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Nuclear restraint in South Asia

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Nyla Ali Khan
I am writing this article in wake of the Nuclear Disarmament Conference being held at the United Nations (UN). My friends at the United Nations Association of Oklahoma (UNAO) are hopeful that a treaty would be presented to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) later this year. During the 1990s, each military crisis between India and Pakistan has been followed by futile attempts for diplomatic rapprochement. The two countries have gone through sporadic peace-making efforts, characterised by negotiations. For instance, in January 2004, the then Indian prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and Pakistani president, General Pervez Musharraf, agreed ‘to the resumption of a composite dialogue’ on all issues ‘including Jammu and Kashmir, to the satisfaction of both sides.’ Musharraf assured the Indian government that he would not permit ‘any territory under Pakistan’s control to be used to support terrorism in any manner’ (‘Text of PM, Musharraf Statement’, The Hindu, January 2004). However, this joint statement could not mitigate the existing scepticism. Pakistan won the disapprobation of international powers by fighting proxy wars in the early 1990s, which reinforced New Delhi’s confidence that the internationalisation of the Kashmir dispute would not get unwieldy. Despite international pressure, the Indo-Pak crisis hasn’t defused for its high volatility. Given their interests in South Asia, Russia and China expressed their concern about the brinksmanship between the two regional powers. In order to facilitate rapprochement, Russian president Vladimir Putin offered to mediate between Vajpayee and Musharraf at a scheduled regional summit conference in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Both Putin and Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, held talks with Vajpayee and Musharraf to create a viable space for political negotiations. But the two South Asian leaders continued to remain aloof and uncompromisingly condemned each other’s belligerence. The one positive outcome of these talks, however, was India’s proposal for joint patrolling of the Line of Control (LoC). But Pakistan was quick to reject it and expressed the requirement for building a third-party force instead. Subsequently, lethal and, hither to, readily adopted practice of manoeuvring a dangerous situation to the limits of tolerance mellowed due to judicious approach adopted by New Delhi and Islamabad. But the simmering grievances between the two powers, and the distress of the Kashmiri people remained unresolved. In 1999, the Pakistani military reinforced western concerns regarding nuclear proliferation in South Asia. In reaction to Pakistan’s aggressive transgression on the LoC, India exercised restraint through public diplomacy. Washington’s political volte face became apparent when it explicitly demanded Islamabad to withdraw from occupied Indian positions and maintain the legitimacy of the border.

US attempt to mitigate the situation also implied that it would not reinforce the status quo in Kashmir. Its incrimination of Pakistan’s military advances mitigated New Delhi’s fear that internationalising the Kashmir dispute would spell unambiguous victory for Pakistan. India took recourse to limited skirmishes, prior to former US president Bill Clinton’s March 2000 visit. At this point, proliferation was relegated to the backburner.

Stephen P. Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta under lined further recession of this issue during the Bush administration’s tenure. The neo-conservatives in that administration zeroed in on India as a potential state to counter China’s burgeoning economy, which I see as an attempt to reconstruct the cold-war paradigm (US-South Asia Relations under Bush, 2001).

Washington’s strategic ties with New Delhi were further consolidated in the wake of 9/11 Attacks. As one of the consequences of the Bush administration’s decision to eliminate Al-Qaeda and its supporters in Afghanistan, Musharraf was forced to severe ties with the Taliban.

Moreover, India was assured by the US that it would stall any attempt by Pakistan to extend the Kashmir dispute beyond local borders, which might disrupt its operations against the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The result of India’s coercive diplomacy was that Musharraf was pressured by the US to take strict military action against the mercenary and militant groups bolstering the insurgency in Kashmir (PBS interview with US Undersecretary of State, Richard Armitage, August 2002).

India believed that if deterrent measures failed, the Indian army would have to fight limited conventional wars under nuclear conditions. The possibility of fighting a war has driven India to contemplate a nuclear response to Pakistan’s nuclear policy. India and Pakistan routinely brandish their nuclear capabilities to intimidate each other. Such strategies emphasise South Asia’s strategic volatility.

In effect, one of the ramifications of India and Pakistan climbing the ladder of nuclear proliferation has been a tottering stability, maintained amidst the continuing conflict in Kashmir.

Regardless of the nuclear restraint in South Asia, a resolution of the Kashmir dispute would potentially halt the arms race.

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