South Asia is fundamentally unstable: US study

Published March 9, 2015
‘Pakistan, India and China continue to modernise and expand their weapons programmes’—AFP/File
‘Pakistan, India and China continue to modernise and expand their weapons programmes’—AFP/File

WASHINGTON: Nuclear competition in South Asia is “dangerous” while territorial disputes and cross-border terrorism complicate the situation further, warns a US think-tank.

A study by the prestigious US Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) warns that “domestic pressures add to the growing list of concerns about the region”.

Also read: US says meeting of Indo-Pak foreign secretaries encouraging

The study, “South Asia’s Nuclear Powers”, examines regional conflicts and nuclear doctrines of three nuclear-capable countries in the region — China, India and Pakistan.

‘Pakistan, India and China continue to modernise and expand their weapons programmes’

One of the experts mentioned in the study, Gregory Koblentz of George Mason University, Virginia, describes South Asia as a region that is “most at risk of a breakdown in strategic stability due to an explosive mixture of unresolved territorial disputes, cross-border terrorism, and growing nuclear arsenals”.

He warns that Pakistan is particularly vulnerable because it faces multiple challenges, including those from militant groups.

“Despite repeated claims by Pakistan that its nuclear facilities are secure, fears persist that a regional terrorist attack will escalate violence, prompting nuclear exchange,” the study claims.

International experts also worry about the possibility that if instability grows, Pakistan-based or affiliated militants may acquire nuclear weapons.

“Experts warn of intensified nuclear risks, especially in an age in which non-state actors can develop cyber-security capabilities to exploit nuclear security,” the study adds.

It points out that so far “there is no sign of nuclear modernisation abating in China, India or Pakistan”.

Another expert, Ashley J. Tellis of Carnegie Endowment, warns that “in the foreseeable future, the Asian reliance on nuclear weapons will increase”.

The study also notes that major nuclear powers have limited tools at their disposal to influence nuclear expansion in Asia, particularly because India and Pakistan are outside the NPT. “Nuclear risk reduction measures are few and far between across the region,” it added.

CFR’s Daniel S. Markey argues that nuclear competition in South Asia represents a classic conundrum of international relations: “Enormously high stakes, conflicting and entrenched interests, and at least in the near term, few realistic avenues for mitigating threats.”

He notes that the possibility of addressing these disputes in a more permanent way is also remote.

The study says the region’s three nuclear powers continue to expand and modernise their weapons programmes.

Motivated by the need to address perceived security threats, each is seeking to expand ballistic missile- and cruise missile-based nuclear delivery systems.

“Such nuclear competition is dangerous given mounting mistrust and a dearth of diplomatic measures in place to reduce risk of confrontation,” warns CFR.

“Pakistan’s chronic political instability, spotty non-proliferation record, and ongoing threats posed by militant forces have focused special concern on the safety of its nuclear materials,” it adds.

It points out that China is gradually increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal. It is also altering the composition of its nuclear forces to build up more mobile systems.

The study quotes from the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2014 report, which claims that China’s nuclear forces will grow considerably over the next five years, with the introduction of road-mobile nuclear missiles, ballistic missile submarines and multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles.

The study notes that India has an estimated stockpile of 90 to 110 warheads and is expanding its military nuclear capabilities. In 2011, New Delhi spent approximately $4.9 billion on nuclear weapons, up from $4.1 billion the previous year, according to Global Zero, a non-governmental disarmament movement.

India possesses a developed strategic nuclear programme and currently fields nuclear-capable aircraft and ballistic missiles controlled by a civilian command structure, the Nuclear Command Authority.

New Delhi has also invested in a ballistic missile defence system, longer-range ballistic missiles, nuclear submarines, MIRVs and ground-, air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, among other systems.

Experts estimate that Pakistan has 100 to 120 warheads and two types of delivery vehicles: aircraft and surface-to-surface missiles.

The study claims that Pakistan has nearly tripled the number of warheads it had a decade ago. And by 2020, Pakistan could have enough fissile material to produce 200 nuclear weapons.

Published in Dawn, March 9th, 2015

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