SOUTH ASIA: The Most Dangerous Place in the World?

Article excerpt

Rouben Azizian reports on a recent conference in Auckland.

The Department of Political Studies of the University of Auckland in association with the Centre for Strategic Studies, Wellington, and the NZIIA's Auckland branch organised a conference entitled `Nuclear Proliferation and Conflict Escalation in South Asia. Implications for Global Arms Control and Regional Security'. The conference, held on 24-25 March, attracted considerable interest and was addressed by twenty speakers, including leading experts from India, Pakistan, the United States, and Australia. In view of space limitations only some of the papers, presented mainly by overseas scholars, will be reviewed here.

The conference coincided with the US President's visit to South Asia. Bill Clinton's public definition of the region as the most dangerous place in the world set the tone for the conference discussions. In his opening address, Chris Elder, Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs, expressed the view that there could be no quick solution either to the South Asian crisis or to the broader arms control problems. Therefore a constructive and patient dialogue was required.

The first speaker, Professor K.P. Singh of JMI University, Delhi, noted that in the last two decades India's security environment had been gradually deteriorating. In its neighbourhood, nuclear weapons had increased and more sophisticated delivery systems had been introduced. India, in this period, became the victim of externally aided and abetted terrorism, militancy and clandestine war through hired mercenaries. At the global level, there is no evidence yet of any move on the part of the nuclear-weapon states to take decisive and irreversible steps in moving towards a nuclear-weapon-free world. Instead, the Non-Proliferation Treaty has been extended indefinitely and unconditionally, perpetuating the existence of nuclear weapons in the hands of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Some of these countries have doctrines that permit the first use of nuclear weapons; these countries are also engaged in programmes of modernisation of their nuclear arsenals. Under such circumstances, India was left with little choice. It had to take steps to ensure that the country's nuclear option, developed and safeguarded over decades, was not eroded by a voluntary self-imposed restraint.

But strengthening India's security, argued Zafar Jaspal of the Islamabad Institute of Strategic Studies, has come at a price for its neighbours. India's nuclear tests on 11 and 13 May 1998 shifted the strategic balance of power in South Asia in its favour. Since the overt nuclearisation of India and Pakistan, nuclear weapons have occupied the centre-stage in the India-Pakistan defence and security debate. The centrality of nuclear weapons in the strategic discourse has entirely changed the strategic thinking in the region and led many to believe that the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir would perforce get frozen, as neither country would risk a confrontation that might escalate to the nuclear level. This assumption proved erroneous, however, because of their disagreement over Kashmir. Therefore, low intensity conflicts and limited border wars between India and Pakistan are not deterrable by the so-called nuclear balance of terror. Thus, the disputed Kashmir could be a tinderbox and a flash point for nuclear conflagration. However, so far the nuclear factor appears to have worked both ways, encouraging the crisis (by promoting limited border wars) but also helping to curb it (by countering the developments that would escalate to an all out conventional war, ending up in nuclear exchanges).

Samina Yasmeen of the University of Western Australia suggested that Pakistan's emergence as a declared nuclear-weapon state has to be assessed in connection with the country's return to military rule. The preference for democratisation has found expression, among other things, in the agreement that democracies are less likely to go to war than authoritarian regimes. …