized by Indian officials to inform Pakistani counterparts about the accidental launch. Despite this radio silence from India on the matter, Pakistan’s restrained response can be taken as a testament to it taking its nuclear responsibilities seriously. These two major incidents, spread over a period of three years, show a consistent lack of communication in times of crises. For nuclear deterrence to be of any use, clear communication remains a prerequisite, especially between nuclear adversaries in an unstable dyadic relationship such as the India-Pakistan one. 

The geographical proximity adds to the dangers when the flight time of most missiles, from launch to target is less than ten minutes. For comparison, the flight times from launch to target between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War was close to thirty minutes which was not deemed enough to deploy countermeasures. While major crises were averted in 2019 and in 2022, this had more to do with at least one side showcasing the required due diligence and necessary restraint. 

These examples show the importance of clear lines of communication and the need for leaders to refrain from unnecessary nuclear jingoism to rile up the public. Feeding and fuelling public sentiments in this way, amped up by social media posts and trends, to the benefit of no one, can only lead to increased feelings of antagonism and bad faith towards the other side, In order to bring about any positive change in Pakistan-India relations, there is a need for bilateral actions. Unilateral actions by one state, however well meaning, cannot generate the same impact as bilaterally agreed frameworks. 

This is where the Nuclear Responsibilities Framework can play a significant role towards opening up avenues of potential cooperative measures in the future. Since the basic premise of the framework remains focused on identifying shared responsibilities between states, the onus of responsibility falls on both. In the Pakistan-India dyad, keeping the above examples in mind, one of the most important shared nuclear responsibilities could be improving the lines of communication, especially during crisis situations. While the DGMO and Foreign Secretaries hotlines exist, the events of 2019 and 2022 show that these have been reduced to little more than symbolic gestures. In the most recent examples of skirmishes between the two states, there has not been any indication that either hotline was used to warn or inform the other side. There was a time when the DGMO’s hotline was used every week to update the other side, however, the practice seems to have ceased either owing to institutional lethargy or a refusal to talk to the other side amid tense bilateral relations. 

Availability of an open and readily available line of communication between the two sides can be termed as a shared responsibility to reduce nuclear dangers during a bilateral crisis situation. While establishing a new hotline for immediate exchange of information in case of an emergency would be the best way to showcase a shared nuclear responsibility, the lack of Track-1 dialogue since the Indian action of 5 Aug 2019 makes it difficult. In such a scenario, reviving the existing hotlines remains the easier option as the groundwork is laid out. 

Another impediment to revival of relations between the two states is the prioritization of nuclear jingoism over substantive dialogue by the leadership. During any crisis situation, the priority for state organs remains on exaggerating the alleged nefarious designs of the other side which exacerbates nuclear risks. The same trends are then picked up by electronic media and replicated by the public through social media as seen in the aftermath of the air-skirmish in February 2019. During any crisis between Pakistan and India, the calls for teaching the other side a lesson and using nuclear weapons become rampant. 

Additionally, with no clear lines of communication between two nuclear armed adversaries, false news can play a major role in escalating or de-escalating a crisis. Addition of more sophisticated technologies like AI and Deep-Fake are making it nearly impossible to discern real from fake. In such situations, calls for using the nuclear option by media personal and the public are not only irresponsible but also dangerous. 

Familiarising the public and media personnel with dangers of actual nuclear use and the potential risks affiliated with threat of use thus becomes vitally important. A shared nuclear responsibility in this regard could be education of journalists and the general public about the pitfalls of nuclear jingoism and cavalier attitude towards nuclear weapons use.

In order to ascertain the usability of shared nuclear responsibilities, with the aim to reduce nuclear dangers between Pakistan and India, a pilot program focused on interactive discussion between academics/scholars from both sides could be a good starting point. This could allow the strategic communities on both sides to at least begin to view the other side’s perspective with an aim to develop shared nuclear responsibilities in the future. In this regard, BASIC and the ICCS at the University of Birmingham recently held a dialogue in Dubai which was aimed at bringing Track 1.5 and 2 individuals from different countries, including Pakistan and India, together with the aim to discuss possibilities of shared nuclear responsibilities. Such joint activities could potentially lead the way forward for actual actionable measures in the future. 

Interlocutors from both countries are well versed in areas of divergences between the two states. In order to mitigate nuclear risks, there is a need to identify areas of convergence that appeal to common interests, which can then be translated into shared nuclear responsibilities. A paradigm shift, where the two states recognize shared responsibilities for reducing nuclear risks before highlighting the other side’s irresponsibility, could potentially lead to a more stable South Asia.


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This article is co-published with the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham. 

Nidaa Shahid is a Senior Research Officer with the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS), Islamabad Pakistan. She is a former Research Fellow of King’s College London, UK; James Martin Centre for Non-proliferation Studies Monterey, U.S. and Sandia National Labs, Albuquerque, U.S. She holds an MPhil degree from the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan.

Views expressed belong solely to the original author of the article and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of BASIC.

Image: Unsplash

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