Nuclear Weapons Key to Peace in South Asia

Last week the Pakistani Cabinet voted unanimously to grant India the status of “Most Favored Nation” – a designation that will aid efforts to normalize trade relations between the two nations. This move is the latest in a series of decisions that indicate warming diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan. This process has surprised many observers, especially given the specter of nuclear annihilation that has loomed large over the subcontinent for the past 13 years. In many ways, however, the peace-building process between both nations seems to have been initiated by the development of nuclear weapons.  

In 1998, the Indian military detonated five nuclear devices at the Pokhran Test Range. Within 15 days, the Pakistani military conducted its own nuclear tests, detonating six devices in the Chagai Hills. By the end of the month, the two nations were embroiled in a rapid nuclear arms race as tensions simmered and already chilly relations turned to ice. The rest of the world watched with great apprehension as Pakistan, a nation seemingly caught between radical Islamists and an aggressive military apparatus, settled into a new cold war against an Indian Republic, besieged by the rising tide of Hindu nationalism. 

It seems these fears were unfounded. Not only have India and Pakistan resisted pushing the button, but the animosity between both nations that began with Partition in 1947 has finally shown signs of ending. In 2003, a formal peace process began with establishing a ceasefire along the Line of Control in Kashmir. Since then, both nations have cooperated in a series of joint Confidence Building Measures that have attempted to increase political, economic, and cultural ties between both nations. The Pakistani Cabinet’s decision to grant India Most Favored Nation status is a particularly promising move that is estimated to increase trade between both nations from $2.6 billion to nearly $8 billion per year.

In attempting to explain the emerging peace between India and Pakistan, many analysts credit the development of nuclear weapons by both nations. Prior to the nuclear testing in 1998, India and Pakistan had gone to war three times. Since 1998, India and Pakistan have engaged in only one significant conflict during the Kargil Crisis in 1999. This brief conflict is often attributed to a breach of authority by certain Pakistani military officers rather than the systemic dimensions of India-Pakistan relations, but this event was still the closest South Asia ever got to the nuclear brink. Many have argued that the threat of mutually assured destruction prevented the Kargil Conflict from escalating any farther and that the conflict demonstrated the need for more open channels of diplomatic communication and cooperation between India and Pakistan. 

It appears that the development of nuclear weaponry by India and Pakistan was an important instrument in establishing peace and regional stability rather than a doomsday scenario. Unfortunately, there are still shadows in India and Pakistan’s seemingly bright future. Non-state-actors, especially paramilitary groups and terrorist organizations have the potential to derail the peace process or even initiate a nuclear conflict. Non-state actors are not bound by the same model of nuclear deterrence that prevents nuclear-armed states from waging wars against one another. This fact, coupled with Pakistan’s historic willingness to train, arm, and support paramilitary groups engaged in wars against rival states is cause for very real concern.

Terrorist attacks such as the assault on the Indian Parliament in 2001 and the 2008 attacks in Mumbai have threatened the fragile trust between India and Pakistan, and led to a break in peace talks. In recent years, Pakistan has shown a greater willingness to work with India in eradicating terrorist groups. The Pakistani government has been surprisingly cooperative with India’s investigation of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and has actively engaged some of the more violent groups within its territory.

Recent charges of governmental support for the Haqqani Network and other violent terrorist groups have revived fears of Pakistani nuclear material making it into the wrong hands. Pakistan must take real, visible steps at preventing cooperation between the military and non-state groups in the border regions if the nuclear stability and emerging peace in South Asia is to continue.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons