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Shift in India’s nuclear policy?

April 02, 2017


THE complexity of nuclear deterrence should not prevent a wider understanding of how subtle shifts can lead to a profound increase in threat and danger. A recently released memoir by former Indian national security adviser Shivshankar Menon and comments by an MIT academic have combined to suggest that a shift in India’s nuclear ‘no first use’ policy is being undertaken, moving it away from its explicit policy of not using nuclear weapons first in a conflict with Pakistan and towards a policy of so-called preemption. The effect of that change, or even the possibility of such a change, can be twofold: a continuing nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan; and perhaps a lowering of the nuclear threshold, the point at which nuclear conflict becomes a real possibility. Unhappily, South Asia appears poised for another round of accusations and recriminations in the most dangerous of arenas.

No first use was always a political statement by India that could change in wartime and it has never been a policy on which Pakistan could base its own nuclear strategy. Simply, in the realm of nuclear weapons there is no room for concessions based on perceived intent, only strategy based on the other’s capabilities. But in the ongoing evolution of Indian strategy, a distressing spiral towards ever greater danger in the region is discernible. The Indian and western explanations for the shift are rooted in the perceived threat of a large-scale terrorist attack on Indian soil emanating from Pakistan. That was the justification for the destabilising Cold Start doctrine that led Pakistan to venture down the road to tactical nuclear weapons. Now, in response to Pakistan’s response to Cold Start, India is flirting with the idea of a preemptive nuclear attack on Pakistan to ostensibly deter it from considering using tactical nuclear weapons.

What the Indian and western explanations take for granted, however, is that India is a benign power that will only act defensively. For Pakistan, while India must be engaged in dialogue diplomatically, military strategy must be based on the possibility that India will not always have benign intentions. Indeed, in the current climate of growing right-wing political sentiment in India, it is an affront to Pakistan to suggest that Indian policy is necessarily and always will be benign towards it. For all right-minded and sensible people in India and Pakistan, the urgency for dialogue between the two countries is greater than ever. In the cause-and-effect, chicken-or-egg security dynamic between them, the only reality thus far has been an ever more armed region with an ever greater array of the most dangerous weapons known in the history of mankind. The Cold War proved that military logic can lead to ruinously expensive outcomes and wildly disproportionate weapons capabilities. Pakistan and India should take heed before it is too late to pull back from a race to mutual destruction.

Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2017