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Beyond nuclear stability

As India and Pakistan start talks on nuclear and conventional military confidence-building measures this week in Islamabad, part of the atte...

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
December 14, 2004

As India and Pakistan start talks on nuclear and conventional military confidence-building measures this week in Islamabad, part of the attention of the negotiators should be riveted on those outside the room — the so-called international community.

If normalisation of relations is the central political objective for India in the peace process with Pakistan, Kashmir is the core issue for Islamabad, and promoting military stability between the two nuclear neighbours has been the principal priority in the region for the US and other major powers.

Looking at it cynically, India and Pakistan should have little difficulty in signing off a series of agreements from the well-known laundry list of nuclear CBMs. At the meeting of their nuclear experts last June, India and Pakistan, indeed, got down to the business of reducing the risk of war between the two nations.

They agreed to institute secure lines of communications between the two establishments. India also handed over a draft agreement on the prior notification of ballistic missile flight testing. Both are useful ideas, but not new. They were outlined in the memorandum of understanding signed during the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Lahore in 1999.

The world is looking at the pace of negotiations and the level of commitment to implement them. It is natural that the two foreign offices will pore over punctuation marks and quibble on technical details to assure themselves that the other is not setting up a hidden unilateral advantage.

New Delhi and Islamabad should know that the willingness of the rest of the world to accept them as part of the official nuclear club depends on the ability of India and Pakistan to responsibly manage their own nuclear relationship. In their last statement on the subject, the two foreign secretaries reiterated their self-perception as nuclear weapon powers and demanded a dialogue with other nuclear powers. If India and Pakistan want to be taken seriously, they must show results from their nuclear talks.

At a time when the rules of the global nuclear game are being recast by the Bush Administration, India and Pakistan must find ways to cooperate on the nuclear issue. The two foreign offices should resist the usual temptation to merely score points against each other.

While the nuclear measures are useful, it is more important to consider mechanisms that reduce the prospects for conventional military tensions. Recurring crises between India and Pakistan since the late 1980s have raised international concerns on the threat of use of nuclear weapons in the subcontinent. But the atomic risk in South Asia cannot be addressed by nuclear-specific measures alone. What the two sides need is a broader agenda of CBMs that will reduce the likelihood of a conventional military confrontation which could escalate to the nuclear level.

India and Pakistan already have a set of such CBMs. These include the notification of army exercises of a certain size near the border and a commitment by the two air forces not to violate each other’s airspace. These two agreements were signed in 1991. But there has been no real political ownership of these CBMs in either country. Neither side has been willing to underline the importance of avoiding conventional military tensions.

Breaking from this dismal tradition, at the last round of foreign secretary talks, India proposed a broad package of conventional military CBMs that could lead to greater interaction between the two military establishments and ultimately to military peace on the international border as well as the LoC in Jammu and Kashmir.

As it awaits the Pakistani response, New Delhi hopes Islamabad would move away from its rhetoric on a “strategic restraint regime” and proposals for “mutual and balanced force reductions”. Islamabad has traditionally sought to link nuclear negotiations with conventional force reductions and inject the notion of military parity between the two nations. India which faces military challenges on other borders will naturally not yield to this framework proposed by Pakistan. Islamabad has also sought to whip up passions over India’s “massive” conventional arms acquisitions after the Kargil war in 1999.

But the time has come for India and Pakistan to move away from the sterile debates of the past towards pragmatic negotiations on conventional military issues which are of strategic importance. Two new factors facilitate a forward-looking approach to conventional military stability between India and Pakistan. First, the objective reality of nuclear parity with India should reduce Pakistan’s fear that India will use its alleged conventional military superiority, to the extent that it exists, to political advantage. The lesson from the recent military tensions in the subcontinent has been that India cannot go to a full scale conventional war against Pakistan. Second, India and Pakistan will have to move, over the long term, towards significant cuts in the size of their armed forces, make them more technology-intensive and re-orient them towards dealing with the new security challenges. For India and Pakistan, this agenda of military modernisation mandates itself amid the changing global defence environment.

A three-fold opportunity then awaits India and Pakistan. One, rapidly stabilise the nuclear relationship. Two, take advantage of nuclear parity to bring about predictability and stability to the military conditions on their border and the LoC. Three, use peace and tranquility on the border to make their military forces lean and modern.

A stark military choice confronts India and Pakistan. They could keep boxing around a military stalemate on their borders. Or they could liberate themselves from the burdens of territorial defence to play a role beyond the subcontinent by contributing to the maintenance of international peace.

There are growing signs that the second round of Indo-Pak talks is sliding into an unseemly sparring on tactical issues. India must inject strategic purposefulness into the dialogue on nuclear and military stability with Pakistan.

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