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Analysis: A nuclear deal — need or prestige?

Updated October 21, 2015

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An immediate and strong governmental denial is usually a sign that something is afoot.—AP/File
An immediate and strong governmental denial is usually a sign that something is afoot.—AP/File

IT may be the surest of things in politics: an immediate and strong governmental denial is usually a sign that something is afoot. With Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Washington to meet US President Obama in the White House tomorrow, Pakistani officials have denied that a civilian nuclear deal is being negotiated with the US.

In the small strategic community that works on nuclear issues in Pakistan, however, there is a general insistence that Pakistan fully merits a civilian nuclear deal — but that the terms floated in the US media and analyst community are unlikely to be accepted.

“What the Americans are trying to do is shape how we think about deterrence, but they’re a decade behind in their understanding of how on-ground and operational changes have affected deterrence posture,” said Maria Sultan, director general of the South Asian Strategic Stability Institute, which has close ties to the army.

Sultan argued that it is futile to link a civilian nuclear offer — which would potentially give Pakistan access to a global marketplace for nuclear power plants, technology, services and fuel for civilian purposes — to Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence against India because policymakers here would not allow the former to dictate the latter.


The architects of Pakistan’s nuclear policy may refuse to countenance American proposals of any limits — brackets — imposed on Pakistan’s short-range and long-range nuclear options because of the threat the architects perceive from India


US fears

As described in The Washington Post and The New York Times, the American proposals centre on Pakistan’s shortest-range missiles — so-called tactical nuclear weapons — and long-range ones.

Earlier this year, Peter Lavoy, a veteran intelligence and Pakistan expert who is reported to be leading the talks on the American side, bluntly catalogued the American concerns.

Moderating a discussion in the US with Khalid Kidwai, the founding director of the Strategic Plans Division, Lavoy said of the Nasr, the so-called battlefield nuke: “We (the US) moved away from them (short-range nuclear-armed missiles) ultimately… because of concerns about the intermingling of conventional forces and nuclear weapons in a battlefield theatre. And one of the concerns… is that this actually makes nuclear war more likely, rather than less likely, having these capabilities.”

On Shaheen-III — with a stated range of 2,750km to reach the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean, India’s farthest outpost — Lavoy offered: “But there’s a political dimension with the Shaheen-III that I think is troubling to the US government, and to many other governments of representatives here in the audience, that now you’ll have the ability to reach many other countries, in the Middle East, for example, that Pakistan didn’t have that capacity in the past.”

Lavoy essentially outlined a two-pronged American approach. One, tactical nuclear weapons create unmanageable and unacceptable risks for any state, while long-range, nuclear-capable Pakistani missiles can potentially destabilise the security calculus of countries in the Middle East.

Two, Pakistan’s deterrence needs against India can be adequately met by intermediate missiles and weapons. It is a radical idea — an attempt, as Maria Sultan dismissed, to make Pakistan’s nuclear policymakers re-think what deterrence ought to mean to Pakistan.

Pakistani interest

An initial Pakistani rejoinder to the American overtures came via a National Command Authority meeting on Sept 9, ten days after US Secretary of State Susan Rice visited Pakistan to formally invite Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the White House and firm up an agenda for the talks this week.

The response? Yes, we’re interested in a deal, but forget about your terms. The reiteration in the ISPR press release of “the national resolve to maintain ‘Full Spectrum Deterrence Capability’” was an explicit rejection of the so-called brackets — limits on extremely short range and very long range missiles — the American proposals are based on.

But in a jargon-filled continuation — replete with references to multilateral export control regimes, NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) and non-discrimination — the NCA emphasised a longstanding Pakistani demand: the normalisation of Pakistan’s nuclear programme and acceptance into the global nuclear order.

“Why do we want it?” a senior security official with direct knowledge of nuclear policy asked of a potential deal with the US, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to speak publicly. “There are three reasons: socioeconomic, technological and political,” the official said.

The first two reasons are relatively straightforward — but not persuasive to critics. Security officials claims that Pakistan’s energy needs means the country requires nuclear power and it should, if necessary, be able to source power plants from countries other than China. Meanwhile, the industrial complex that is built up around Pakistan’s relatively small but longstanding civilian nuclear infrastructure and scientific community will benefit from access to the latest technology on offer.

According to Naeem Salik, an expert on nuclear issues, access to other countries’ nuclear-power-plant technology could inject some competition into the present monopoly that China enjoys, which provides plants to Pakistan under a so-called grandfathering clause in the global regime that allows for pre-existing commitments to be honoured.

Salik added, “We are not going to build up endlessly,” referring to fissile material and weapons production. “So what about the infrastructure and personnel? They will need to be employed somewhere.”

But with Pakistan’s export capabilities limited and its capacity to import curbed by the prohibitive cost of nuclear technology and equipment, critics are not convinced Pakistan fundamentally seeks a deal for commercial advantage, scientific benefit or future energy needs.

The India factor?

“I think the issue is not so much Pakistan wanting a nuclear deal with the US like the one that India has, it is Pakistan’s compulsion to see itself and be seen as ‘equal’ to India. Crudely, the Two-Nation-Theory as foreign policy,” according to Zia Mian, a physicist at Princeton University and a peace activist. Nuclear policymakers, however, prefer to emphasise another aspect of the India equation: the concern that Pakistan may forever be left behind.

“If India gets in to the NSG, then we’ll be out,” the senior official said, referring to Nuclear Suppliers Group, an informal cartel of 48 nations that regulates civilian nuclear trade and which operates by consensus. India, as a result of the 2008 Indo-US nuclear deal, was granted a waiver to the NSG and aspires to become a full member of the NSG — once a member, India could block Pakistani entry in perpetuity.”

“It’s legitimacy. Pakistan wants parity with India not just on military terms, but politically and diplomatically. It’s psychological,” Naeem Salik claimed. But policymakers portray the psychological factor differently. “There is a prestige involved in it. Of course there is. There is status too. Why shouldn’t Pakistan take pride in its programme?” the security official asked.

Ultimately, however, India may be the very reason that Pakistan will keep demanding a civil nuclear deal from the US and why the US will be encouraged to keep discussing one with Pakistan. The architects of Pakistan’s nuclear policy may refuse to countenance American proposals of any limits — brackets — imposed on Pakistan’s short-range and long-range nuclear options because of the threat the architects perceive from India.

But because Pakistani nuclear policymakers are concerned that India will be ushered in and Pakistan forever locked out of global nuclear governance and that Pakistan will perpetually be subordinated in the global nuclear order, nuclear policymakers here are not likely to shut the door on talks with the US.

Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2015

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