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The Missile Race in South Asia

Islamabad, Pakistan.

Conventional asymmetry is growing in South Asia as India takes the top position in global arms import according to recently released data by SIPRI. While India has frequently cited China as the principal factor behind the defence spending, skeptics see India’s quest for global status the main force driving behind Indian nuclear and missile ambitions. Successive visits by U.S. presidents, both from democrat and republican camps also manifest Indian significance in the U.S. strategic calculus. Obama’s second visit to India came at a time once U.S. relations with Russia were at rock bottom since end of the first cold war. Beijing is also sharing a deep disquiet over the U.S. strategic initiatives launched in the region, most importantly off-shore rebalancing policy in Asia-Pacific region, which presumably is aimed at containment of China. Indian role therefore has become critical for Washington’s regional and global ambitions and the former now serves as a proxy for the latter against China.

Indo-U.S. nuclear deal has exuberated security concerns in Pakistan. Islamabad is also viewing other developments with deep concern, like for example joint Indo-Israeli collaboration in missile defence and state of the art military equipment procurement by India from different states. For Pakistan, these developments would ostensibly alter the strategic balance in South Asia. India on the other hand is also in process of developing new range of missiles and nuclear warheads. Indian plans to mount MIRVs on nuclear capable Agni V missile is also cautiously being watched by Beijing and Islamabad. China is also looking at modernizing its own nuclear and missile capabilities due to developments in India. The economic muscle provides China enough leverage to invest more on conventional defence capabilities which precisely is not an option available to Pakistan. Resultantly, Islamabad would become more reliant on its nuclear and missile options in a bid to restore the regional balance. Development of low yield short range Nasr missile and recent testing of Shaheen III missile, thus bringing every part of India in its strike range, signifies this trend. Reliance on nuclear capable missiles by states situated in conflict prone region holds inherent risks of nuclear exchange in a flurry of uncontrollable events.

South Asian deterrence model is not premised on bilateral equation but rather is triangular in nature which makes it even more complex than the cold war model of nuclear deterrence. Although this triangular relationship gets further influenced whenever there is a change in the strategic or nuclear capabilities and postures of the U.S. or Russia, yet the developments in India and Pakistan remains the predominant factor which fuels the regional arms competition. Indian nuclear tests on May 11, 1998, which also included a tactical nuclear device of 0.2 KT, not only led to the overt nuclearization of South Asia but introduction of tactical nuclear warheads in the region as well. Pakistan demonstrated its own nuclear muscle, subsequently developing short range Nasr missile capable of carrying low yield short range nuclear warheads, to neutralize Indian conventional threat and tactical nuclear warheads. Both Pakistan and India have developed new type of missiles which would subsequently be mounted on the naval platforms, thus giving them an assured second strike capability. This tit for tat action-reaction syndrome continues unabated and is gradually spiraling into a nuclear and missile arms race which risks getting out of control over unresolved disputes between India and Pakistan. The popular uprisings in Kashmir and sporadic firing incidents along the Line of Control illustrates that situation remains extremely fragile between the two nuclear armed rivals.

Indian nuclear agreements with several western governments, allowing it to import huge stocks of uranium, along with the proposal to make India a formal member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) would enable New Delhi, in future, to rapidly expand its nuclear stockpiles. Indian Missile Defence Shield, even at an embryonic stage, would seemingly instill a false sense of security amongst the Indian policy makers, thus making them prone to audacious behavior especially in a crisis like situation. In anticipation to this plausibility, Pakistan is rapidly multiplying its nuclear warheads, besides evaluating the option to mount MIRVs on intermediate range nuclear capable missiles. These developments in South Asia are bound to influence the perceptions in Beijing, Moscow and even Tel Aviv. Russia and China are already in a process of modernizing their nuclear arsenals in response to U.S. nuclear revitalization plans, while Israel has also developed and successfully tested an Inter Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of reaching India, Pakistan and even China. Such trends would ostensibly expand the specter of missiles arms race from regional to global scale.

The nuclear and missile race in South Asia is gradually gaining momentum. Due to unresolved disputes, the region would remain a nuclear flash point posing a persistent threat of accidental or inadvertent nuclear war. Mitigating threats entails engaging in a meaningful and constructive dialogue aimed at settling these long outstanding disputes and implementing strategic restraint regime measures. Without resorting to such steps arms control and disarmament would remain unfulfilling prophecies.

Shams uz Zaman holds an M.Phil degree in Strategic and Nuclear Studies from National Defence University, Islamabad. He frequently writes in research journals, magazines and newspapers. He can be contacted at: smszmn72@yahoo.com.