A NUCLEAR South Asia became a more dangerous place when the Bush administration ‘de-hyphenated’ policy towards India and Pakistan. India was favoured with civilian nuclear cooperation and given support for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, while leaving Pakistan out in the cold. It was encouraged to build itself up as China’s Asian rival. Not surprisingly, this strategic discrimination led to an intensification of the nuclear and conventional arms race in South Asia.

Some Western analysts have proposed quick fixes to undo the consequences. Mark Fitzpatrick of the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies recently proposed that Pakistan be treated, like India, as a ‘normal nuclear state’ and offered civilian nuclear cooperation and membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group in exchange for signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and stopping fissile material production.

In an opinion piece in this paper, Michael Krepon of the Stimson Centre in Washington pointed out, rightly, that most Pakistanis do not believe that such ‘normal’ status will advance national security or address the underlying reasons for Pakistan’s ‘nuclear build-up’. This would certainly be the case if India is not required to simultaneously sign the CTBT and halt fissile material production.

The new Washington assertion is that ‘the biggest existentialist threat to Pakistan at present — is violent extremist groups, not India’. While terrorist groups have destabilised Pakistan, they do not pose an ‘existential’ threat. Pakistan’s nuclear assets are not likely to be turned against (its own) civil and military authority. The terrorists do not have the military capability to capture these assets. As Fitzpatrick has noted, Pakistan’s security measures to protect its nuclear assets — against internal and external threats — are among the best in the world.

In any case, no terrorist group has the technological capability to actually use nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. The best they could do is explode a ‘dirty bomb’ whose destructive force would be smaller than that of a ‘Daisy Cutter’.

If the danger of a terrorist takeover is a precondition for ‘normal nuclear’ status in South Asia, questions should be raised about India’s nuclear arsenal which is held under loose civilian control.

Pakistan should be admitted to the Nuclear Suppliers Group to secure its full cooperation on safety and security and non-proliferation issues. This would be a prudent step which acknowledges that Pakistan possesses the full nuclear fuel cycle and that its cooperation is essential to broaden and eventually universalise the non-proliferation and safety objectives of the Suppliers Group and the international community.

But the Suppliers Group has no leverage with Pakistan to ask it to accept unequal preconditions to be treated as a ‘normal’ state. Pakistan already has robust civilian nuclear cooperation with China. It is not likely to obtain similar cooperation, for political and financial reasons, from others, even if it joins the Suppliers Group.

Another argument frequently advanced to restrain Pakistan’s response to India’s build-up is that New Delhi will out-compete Pakistan and therefore it should seek security by normalising relations with India. This prescription begs the question.

For more than 60 years, normalisation has not happened largely because India has resisted equitable solutions to disputes, especially Kashmir, and pursued a conventional and nuclear military build-up which is justified by its rivalry with China but is mostly deployed against Pakistan. It is strange that while Pakistan is asked to ‘normalise’ relations with India and refrain from competing with it, the latter is deemed justified, and openly encouraged, to arm against China.

America’s strategic tilt towards India has blurred its vision of the real danger in South Asia. India’s conventional and nuclear build-up, its war-fighting doctrine Cold Start and its refusal to address the volatile Kashmir dispute, have combined to create an ever-present possibility of a nuclear confrontation with Pakistan.

As history attests, India-Pakistan crises can erupt suddenly. A crisis could be sparked by suppression in Kashmir, a terrorist incident in India or new competition in Afghanistan.

Instead of addressing this danger, Western capitals focus on ways to contain Pakistan’s efforts to deter India — witness the opposition to its tactical missile deployment — and project the threat of a ‘terrorist takeover’ in Pakistan as justification for discrimination against it and, worse, for plans to neutralise its nuclear and strategic capabilities.

The path towards ‘nuclear normalcy’ in South Asia is a wide, two-way street. Instead of pressing discriminatory demands on Pakistan, Western governments and think tanks should contemplate what they, and in particular the US as a global power, can do to prevent a nuclear catastrophe in South Asia and promote genuine ‘nuclear normalcy’.

Most importantly, they, as well as Russia and Israel, should restrain India’s arms build-up and stop supplying it with destabilising weapons such as anti-ballistic and intercontinental missiles and technologies as well as nuclear fuel (which will enable India to expand its nuclear arsenal).

Second, the US should encourage India to accept conventional and nuclear CBMS with Pakistan specially the Nuclear Restraint Regime proposed by Pakistan since 1998. Signing the CTBT and a halt in fissile material production could be part of such steps for reciprocal restraint.

Finally, if India’s build-up is indeed thought to be driven by China’s military progress, the US could contribute to South Asian stability by exercising self restraint in its so-called pivot to Asia, stop building alliances around China’s periphery and deploying most of its naval forces in the Asia-Pacfic region, and thus avoid China’s response.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Opinion

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