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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 27, June 1998

Beyond the N-Tests: Managing the Nuclear Arms Race in South Asia
By Richard W. Hu


India's nuclear tests shocked the world. On 11 and 13 May, New Delhi conducted a total of five tests: three low-yield explosions for tactical nuclear weapons, a 12 kiloton (kt) fission bomb, and a 43 kt thermonuclear device. With these tests, India proclaimed it had made the large leap to the status of a nuclear-weapon State. The Indian tests triggered a Pakistani response 17 days later: Islamabad conducted six tests, with yields ranging from 3 kt-30 kt. A nightmare long dreaded by many people had finally become a reality.

The Indian and Pakistani nuclear testing has posed a severe challenge to the global non-proliferation regime. It raises the basic question of whether the norm of nuclear non-proliferation will survive at all, or perish as more States follow the example set in South Asia. In a strong reaction to the N-tests, the five permanent members (P-5) of the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting in Geneva on 4 June. They issued a toughly-worded Joint Communiqué (reproduced in the last issue of Disarmament Diplomacy) condemning the tests and calling on India and Pakistan to conduct no further tests, not to 'weaponise' their new devices or deploy nuclear weapons, not to test or deploy missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and to refrain from the further production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. Yet, although the P-5 do not want to give them a 'birth certificate' by conferring on them the official status of nuclear-weapon States (a designation limited by Article IX of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to those States "which had manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January, 1967"), it is a fait accompli that India and Pakistan have already entered the nuclear club by demonstrating their nuclear capability. Since the Indian and Pakistani bomb cannot be disinvented or 'untested', the international community must face up and live with this reality. What we should focus on now is how to manage and prevent a potentially catastrophic nuclear arms race in South Asia.

The India-Pakistan Nuclear Arms Race: from "Virtual" to Real

India and Pakistan already possessed "virtual nuclear-weapons arsenals" (1) before the N-tests. The recent tests were a demonstration that they wanted to walk out of the shadow of "de facto" nuclear-weapons States. The ramification of this change is that the long-standing de facto arms race between India and Pakistan will be further intensified.

Before the May tests, India and Pakistan had followed a policy of nuclear ambivalence. This policy was inspired by the Israeli model of building up all the requirements for producing and delivering nuclear weapons without openly going nuclear. India's nuclear weapons programme started after China's first nuclear test in 1964, while the Pakistani bomb project began in 1971 after the humiliating defeat in the third India-Pakistan war. The two countries refused to renounce the nuclear option and engaged in extensive covert 'bomb-building' programmes. The policy of nuclear ambivalence helped them to deflect international pressure until they got close to having the bomb. India's nationalistic Prime Minister Vajpayee had dreamed of N-testing for a long time: he was quoted as saying in 1964: "The answer to an atom is an atomic bomb, nothing else." (2) He put bomb testing high on his "Hindu nationalist" agenda after he came to office in March this year, and has now gone through with an act most of his predecessors secretly wished to perform, only lacking the political will. According to the Indian media, it was Pakistan's test-firing of the Ghauri missile on 6 April that provided the final stimulus and pretext for Vajpayee's decision to order "Operation Shakti" on 19 April (3).

Switching from "virtual proliferation" to a full-fledged nuclear weapon race creates a danger that things may get out of control on the South Asian subcontinent. Given the depth and breadth in their bomb and missile programmes, the nature of the India-Pakistan race is particularly disturbing. Jane's Intelligence Review estimates that India possesses at least 20-60 bombs, while Pakistan possesses 6-12. With all the fissile materials produced by Indian reactors, New Delhi can build 390-470 bombs (4). After the N-tests, there is a strong likelihood that this race will accelerate. A recent poll conducted for India Today International indicates that 86% of respondents in India favour weaponising the bomb, while only 13% say no (5). How quickly could the two countries achieve nuclear warfighting capability? As Pakistani Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan suggested recently, this is like asking "how long does it take to put a bullet into a gun?" (6)

Comparing the two countries' delivery systems, India's missile programme is one step ahead of that of Pakistan. India is building a nuclear triad based on the superpower model. It includes nuclear-capable Su-30 aircraft, with a range extending over the whole of Pakistan and the southern part of China. Besides nuclear-capable field howitzers and cruise missiles, the short-range Privthi (250 kilometres) and medium-range Agni (2,500 kilometres) missiles will form the backbone of India's striking power. India is expected to test the Agni II (2,500 kilometres) missile soon. Submarine-based striking forces are also planned. The first ship carrying Privthi missiles is expecting to be operational as early as 2010 (7). Pakistan will have to rely on short-range M-11 missiles as its main striking force before the development and testing of the Ghauri and Haft-3 missiles is completed. The M-11 missile, acquired from China, has a range of 300 kilometres and a payload of 750-850 kilograms. It can only threaten the northern part of India. The Ghauri missile tested on 6 April is reported to have a range of 1,500 kilometres.

The India-Pakistan nuclear arms race will create a very fragile "balance of terror" in South Asia. Some people argue that mutual fear of a nuclear exchange will make conflict unlikely, and thus that possessing the bomb can prevent crises from escalating into war (8). But, the "balance of terror" between India and Pakistan is not comparable to the mutual deterrence in effect between the superpowers during the Cold War. Unlike the Cold War situation, neither antagonist has a survivable or credible second-strike capability, nor assured destructive power against all high-value targets. More importantly, neither side has experience of mutual deterrence. It is true that the explicit nuclear capability now demonstrated will make the leaders of India and Pakistan more prudent in their calculations over any potential conflict. But their nuclear stand-off is not likely to reproduce the kind of crisis stability that existed over an extended period between the major nuclear powers.

Technically, Soviet and American leaders used to have half an hour to sweat things out during a nuclear hair-trigger crisis, while there is only a few minutes flight-time between India and Pakistan. Without sophisticated C3I (Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence) systems - such as early-warning radars, command-and-control facilities and intelligence-gathering and processing), a nuclear war could start accidentally, as the result of panic, miscalculation or unauthorized launch. Even worse, as Neil Joeck argues, the influence of non-State actors (such as Kashmiri insurgents and unofficial Government representatives), domestic disturbance, and shortcomings in decision-making and the concentration of power, all contribute to endemic strategic instability between the two countries (9).

The Need for a Regional Security System

The antagonism between India and Pakistan is deeply rooted. The two countries have fought three wars since their independence. In the context of the exceptionally tense confrontation over Kashmir, a small spark could trigger another war. Under these strategic circumstances, possessing nuclear weapons further compounds security problems in the subcontinent. Major powers tend to treat the symptoms but not the disease when dealing with South Asian problems. The failure to roll back the Indian and Pakistani nuclear programmes is principally due to the lack of solutions to regional security problems. The international community must now pay due attention to these problems.

In fact, South Asian security problems have received diminishing interest since the 1970s. India and Pakistan were viewed as strategically irrelevant, with only marginal roles to play in global affairs. Islamabad was found to have some utility during the Afghanistan war. When the war was over, Pakistan was slammed with economic sanctions because of its nuclear weapons programme. Both India and Pakistan were viewed as bad examples for other States because of their "virtual" nuclear capability. They have been treated as part of the problem of weapons proliferation, not as part of the solution.

Strategic normalization and regional security systems (preferably involving outside powers) would help to build mutual confidence and security assurance in South Asia. There has been a trend of establishing nuclear-free zones and regional security systems in many parts of the world; this should be the model for South Asia. Even in regions without nuclear-free zones, regional security mechanisms like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty of 1990, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum (ARF), and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Central Asia have set good examples for confidence-building and security regimes.

Confidence building measures (CBMs) could lead to broader regional security arrangements. In South Asia, CBMs that could be concluded in the short term could include agreements on the no-first-use (NFU) of nuclear weapons, transparency over military and nuclear forces, information exchanges, and exchange visits by military leaders. Longer-term security arrangements could consider qualitative and quantitative limitations on conventional and nuclear forces, backed by mutual verification procedures. The limitations could also be extended to the production, use and export of materials, technology, and weapons of mass destruction.

Major Power Diplomacy

Of course, regional security arrangements will not be possible without major power involvement. Major power diplomacy could be the key to stabilizing strategic relations in South Asia. Economic sanctions will make India and Pakistan suffer, but cannot roll back their nuclear weapon programs. There is considerable room for major power diplomacy to mend the fence between India and Pakistan and prevent the arms race getting worse. The P-5 have already issued a joint communiqué condemning the N-tests and pledging themselves "to cooperate closely in urgent efforts to prevent a nuclear and missile arms race in the subcontinent, to bolster the non-proliferation regime, and to encourage reconciliation and peaceful resolution of differences between India and Pakistan" (10). But words must be matched by deeds (11).

The P-5 need to formulate a common strategy toward the South Asian nuclear problem: in the past, different priorities and conflicting interests have been predominant. Policies often found trade-offs between issues of non-proliferation, human rights, strategic security and economics. China and Russia have been the traditional "big brothers" of Pakistan and India respectively. They can and should have more constructive influence over Islamabad and New Delhi. Given its enormous power, the United States is in a position to play a leading role in solving the South Asian nuclear crisis. Washington's policy toward South Asia, however, has placed too much emphasis on rolling back or capping Indian and Pakistani nuclear capabilities. US officials (many of them with a background in European and Soviet affairs) have little understanding of Indian and Pakistani strategic behaviour and the dynamics of the South Asia duet. This has led to a single-minded focus on developing incentives and disincentives that may lead the two States to give up the nuclear option and sign the NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). But as one Indian official commented, Washington's arrogance makes it look like it is dealing with animals who need to be beaten or rewarded, not with a proud sovereign people (12).

Going nuclear is a national decision that is extremely hard to reverse. Economic sanctions only have short-term effects and cannot be expected to affect such a reversal. To stabilize the South Asian nuclear arms race, the P-5 should try to encourage the two sides to preserve the current moratoria on further nuclear tests and even translate it into a formal agreement. Other things both sides should be encouraged to do include de-weaponisation and the prevention of further weaponisation. An international conference on Kashmir, or a mediated solution or substantial amelioration of the dispute, would be helpful.

Mending the Fence

Robert Manning is right when he argues that "nuclear weapons are de facto being devalued as the currency of power " (13). But the nuclear aspiration is not dying down among all Third World States after the Cold War. The Indian and Pakistani N-tests have highlighted at least three areas of concern regarding the future of the global non-proliferation regime:

(1) Given further diffusion of nuclear technology and increasingly sophisticated industrial bases in non-Western countries, we should consider new measures that can further strengthen supply-side control and capability-denial in the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

(2) As the India and Pakistan case indicates, the nuclear aspiration is largely driven by the dynamics of regional security. Thus, non-proliferation strategy should address more rigorously than at present demand-side problems in addition to seeking to deny capability.

(3) Although it is difficult to establish the causal relation between the size of P-5 nuclear forces and horizontal proliferation, it is time for the P-5 to seriously reconsider the pace and magnitude of their nuclear disarmament measures henceforth.

Capability-denial can only win time for diplomacy to address the demand-side concerns of nuclear non-proliferation: the battle to win this time for diplomacy must start now, concentrating initially on the areas of the CTBT, export controls, and a fissile material production cut-off. The international community (especially the major powers) should expedite the CTBT ratification process. Both India and Pakistan should be drawn into the treaty. This is crucial, but will not be easy: the recent tests have provided ammunition for the partisan opposition to the treaty in the US, and the Clinton Administration will need to demonstrate both political will and wisdom in seeking CTBT ratification without further delay. At the Conference on Disarmament (CD), the Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty should be elaborated as soon as possible. Finally, if India and Pakistan agree to accede to the NPT and CTBT and operate responsible nuclear policies, there is no reason why they should not be treated as nuclear-weapon States. Ways should be found to do this that avoid changing the official definition of a nuclear-weapon State as set out in Article IX of the NPT: under the current circumstances, now is not the time to open up a major debate about the basis and structure of the non-proliferation regime's cornerstone accord.


The international community should deal with the recent tests by India and Pakistan as a fait accompli. Whether or not they are admitted to the nuclear club, they have unambiguously demonstrated nuclear weapons capability. It would be disastrous for the future of the non-proliferation regime not to face up to this reality or try to wish it away. We should focus on how to manage and prevent a nuclear arms race from spiralling out of control in South Asia. In doing so, both major power diplomacy and the construction of a regional security system will have an important part to play. The current non-proliferation regime should be strengthened to address both supply-side issues and demand-side problems.

Notes and References

1. The term was first used by Michael J. Mazarr in "Virtual Nuclear Arsenals," Survival, vol. 37, no. 3 (Autumn 1995). It refers to latent proliferation which is made possible by the growing availability of weapon-ready nuclear materials and technology in civilian nuclear programmes.

2. Cited in Manoj Joshi, "Nuclear Shock Waves," India Today International, 25 May, 1998, p. 14.

3. Ibid.

4. Jane's Intelligence Review, June 1998, cited in Min Pao, 19 June, 1998.

5. India Today International, 25 May, 1998, pp. 15-16.

6. For Pakistan Foreign Minister Khan's remarks, see International Herald Tribune, 1 June, 1998.

7. India Today International, 25 May, 1998, pp. 22-24.

8. For example, see K. Subramanyam, "Nuclear Force Design and Minimum Deterrence Strategy," in Bharat Karnad, ed., Future Imperilled: India's Security in the 1990s and Beyond, New Delhi: Viking, 1994, pp. 188-193; P. R. Chari, Indo-Pak Nuclear Stand-Off: the Role of the United States, New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 1995; and Devin T. Hagerty, "Nuclear Deterrence in South Asia: the 1990 Indo-Pakistani Crisis," International Security, vol. 20, no. 3 (Winter 1995-96).

9. Neil Joeck, Maintaining Nuclear Stability in South Asia, Adelphi Paper 312, London: IISS and Oxford University Press, 1997.

10. P-5 Joint Communiqué on Indian and Pakistani Nuclear Tests, Geneva, 4 June, 1998.

11. The United States has imposed sanctions against both countries, while China, France and Russia have reservations about following suit. French officials have even made some lenient remarks regarding the Indian tests. Russia signed a nuclear reactor deal with India on 22 June, drawing criticism from the US and others.

12. Cited in Stephen P. Cohen, "The United States and India: Recovering Lost Ground," SAIS Review, Winter-Spring 1998, p. 97.

13. Robert Manning, "The Nuclear Age: the Next Chapter," Foreign Policy, Winter 1997/98.

Dr. Richard W. Hu is Associate Professor of International Relations in the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Hong Kong.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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