Politics of Nukes in South Asia


Even since the U.S. became the first country in the world to successfully detonate the atomic bombs in 1945 and also to test the destructiveness of such weapons of mass destruction in World War II, the international community’s attention has been drawn to the politics involved in nukes.

The growing polarization emanating from the increasing interest on the part of many developing countries, our South Asian neighbors no exception, to possess nuclear weapons for various reasons, has been more apparent in the wake of three nuclear tests conducted by North Korea and frequent allegations of UN’s nuclear watchdog (International Atomic Energy Agency) leveled against Iran that its current nuclear program has possibly military dimensions.

At present clouds of nuclear confrontation are hovering in Northeast Asia against the backdrop of February 12, 2013 nuclear explosion by North Korea despite warning from the world community, and subsequent sanctions-imposing UN Security Council resolution, opposing which the young but untested leadership of North Korea has been saber-rattling for weeks now. Considering this ominous situation some have even expressed alarm that there might be next Korean War with the nuclear weapons. This may be a far-fetched prediction though.

The last Korean War (1950-53) was fought at the height of Cold War that involved the U.S., China, and the two Koreas. That war ended in UN-brokered Armistice (1953) but with no peace agreement. Recently, and quite provocatively, North Korea has threatened that it would not abide by the above truce, which has maintained peace in the Korean peninsula for almost six decades.

No more congenial environment is seen in the Middle East, particularly, Iran where nuclear standoff has not been resolved despite all the negotiations under the auspices of world’s six major powers. P-5 (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the U.S.) plus Germany is the forum, where six major powers have been sitting for talks with Iran in order to persuade the latter to abandon its uranium enrichment program. The west believes that 20% enrichment of uranium is a quality not required for peaceful purposes i. e. nuclear energy and medical research as claimed by Iran. Disappointingly, two rounds of such talks held in Kazakhstan in February last and this month (referred to as Almaty-1 & Almaty-2) have not yielded any positive results so far.

While both North Korea and Iran have been the targets of international condemnations because of their suspected nuclear ambitions, (albeit in North Korean case no such suspicion exists as evidenced by its  nuclear tests in 2006/2009/2013) due to their membership of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), that prohibits production and possession of nuclear weapons, India and Pakistan have, however, become nuclear capable nations since 1998 and have declined to accede to the 1970 NPT. Surprisingly, both of them have now been welcomed internationally as nuclear capable countries with the lifting of all kinds of sanctions imposed against them in the wake of nuclear tests (May, 1998).

Embarrassingly, for the proponents of the NPT, the U.S. has struck a nuclear deal (2008) with India providing the latter facilities of obtaining nuclear fuel and technology, which is indeed the privilege confined to a member of the nonproliferation treaty.

According to Michael Krepon (co-founder of the Stimson Center, a think tank, and director of its South Asia and Space Security Program), who has contributed to the opinion piece of the New York Times (April, 2013) “Nuclear Race on the Subcontinent”, “Pakistan is the hare in an Aesopian nuclear competition under way between the two neighbors with nuclear weapons, struggling to devote scarce resources to compete with a country whose economy is nine times as great. To him, India is the tortoise, whose nuclear program is moving steadily forward without great exertion.”

Krepon elucidates by saying that in the continuing nuclear arms race in the South Asian subcontinent, the tortoise is going to win. Probably, in this competition India has the edge over her rival Pakistan due to its burgeoning economy and the writer is correct when he predicts that India could quicken its pace in the race.

His elaboration that Pakistan as a hare continues to run fast, because nuclear weapons are a sign of strength amid domestic weaknesses and because it can’t keep up with the growth of India’s conventional military programs is hardly unconvincing judged against the background of what a nuclear-armed North Korea has been doing to escalate tensions with the U.S., the world’s only existing superpower and the possessor of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals.

Is South Asia safe because the nuclear-armed neighbors like India and Pakistan are not at loggerheads with each other to the point of nuclear Armageddon? This has been a great puzzle for the world.

The possession of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan and their intermittent tensions in bilateral relations are issues of legitimate security concerns for the majority of the South Asian countries, and more so for Nepal, which has contiguous border with India on three sides. There are no possibilities of getting the nuclear-armed rivals entangled in a nuclear war in the very near future seeing from the prism of optimism. Nevertheless, should December 2008 like Pakistan-based terrorist attacks are launched against India resulting in mass casualties, none can rule out the use of nukes in a future war that may become inevitable.

The words of possible nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan still reverberate among all of us when both these countries were seen very close to such a devastating war in 1999 Kargil dispute. Understandably, the then U.S. leadership played a very constructive mediating role in thwarting the nuclear confrontation to our great relief.

To the consternation of Nepal and other neighbors, both India and Pakistan have not engaged themselves in serious, sustained nuclear risk-reduction talks even after fifteen years of their nuclear detonation in 1998. It is imperative that they do not delay any further to take appropriate confidence-building measures to meet the genuine security concerns of the international community in general and those of their SAARC neighbors, in particular.

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