Decoding nuclear coercion in South Asia
SOUTH Asia, being the most vulnerable, fragile and strategically unstable region, has been under the radar of multiple debates, arguments, discussions and dialogues in a vague attempt to achieve nuclear-zero in the region by the international bodies dedicated for maintaining international peace.
The region is vulnerable due to the presence of historic rivals and active nuclear states of India and Pakistan.
The regional stability has been influenced predominantly by the continued contention of world powers fighting to enhance their strategic alliance and presence in the region since the Cold War.
The regional nuclear powers, result of the second nuclear age, initially sustained by the global hegemonic states, United States and Russia, for their own malicious agenda.
The Cold War resulted in a burst of Russian military influence in India and a similar military alliance between the US and Pakistan.
These strategic partnerships evidently played a vital role in a nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan.
The unabated arms race for unconventional weapons on both sides of the border makes it difficult to decode the role of coercion and propels to seek whether the phenomenon of ‘deterrence’ or ‘compellence’ has so far contained an all-out war in the region? The presence of two nuclear powers in the region has made peace a forlorn phenomenon.
The fragile strategic stability has rendered South Asia susceptible to security threats.
Pakistan and India have been involved in building their stockpiles of unconventional weapons for a long time.
Project “Smiling Buddha” in 1974 that enabled India to become a nuclear power, prompted Pakistan to fast track its weapon-grade Uranium production.
Operation “Smiling Buddha” was India’s entry into the Nuclear Age, making it the sixth state in the world with nuclear weapon capability.
India chose to intimidate its neighbouring states, in a world where nuclear power guaranteed status quo and power.
However, this coercive strategy mainly aimed at Pakistan enabled India to continue oppression in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
A hostile neighbouring adversary with nuclear weapons that managed to break the country in 1971 was perceived as a major threat to the existence and sovereignty of Pakistan giving rise to the “eating grass” narrative initiated by the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
Hence, under the scientific expertise of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan Pakistan tested its nuclear weapon in 1998, making Pakistan the first and only Muslim nuclear power.
In the past seven decades the near equal military expertise and weapon build up has sustained deterrence.
The nuclear capability attained by both the states has given rise to compellence in the region.
Even the nuclear capabilities have failed to prevent the skirmishes and clashes between the two belligerent states, with cross border firing at the Line of Control (LOC) being a constant feature of compellence.
India and Pakistan encountered each other many a time after acquiring nuclear capability, therefore, prompting a response from the world powers and their increasing interest in the region.
The geostrategic location of South Asia becomes the focal point of the global economic and military manoeuvres.
The nuclear capabilities are not the sole factor of deterrence, rather it is dependent upon various elements that play significant roles in the strategic stability nowadays.
The technological advancement acquired by India, through various collaborations and indigenous methods, gives it primacy in the battlefield required on its northern and western borders.
The fact that India’s unconventional and conventional weapon stockpile also responds for the defensive strategy towards the threat it faces from China.
As a super power, China has successfully posed a threat to India and its unlimited support to Pakistan, also terrifies the Indian military.
However, so far, the Indian strategy to deal with China has been an international embarrassment for the Indian government and the military leadership.
The options of future transition from deterrence to compellence strategy in the region makes the decoding of coercive strategy even more interesting with advanced coercive powers of India.
Pakistan and India seemingly have reached a political and diplomatic standoff, but continue to engage in conventional and unconventional arms races.
Both the countries maintain an asymmetric stockpile, which threatens the fragile strategic stability of the region.
India and Pakistan share belligerent relations having the tendency to aggravate over the slightest event.
The events of 2019 made it evidently clear when a large scale bombing at a military convoy in Pulwama, Illegally Indian Occupied Kashmir (IIOJK) led to military escalation on both sides of border initiated by the Indian Air Force, as they released payload at Balakot, an area in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.
An air combat between India and Pakistan resulted in India’s loss of two aircraft and a Wing Commander being captured by Pakistan.
In the aftermath of the attack, the world states perceived a possible nuclear war in the region as both countries refused to step back from their defensive-offensive positions.
The situation worsened as India threatened Pakistan to attack with six nuclear missiles.
Pakistan has always maintained a defensive position and at this time of high threat, it was ready to reply three times in response to one nuclear missile of India fired at Pakistan.
The escalated situation with emerging threats on the horizon of a probable nuclear war in the region failed to maintain deterrence that is perceived as a primary root of acquiring nuclear capability.
However limited, the coercive strategies and policies on both sides of the border have been unable to ensure peace, though tentative, in the region.
—The writer is a researcher at SASSI University.