Double-Edged Sword: Nuclear Weapons and Regional Security

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THE DISPUTE BETWEEN INDIA AND PAKISTAN appears to have come full circle since the 1950s and 1960s to rest once again on the contested state of Kashmir. But the destructive power possessed by both states has grown enormously since that earlier era, and now includes short-range nuclear weapons and sophisticated conventional arsenals. This growth of military power has meant not just a greater capacity to coerce, deter, and defend, but also a realization that the enormous costs of war will probably outweigh any rational geopolitical gains. With this double-edged nuclear dimension, South Asia stands poised between danger and opportunity.

Although South Asia is not part of the three great formations of North America, Europe, and East Asia that form the core of the international system, the region matters for security, economic, and political reasons. Indian and Pakistani conventional military power have always determined security in and around South Asia, but the current or potential nuclear capabilities of these two nations now affect international security as well. The region also matters because of its economic potential: India and Pakistan have embarked on economic reforms and are growing at rates between four and seven percent per year. With more than a billion people between them, they constitute a market as large as China's. Finally, South Asia merits attention because three nations in the region, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal, have made transitions to democracy since 1988, while two other democracies, India and Sri Lanka, survive in difficult circumstances. The success of South Asia's new and old democracies in the midst of some of the most hostile conditions on earth could greatly strengthen the cause of democracy worldwide.

Disagreement between India and Pakistan comes from several sources, including the insecurity that Pakistan feels as a result of India's larger size and power and the conflicting nation-building philosophies of the two countries. This philosophical disagreement, between Indian secularism and Pakistani religious particularism, has acquired a zero-sum quality, with the success of secularism taken to be the failure of particularism, and vice versa. In addition, migrations, ethnic rebellions, communal violence, disputes over water, economic inequality, narcotics, and the spread of small arms have contributed to regional instability.

But the most pressing issue in South Asian stability since 1989 has been the Indo-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir, which has already caused two wars between India and Pakistan, first in 1948 and again in 1965. In 1989, Kashmir exploded with violence in the Indian-held portion and soon faced a full-scale insurrection. In 1990 tensions between India and Pakistan rose in the wake of Pakistani military exercises and an Indian military build-up in Kashmir, and spiraled into what could have become a nuclear confrontation. Even as the two countries sobered in the wake of the crisis, tensions continued. The destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya by Hindu extremists in December 1992 led to riots all over the Indian subcontinent and the demolition of Hindu temples in Pakistan. When Kashmiris on the Pakistani side of the border attempted to cross into India despite warnings from Indian authorities that they would be repelled by force, Pakistani forces shot and killed a number of demonstrators to prevent a border incident. The most serious incident since then occurred in early 1996, when a rocket attack destroyed a mosque in Pakistani-held Kashmir. Islamabad blamed Indian forces, and the two sides exchanged artillery fire.

Tension between India and Pakistan over Kashmir has caused anxiety outside the region, but seen in light of the regional record these tensions are not as alarming as they may initially appear. The same confluence of factors present in South Asia since 1989--internal troubles in Kashmir, Pakistani aid for the insurgents, and domestic political instability in India--combined to produce war in 1948 and 1965. …