The nuclear balance in South Asia

The April 12-13 summit on nuclear security in Washington has prompted discussion in Pakistan and India about the role of nuclear weapons and the regime of nuclear security in the region. This is happening against the backdrop of a continuing nuclear arms race between Pakistan and India. Pakistan is laying emphasis on increasing the role of its nuclear assets in permanent competition with India in an effort to even the overall balance of arms.

On the trail of the Washington-Delhi accord

Pakistani and Indian analysts say that the status of both countries as nuclear powers is now a globally acknowledged fact. The signing of an agreement on atomic energy between Washington and Delhi is seen as clear confirmation of this recognition.
In the opinion of the Pakistanis, it is now their country’s turn. Islamabad is unequivocally asking for the attention of Washington and Delhi in the nuclear field and is trying to say that in South Asia Pakistan, as a declared nuclear power, has as much right to supplies of non-military U.S. nuclear technology and atomic reactors as India.

At first the Pakistanis denounced the Indian-American deal as discriminatory (with respect to Pakistan). They claimed it would upset the nuclear balance in South Asia and lead to an arms race and thus disrupt the system of nuclear security in the region.
At the same time, Islamabad has made it clear that it is suffering from a serious shortage of energy and therefore plans to build nuclear power reactors with a total capacity of 8800 MWe by 2030, and is therefore counting on a similar deal. Washington, however, has declared that it is not ready to consider such an agreement with Pakistan given that country’s “dismal” record in nuclear proliferation (i.e. the illegal nuclear trafficking network of nuclear scientist Abdul Quadeer Khan). Even so the question has been repeatedly raised, most recently during the January visit of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

In making these demands and insisting on recognition as a nuclear power, Pakistan notes that, as a country weaker than India, nuclear weapons are a substantial factor in its security, a “convincing minimal means of restraint”.

The South Asian tandem and the non-proliferation regime

As for the attitude of Pakistan and India toward the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), both countries consider it imperative to abstain from “discriminatory regimes”, whether in the field of non-proliferation, disarmament or nuclear security.

They propose that three non-participants in the NPT that are also nuclear powers — namely, India, Israel and Pakistan — be included in the Treaty as nuclear powers once the appropriate amendments have been made.

Interestingly, concerning the NPT question, the Indians consider that the non-proliferation propaganda for non-participant countries ignores the existing obligations and responsible behavior of India as compared with the five official nuclear powers and Pakistan. India, they say, has already declared that it will never sign the NPT as a non-nuclear power and would like to switch to a Convention on the prohibition of nuclear weapons intended to bring about universal disarmament.

In the context of nuclear security in South Asia, the Indians also consider that Pakistan may have realized that India will never sign the NPT as a non-nuclear power, especially after the Indian-U.S. accord and the permission given India by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The only alternative, however distant, is that India would sign the NPT as a nuclear power. In any case, the NPT ought to be amended.

As for the CTBT, in the opinion of American non-proliferation expert Rodney W. Jones, president of the private consulting firm Policy Architects International, “the inability of India to sign the CTBT may negatively affect its prospects for receiving a place as a permanent member on the U.N. Security Council. If China ratifies the CTBT, then everyone’s attention will shift to Pakistan and India.” In Jones’ considerations there is no mention of the prospects for the ratification of the CTBT by Washington. However, other American experts consider that President Barack Obama will request this in a year or two and that if it happens then India (followed by Pakistan) might agree to sign the CTBT and the situation with nuclear security in South Asia would change significantly for the better.

There is another problem with respect to the regime of nuclear security in South Asia, one that could affect it for the worse, this is the problem of non-government actors, international terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan and working to get hold of nuclear weapons. In our view, such a danger does potentially exist, but would be possible given an extreme worsening of the political situation inside Pakistan and a dramatic Islamic shift in its government, up to and including the coming to power of Islamic radicals. In any case, such a scenario cannot be entirely ruled out. At the same time, the regime of nuclear security in South Asia could change for the worse and nuclear weapons could wind up in the hands of Islamic radicals. The consequences of such an event must not be underestimated since it would create serious problems for the security of such states as India (bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan) and Russia (bordering South Asia). Moreover, it would create, in our view, problems for Washington whose troops are in Afghanistan and which, as the American media has reported, has long been preparing a special plan to isolate Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in case the current regime falls and power is seized by Islamists.

These are the realities of nuclear security in South Asia today. How should Russia respond to these challenges? Working to get India and Pakistan to sign the NPT as non-nuclear powers seems unrealistic, while involving them as nuclear powers would require substantial changes to the Treaty itself. Both Pakistan and India insist on this. But such changes are highly unlikely. At the 2010 NPT Review Conference in May in New York, the parties will most likely vote to keep the Treaty as is, especially the five nuclear signers.

Far more attractive is the systematic work being done to involve India and Pakistan in the CTBT. But for this it is essential that China and the United States ratify this Treaty.

As for the nuclear security of South Asia, then, as we see it, Russia should support any bilateral confidence measures in the nuclear field and in the field of conventional weapons that have already been achieved and in future may be achieved between India and Pakistan. In this, Russia could actively cooperate with the United States as a country that supports relations of strategic partnership with India and allied relations with Pakistan. It is also important that between India and Pakistan there be maintained in future a general balance in nuclear and conventional weapons.

In the long term Russia could propose to Pakistan its cooperation in the field of non-military atomic energy (supplying nuclear reactors, for example) so as to support the nuclear balance in the region and open new markets for Russian nuclear reactors, on condition of course that Pakistan meet all of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s requirements, and not at the expense of the development of Russian-Indian nuclear cooperation. Finally, Russia could try to convince Pakistan not to insist on a nuclear deal with the United States, China or France, but to first produce weighty evidence of the absence in Pakistan of the possibility in future of nuclear proliferation from its soil. Still, it must be admitted that Russia’s foreign-policy opportunities with respect to the nuclear security of South Asia are fairly limited owing to its Indo-centric model of diplomacy in the region.

Vladimir Sotnikov is a senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies.

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