If a graph were drawn with Pakistan government’s bluff, bluster, and threats of nuclear weapons use on one axis and the growth of its nuclear arsenal on the other axis, what you’d trace is actually a line that has been steadily dipping as our neighbour’s nuclear weapons inventory has grown. The conclusion would be that a weak Pakistan feels more reassured and secure with a reliable nuclear arsenal by its side, believing it will deter the much larger, more powerful, India it has always apprehended as a mortal threat.
China was at its obnoxious worst in the mid-1950s when it had just embarked, with Soviet Russian help, on its nuclear weapons programme. Mao Zedong declared that China could absorb the loss of 300 million people in a nuclear attack. That statement, because of its outrageousness, alerted American war-planners to the fact that they had a huge strategic problem on their hands: Mao’s China would not be easily deterred. Up until then, the United States routinely issued nuclear threats. However, with China fast-tracking the development of both the megaton thermonuclear weapons and the inter-continental ballistic missile able to reach targets in America, and achieving these capabilities by 1967, the US defence secretary Robert S McNamara conceded that China had attained deterrence vis-a-vis America.
In the Fifties serious plans were hatched by the Pentagon to take out the Chinese gaseous diffusion plant producing enriched uranium for bombs and other nuclear facilities in Lop Nor, graphically referred to by mission-planners as “throttling the baby in the cradle”. This plan remained unimplemented because of the uncertainty of the USSR reaction to such a strike. After the rift between Moscow and Beijing and a couple of years before the first Chinese atomic test in October 1964, Russians mooted a joint bid to destroy Chinese nuclear weapons-making capability. This time, the US acted coy for reasons not entirely clear. With the loss of those two opportunities and the subsequent fast-tracked development by China of a megaton thermonuclear weapon and an intercontinental ballistic missile able to hit the farthest targets in Russia and the US west coast, its ascent to great power became unstoppable.
India could have pre-empted the nuclear danger from Pakistan by attacking the nuclear installations in Kahuta and the Indian government contemplated such strikes, the first time in 1982 in cooperation with the only specialists in the business, Israel, and the second time in early 1984, when a solo effort was considered. In both instances, the Indian government, as is its wont when making critical decisions, got cold feet. The attack window on Pakistani nuclear facilities closed in 1988 with the Pakistani acquisition of a deliverable device. Writing in that period, I had urged bombing Kahuta, which shocked many people. I had also warned then that once the Pakistani bomb came on line, India would ‘forever have to hold its peace’ with Pakistan.
Much of Indian thinking and writings pertaining to national security is suffused, not with realism, but passion and sentiment. It so colours the view and clouds judgement that hard decisions are impossible to make. Having not made the crucial decision, countries have to live with the consequences — the US, Russia, and the world with a nuclear China, and India with a nuclear-armed Pakistan.
However Nuclear adversaries on its flanks with a nexus between them, poses a tremendous strategic challenge to India. Pakistan has been more forthright and direct in exploiting its new-found sense of nuclear security to wage ‘asymmetric warfare’, using terrorism. It recruits malcontents in Pakistan society and among the Indian Muslim community, trains them, launches them on terrorist missions within India, rides the disaffection of the people in Kashmir, and generally creates a heck of a nuisance.
India, on the other hand, with much bigger ambitions and potential, has been just so glad to beat the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty-deadline and barely cross the line with simple fission and boosted-fission weapons, it has chosen to virtually shut its nuclear shop. However, there’s not much strategic profit to milk if you don’t go the whole hog, which the Indian government hasn’t had the guts to do because it would require open-ended nuclear explosive testing to obtain a variety of proven and performance-certified nuclear weapons and thermonuclear weapons and panoply of delivery systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles to take on China.
Pakistan is best dealt with by an array of targeted intelligence operations, which can be modulated depending on whether the uptick in trade and economic relations has moderated Islamabad’s behaviour. The benefits to Pakistan from plugging into the Indian economic engine, according to Shahid Javed Burki, a former vice president of the World Bank, and one of the strongest advocates of free trade under the South Asian Free Trade Agreement, is an increase of as much as 2.4 per cent in its gross domestic product. No small attraction for a country tipping the scales in the ‘failed states’ index. Indeed, well-known Pakistani analyst Ayesha Siddiqa claims that pressure from the Pakistani business community made the Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kayani green signal the peace process underway with India.
The trouble is the Indian government is either primed for peaceful relations or for adversarial relations, not for the more real-life mixed relations in which trade, cultural exchanges, and open visa regimes co-exist with remotely-controlled acts of terrorism and subversion, and military provocations on the side. It is the sort of multi-pronged policy China has perfected and prosecutes smoothly against India. Such a multi-purpose policy is what India needs to adopt except against China the effort will have to be sharper, ruthless, and more proactive. Thus, as priority China has to be paid back for its actions to nuclear missile-arm Pakistan, by transferring nuclear-warheaded cruise and ballistic missiles on the sly to Vietnam, and the ‘Tibet card’ will have to be revived and put on a war footing, all this even as bilateral trade inches towards the $100 billion mark and our diplomats prattle pleasantly in Mandarin.
Bharat Karnad is professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com