Kashmiri Muslim nomad boy outside a temporary camp near Srinagar in Kashmir. The territory is one of the major flash points between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan, both of whom claim the disputed territory. Photo: AFP/Tauseef Mustafa

As the presidency of Barack Obama recedes into history, there’s a geopolitical canard in vogue that suggests the old rules of deterrence and balance of power don’t work. Great powers, it goes, should “lead from behind,” and Russian President Vladimir Putin should get a bright red “reset” button as a symbol of new relations with the West. But Pakistan and India aren’t following these facile tropes. Instead, they believe nuclear deterrence should be pursued aggressively.

The current geopolitical mess goes back decades, but Pakistan blames US President George W. Bush who in 2005 allowed the Indians to buy fissile material on the international market. Bush claimed then that the decision strengthened nuclear nonproliferation, but the Pakistanis didn’t buy that reasoning.

Add numerous terror attacks in India along with tensions in Kashmir, and that brings Asia and the world to the current nuclear standoff. Moreover, Pakistan’s and India’s rapidly growing economies allow both countries to expand their nuclear arsenals.

Islamic countries (Pakistan is predominantly Muslim) suffer from unstable economic growth. Would predominately Hindu India take advantage of that instability. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) last month was re-elected in a landslide in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. The victory gave Modi a strong mandate, and his government is ready to take strong action against Pakistan.

Military imbalance fosters nuclear deterrence

India’s defense budget is five times larger than Pakistan’s and the country has twice the military manpower. Pakistan counters this imbalance with an increasing reliance on its nuclear deterrence. The Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C. research group, says: “Pakistan is out-producing India’s nuclear weapons program by a four-to-one margin.”

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Pakistani Military all have India ahead in every major military department — active army, navy, air force personnel, tanks, combat aircraft, capital warships, and submarines — with the exception of nuclear weapons. India’s overwhelming population advantage and the military disparity between these historic rivals could have them inching closer to a nuclear conflict. Religious enmity (Hindu v. Muslim) and national pride are winning out over economic stability and rational thought.

Pakistan is racing to catch up in overall military strength, but India is boosting plutonium production to overtake Pakistan’s lead in nuclear warheads. The two countries would only have minutes to respond if either launched a missile attack. They have diplomatic ties, but there’s no dialogue to counter a nuclear-armed conflict. Experts believe Pakistan has tactical nuclear weapons which could fall into the hands of militants, causing India to rethink its first-strike policy, according to Professor Vipin Narange of MIT. Further, India has believed it could beat Pakistan in a conventional war without resorting to its nuclear arsenal.

If India thought Pakistan would use its tactical weapons first, then India would wipe out Pakistan’s strategic arsenal before Pakistan devastates Indian cities.

If India thought Pakistan would use its tactical weapons first, then India would wipe out Pakistan’s strategic arsenal before Pakistan devastates Indian cities. For that scenario to happen, India needs more nuclear weapons, and Pakistan would need to dramatically increase its nuclear arsenal to survive an Indian first strike.

The threat of escalation became more real after an attack last year by a Pakistani militant group — Jaish-e-Mohammad — on an Indian army base near the Pakistani border killed 17 soldiers. It has been reported that Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, harbors, funds, trains, and supplies terror groups against India. Modi has taken his complaints against Pakistan to the UN, the Group of 20 nations, and US officials.

Feroz Khan, a former senior official in Pakistan’s nuclear program and now teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School in California says:

South Asia sits on a tinderbox. If this kind of arms competition continues between India and Pakistan, the rhetoric continues to increase and nonstate actors continue to run amok, sooner or later we’ll have a crisis.”

There are a few solutions, but they aren’t that reasonable. The UN Security Council could offer to purchase Pakistan’s nuclear program in exchange for assurances that India won’t attack. How to get those assurances now that Hindu nationalism is rising under Modi would also have to be addressed. Another plausible, yet deeply unsettling scenario, would be to allow both countries to expand their nuclear deterrence, monitored by the US, China, and the UN Security Council. Using the Cold War logic of mutually assured destruction, a nuclear détente would follow. But how does India counter the threat of Pakistani Islamic extremists who would have further opportunities to seize a weapon from an expanded arsenal?

 If deterrence between the two countries isn’t quickly established, an incident is likely and could possibly drag in China, the US and the rest of Asia. Allowing the situation to simmer  — “leading from behind” — as it has for the last eight years is a sure-fire path to war. Neither India nor Pakistan both bristle at the thought of standing down — a standoff that should keep Asia and the world awake at night.

Todd Royal

Todd Royal has a master's in public policy from Pepperdine University and has worked for Duke University. He is published by the U.S. Library of Congress on hydraulic fracturing and the geopolitical implications of expanded US oil and gas production. He is a consultant and writer on international geopolitical strategy, energy, and US state and local government.

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