Nuclear Risk Reduction in South Asia
Siddharth Mallavarapu ·       

Do states generically tend to plod slowly but surely into a new strategic equilibrium subsequent to nuclearization? What measures do these states undertake to safeguard their arsenals and reduce the dangers of a nuclear conflict? From the perspective of South Asia, can one posit an analogy with the Cold War nuclear experience of the FSU and the US? Michael Krepon and Chris Gagne seek to address some of these issues in a useful co-edited collection of articles that examines possibilities to minimize risks of a nuclear conflict in the South Asian region.

At the outset, a critical caveat informs their study. Any measure to minimize nuclear risk is premised on an acknowledgement that there must exist a political environment that enables these measures to be initiated and then subsequently be sustained across time. Of relevance in this context is also a simultaneous recognition that nuclear risk reduction measures do not completely eliminate the possibility of a nuclear conflict. Political moderation among all concerned actors is regarded as a prerequisite that must inform any potential programme of reducing nuclear risks.

A fundamental question that animates the backdrop of this co-edited collection is whether the Cold War experience can provide us some useful lessons with regard to minimizing nuclear risk. There appears to be a consensus affirming a South Asian particularism in this matter. It would be a fallacy as some contributors here argue to assume correspondence of circumstances in the nuclear conflict of the subcontinent in relation to the Cold War nuclear dynamic. However, this does not come to imply that there is nothing of value to be gleaned from those critical decades in our recent history. Whether it was a stroke of infinite 'good fortune' (Krepon) or the counter claim that deterrence works, nuclear conflict did not occur during the Cold War years. What however is irrefutable is that the world did hover closely around potential nuclear disasters on more than one occasion during these decades.

The opening three pieces by Krepon, P.R.Chari and Gagne are consciously theoretical. My focus here is confined to the central propositions advanced in this context. The initial piece by Krepon studies the elements that go into the architecture of nuclear risk reduction. Recounting and drawing on Cold War experience without committing to a project of simple reductionism when it comes to South Asia, Krepon runs through salient aspects of nuclear risk management. The most important point of departure for nuclear adversaries during the Cold War was their willingness to concede that the territorial status quo will not be altered through military force. This was coupled with a range of other proposals related to eschewing any form of brinkmanship, transparency through verification, effective command and control systems and a faith in adherence to treaties agreed upon by the concerned nuclear weapon states.

It is not very hard to discern that this is a tall order for nuclear weapon states to achieve. The FSU and the US also spent decades translating some of these nuclear risk reduction measures into material realities. What is probably of particular consequence from Krepon's reading of history is that, the incipient phases are the toughest to plough through and tend to throw up the greatest 'vulnerability'. While Krepon sees these measures as worthwhile, he does not detail how they may be operationalized in the South Asian context. This does not however necessarily weaken the argument; on the contrary it concedes the space for factoring in the political culture of South Asia, in order to make for more credible nuclear risk reduction measures.

A second line of argument advanced by P.R.Chari theoretically engages and establishes the relevance of Glenn Snyder's well known 'stability-instability paradox' to the South Asian setting. The paradox argues that perceived nuclear stability may in fact generate levels of instability at lower levels. While conceding that the impetus for nuclearization in South Asia was prestige driven and supported by 'strategic enclaves' (Abraham) what attracts interest here is a consideration of the rationality-irrationality problem in the context of potential nuclear actions in South Asia. Chari argues persuasively that it would be wrong to assume a rationality of the military leadership in Pakistan just as much as India is capable of provocative and bellicose rhetoric in this regard. Accidents (Sagan), scope for misperceptions (Jervis) and the inability to maintain the distinction between combatants and non-combatants in the event of a nuclear conflict make nuclearization morally unacceptable. Chari also affirms that historical animosities need to be addressed and the Kashmir question needs to be resolved if we are to minimize the possibility of armed conflict involving nuclear weapons.

