Towards Next Steps in India-Pakistan Strategic Stability

Strategic stability is normally assumed to mean deterrence stability. This assumption is simplistic as the term signifies much more than merely the prevalence of nuclear deterrence between two nuclear-armed states. The foremost causes of our regional instability are the nuclear weapons-cum-missile development programme of China, North Korea, and Pakistan; the rise of Islamist fundamentalism; the diabolical nexus between narcotics trafficking and terrorism; the proliferation of small arms; and the instability inherent in the rule of tyrannical regimes. 

Between India and Pakistan (both nuclear-armed states) in the past, disagreements have led to full-fledged wars and limited conflicts. While the battles took place when India and Pakistan were not nuclear states, the limited conflict in 1998 took place even as India and Pakistan were nascent nuclear powers. The confidence to introduce nuclear weapons into the theatre of war was possibly low on both sides at a strategic and tactical level. The nuclear factor has come to acquire paramount importance in India–Pakistan relations and is crucial to regional stability. Strategic stability in the South Asian subcontinent is being maintained by the size of nuclear forces wherein near parity exists. This essentially implies that in the prevailing strategic balance, pre-emption would not work and the side attempting to leverage its nuclear capability would face devastating riposte. Seen in this limited perspective, stability exists at the strategic level between India and Pakistan.

The ‘nuclear coming out’ of India and Pakistan in 1998 was the outcome of a stability-instability paradox in South Asia wherein the relationship between the two countries is marked with instability at the tactical level. The relative parity in the nuclear force numbers has been crucial in maintaining strategic stability in the subcontinent. This significantly disincentivizes pre-emption as any party attempting to leverage its nuclear capability would face a devastating response. Seen in this limited perspective, stability in the India – Pakistan equation does exist at the strategic level.

The constantly evolving geostrategic realities of nuclear deterrence have compelled both countries to invest in better capabilities and technologies (with India pursuing ballistic missile defense systems (Cold Start) and Pakistan enhancing tactical nuclear weapons). Separately, at some point, the two categories of strategic partnerships: Indo-U.S strategic partnership and China-Pakistan Strategic co-operation has evolved into a unique kind of equilibrium in South Asia.

However, having achieved mutual deterrence, both sides are exploring options under the nuclear threshold to further their national interests, negatively affecting nuclear equation in the region. Thus, the balance of power in South Asia revolves around the competition over nuclear and conventional military build-up between India and Pakistan.

There are factors beyond the nuclear juxtaposition of India and Pakistan, and are yet relevant factors to the strategic stability in the region – the high threats of non-nuclear conflicts in South Asia (ethnoreligious cleavages, Kashmir conflict, water issues, China); the conventional disparity in South Asia; cross-border terrorism; and the proliferation of military technologies.

Recommended Next Steps

Regardless of the best efforts of theorists and analysts in the West as well as South Asia, many have recognized and acknowledged that escalation is not easy to control. The future of South Asia continues to be threatened by the spectre of nuclear war between the two neighbours. The misunderstanding in perceptions of each other’s nuclear and conventional thresholds needs to be urgently addressed. 

1.    Communication is key to check the escalation of conventional wars to nuclear devastation. The two countries must ensure that a crisis does not escalate to an unmanageable level and that the military and civilian casualties and material damage are kept as low as possible. Mutually acceptable or previously agreed mechanisms for de-escalation should come into play, including the possibility of using backchannel interlocutors. 

2.    Several other risk-reduction measures could be adopted – a) including the establishment of risk-reduction centers manned by mixed groups of officials from both sides to defuse crises before they erupt; b) exchanging information on national steps to ensure safety and security of nuclear stockpiles; and c) establishing hotlines between the two Air Forces and nuclear establishments, among others. All of this, however, requires a considerable amount of trust that currently lacks in the bilateral relations.

3.    The international non-proliferation regime and nuclear-weapon states (such as the US, Russia and China) need to step up and display their commitment to nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. The need of the hour is to build new START (follow-up), ratify CTBT, and begin negotiations on FMCT rather than breaking down existing structures such as the INF Treaty. 

4.    Regional level Nuclear Security Summit on the lines of the global summit that stopped meeting since 2016. The summit had brought about a great degree of awareness on nuclear security, its challenges and the need to protect the nuclear arsenals among the civilian.

5.    Regional policy of No First Use (NFU) – China and India has this policy in place and in case Pakistan decides to be a party to this camp, the strategic stability in the region could be far higher.

6.    India has always had a conventional superiority in warfare with Pakistan. The use of asymmetric warfare and low-intensity conflict (using non-state actors), is a threat/or challenges to the strategic stability of South Asia. Don’t allow your soil to be misused.

7.    The emergence of external actors in the India-Pakistan dynamics may play a positive role in maintaining strategic stability in the long run. The growing influence of external actors could impact the strategic autonomy in decision making of a country. China’s influence in Pakistan is increasing even as India, and the US is working closer than ever before. There are numerous reports that Russia may collaborate with China and Pakistan in the near future. As external actors begin to have more interests, they are expected to play a positive role in nullifying any escalation of disagreements into a full-fledged conflict, including a nuclear one between India and Pakistan.

It follows, therefore, that there exists between the two countries a huge mismatch in the perception of threat, constitution and management of escalation, doctrinal thinking and command and control. In addition to the above, there are cultural and psychological factors that impact both decision making and response dynamics. Clearly, it is not in the interest of either India or Pakistan for deterrence to break down. In case the unthinkable does come to pass, both countries must ensure that the crisis does not escalate to a disruptive level. The military, civilian casualties and material damage should be kept as low as possible. Mutually acceptable or previously agreed mechanisms for de-escalation should come into play, including the possibility of using backchannel interlocutors.

The February crisis has serious implications for escalation dynamics in South Asia. The Indian Foreign Secretary’s statement on pre-emptive strikes attempted to establish a new precedent for India-Pakistan relations. Under this new precedent, India may choose to carry out kinetic action to preempt a possible terrorist attack, thereby shifting the responsibility of avoiding such crisis on to Pakistan. While this may appear to be a commitment trap for India, it is also a necessary change in its longstanding policy of strategic restraint. This crisis also reiterated that enough space exists below the nuclear threshold for a limited exchange of conventional force between the two neighbours. Though the military responses (during the crisis) of both India and Pakistan were controlled to a large extent, this cannot be expected in the future. 

Author: Portia Conrad
Portia B. Conrad is presently working with Ambassador Shyam Saran at the India International Centre, New Delhi. She was formerly associated with the Ministry of External Affairs and National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India. Her key interests lie in security-related issues in Afghanistan and Pakistan.