Escalating Tensions in South Asia

By Oakley, Robert B.; Snyder, Jed C. | Strategic Forum, April 1996 | Go to article overview

Escalating Tensions in South Asia

Oakley, Robert B., Snyder, Jed C., Strategic Forum


* Policymakers in both India and Pakistan have concluded that the potential capability to develop and deploy nuclear weapons serves their national security and political interests. International efforts to reverse these conclusions are unlikely to succeed, particularly if these initiatives center on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) regime.

* The present state of tension and the ambiguous balance of nuclear capabilities and ballistic missiles between India and Pakistan is not sustainable over the long-term because deterrence could break down in a crisis. Nuclear-armed missiles could be deployed or even used, by one or both parties, perhaps for preemptive purposes. Even without a crisis, escalating domestic and regional tensions may lead India and Pakistan into declared nuclear weapons programs. A nuclear arms race, analogous in nature (but not in magnitude) to that between the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War, could follow.

* Traditional global arms control regimes cannot address the problem. A new security approach by the United States and other concerned governments is warranted--one that freezes the weapons programs of these de-facto nuclear powers at current levels by mutual agreement with international assurances. As the first step toward constructing a new regional approach to South Asian security, this could avoid nuclear weapons escalation in the near term, and might eventually lead these two countries to agree to accede to international non-proliferation regimes.

Dangerous Trends in India and Pakistan

The long-term security threat brewing between India and Pakistan demands that the United States review existing strategy. Paradoxically, Indo-Pakistani tensions and prospects for major weapons expansion increase as they engage in economic reforms and expand their economies. Domestic political trends in India and Pakistan have turned negative, and there is uncertainty in both countries as to where they fit in the post-Cold War world. Political and ethnic/religious movements in both states exploit tensions, advocating more assertive nationalist policies. Broader public opinion and political pressures feed these trends.

Leaders in both states have made determined efforts to contain the tensions, to restrain their nuclear and missile programs, and to avoid a conflict over Kashmir. However, basic policies on both sides are essentially confrontational--at least at the political level. It is unclear how long these building tensions can be contained.

In India, just as elections are approaching, a serious scandal involving alleged payments for government contracts has claimed several ministers in the Cabinet of Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, as well as prominent opposition leaders. The tough line of the religious-based, nationalist BJP party has heightened internal tensions. Further, Indian attitudes regarding a settlement of the Kashmir issue have hardened, reinforced by BJP arguments which reject prospects for negotiations, and exacerbated by intensified exchanges of fire along the Indo-Pakistani line of control.

In Pakistan, the army--the institutional guardian of the nuclear program and a key political power center--has been restive. This puts pressure upon the policy of restraint toward India, especially vis-a-vis Kashmir, reinforcing an increasing public outrage over India's hardline and gradual weakening of Kashmiri militants who benefit from Pakistan's support. A deep-seated resentment exists toward the United States, particularly over the long-term effects of the Pressler Amendment on Pakistan's military readiness, national security, and regional stature. The abortive coup attempt last fall highlights this restiveness and may illustrate the growing influence of Islamist radicalism.

The lack of concerted attention to South Asian security problems by the United States, Japan, China, Russia, and the European Union has contributed to the increased tension. …

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