Gagne articulates a further affirmation of the relevance of the stability/instability paradox to the South Asian instance. He claims that 'deterrence in South Asia is tenuous at best.' An incremental strategy is recommended that will 'first build momentum, with small initiatives that are relatively easy to implement.' Distinguishing between the lineages of nuclear optimists (Waltz) and nuclear pessimists (Sagan), Gagne argues that the Waltzian prerequisites for nuclear stability do not obtain in South Asia. Thus he strikes a pessimistic note with regard to the future of stability in South Asia premised on existing nuclear theology and practice in the region.

While the tone and tenor of the book is largely framed by the opening three pieces the rest of the contributions are devoted substantially to the missile programmes, ambitions and dangers that are posed in the South Asian context. W.P.S.Sidhu for instance argues that we need to move towards a 'global de-alerting regime' or at the least a tripartite (involving China, India and Pakistan) level treaty formalization of the 'induction without deployment' formula. Such a posture is currently the mainstay of the Indian nuclear missile programme. The primary contention that Sidhu also makes in the context of South Asia is that learning about nuclear risk has been largely 'crisis driven'. The Kargil episode in his view established that nuclear weapons intrinsically did not guarantee that conflict would not occur nor did it guarantee that escalation scenarios in the future are impossible. Sidhu also underlines the significance of missiles in the South Asian context as delivery vehicles for nuclear warheads and argues that even conventional deployment of missiles may send wrong 'signals' to other nuclear weapon states in the region. Thus prior notification of 'missile movements' as well as a sound communication system is viewed as essential to any nuclear risk reduction scheme in our context.

The core inventory elements of nuclear risk reduction come in for further evaluation in accounts by the other contributors. South Asian missile nomenclature as also the possibility of 'agreements' entailing stages of the missile life cycle attracts the attention of Kent L.Biringer while aerial inspection built on the Open Skies model receives the attention of John H.Hawes and Teresita C.Schaffer. Kashmir qualifies as relevant interest in Brian Cloughley's account and transcripts of a conversation between assorted officials about Brasstacks points to the crucial role played by the United States in ensuring that the Brasstacks crisis did not escalate into a regular armed conflict between India and Pakistan.

Another development that garners considerable attention toward the end of the book deals with the NMD move by the United States examined in terms of implications for the question of missile defence in Asia. Rajesh Basrur argues that missile defence is a 'moral imperative' and further that it would lend greater regional stability and is unlikely to alter substantially the nuclear equilibrium in Asia. While Muhatir Mohammed interprets Indian interest in missile defence as yet another regional hegemonic gesture, Arvind Kumar observes that the Chinese will view US interest in NMD as hegemonic and will respond strategically thereby altering the regional dynamic in South Asia. Sifting through these narratives one gets a sense of the increasing significance of the missile dimension for the future of Asia.

The penultimate contribution deals with the Indian draft nuclear doctrine. Lawrence Prabhakar argues that while Indian nuclear weapons are not to be treated as instruments of 'war-fighting' they serve as a hedge or 'insurance policy' against potential aggressors. However, of relevance is the fact that nuclear minimalism defers the question of the 'minimum' to circumstances and does not commit to a statistical nuclear force size. Krepon has the last word in the book arguing that minimalism could accommodate 'open-ended' programmes subsequently. Faith in nuclear restraint is ultimately placed on the political leadership in South Asia.

The book is an important point of departure for anybody interested in engaging the question of risks posed by nuclear weapons in the region and drawing on what existing models of nuclear risk reduction have to offer. Ultimately strategic culture predispositions of the region cannot be discounted to arrive at the feasibility of these measures. While the book makes for value-addition in terms of its chosen issue-area, assessments of the missile programme tend toward the end to be far too many to grip your attention. The collection could have made for more interesting production as well and avoided some glaring typographical errors.

However, of value here is a reminder through the language of nuclear risk reduction that mainstream triumphalism in both India and Pakistan that greeted the tests were unwarranted-and what may in fact be far more crucial is an introspection regarding the strategic future in Asia as also inevitably other parts of a nuclearized world.