A Theoretical Discussion on Nuclear Proliferation Part 2: The South Asian Case

This report appears in two parts, the first part will tackle the theoretical basis of this subject and the second part will tackle the South Asian case study. The following is the guiding quesiton for this two part report: “Are the arguments of the “proliferation optimists” or the “proliferation pessimists” more convincing in explaining and assessing the international security implications of horizontal nuclear weapons proliferation? What light, if any, does the case of South Asia throw upon this question?”

Background of India and Pakistan proliferation

If looked at the nuclear proliferation situation between India and Pakistan it is important to understand the background to this issue. Some scholars have suggested the Indo-Pak nuclear proliferation is among the most dangerous and contested ones. India acquired its nuclear weapons on controversially. After the Sino-Indian war of 1962 India was exposed and its military strength was considerably weaker than its Chinese counterpart’s. In addition to that the conflicts with Pakistan drove the Indian civil and military bodies to aggressively pursue a nuclear weapons programme.

India first tested its nuclear explosion cloaked as peaceful process after two consecutive conflicts with Pakistan in 1965 and the Bangladesh episode in 1971. Since the Sino-Indian war in 1962 after a dozen of years India successfully managed to achieve its nuclear programme’s goal to be recognised as a nuclear armed state.

This directly compelled the Pakistanis to pursue its own nuclear programme by any means necessary. In order to avoid a permanent subdued position in the South Asian geopolitical sphere Pakistan also acquired its nuclear capabilities not too long after India’s.


Image result for bhutto quote on nuclear eating grass
The infamous quote by then Prime Minister of Pakistan Zulfiqar Bhutto, pledging to obtain atomic/nuclear weapons by any means necessary even if it means Pakistanis will have to eat “grass”.


After India’s initial nuclear test the Western countries did criticise India’s actions, however, after a while India was seen as a responsible partner partly due to the future plans of China containment plans of the US. Interestingly, Pakistan’s quite odd nuclear episode including the A.Q. Khan case was also overlooked by the Western countries as Pakistan was aiding the West in the combating the invading USSR in Afghanistan.

Using the ‘Pessimist’ Theory

Using the pessimist theory on the South Asian proliferation case, it can be observed that the area is deemed more unsafe. Especially, with the rise of terrorism in the area has significantly placed the nuclear weapons of Pakistan in a cautious place.

Some scholars argue the stability of Pakistan is one of the main concerns, if the civil government falls and a rogue group takes control of the government it may launch an unprecedented nuclear attack on its arch rivals India. However, this scenario seems heavily unlikely but Pakistan’s instability and an over enlarged military is one of the bigger concerns. The military branch of Pakistan is a bigger concern, as throughout its history the military has staged coups and yet remains very influential in the state and its foreign affairs.

The pessimists argue that the military’s rather black and white vision mixed with its authoritarian style maybe a bigger threat in a case if Pakistan and India are in an armed conflict. Interestingly, Pakistan’s military neither its government has a “no first strike policy” in terms of nuclear weapons. This in some views maybe a serious destabilising factor.

Also in India’s case, the India based strategic thinkers have argued it intends to compete with China who is emerging to be among the world’s most formidable military forces. India’s military development and an intention to pursue the “nuclear triad” quite easily make the region very contested.

This sort of pursuit from India does not help the Pakistanis to slow down its militarisation either further supported by the pessimist theory implicates the dangers of horizontal proliferation. This may also reflect the recent military modernisation from Bangladesh the third largest military in South Asia and closer cooperation with China possibly alarmed by the nuclearisation of the region adding to the widespread security concerns in the region.


The current striking range of both India and Pakistan.


Using the ‘Optimist’ Theory

Applying the optimist view, the South Asian region may demonstrate another point of view on the situation regarding nuclear proliferation and regional security. The argument would be made by the optimists that since the nuclearisation of South Asia there haven’t been any large scale conflicts by any of the states.

The Chinese, Indian and Pakistanis all have sufficient nuclear capabilities in order to carry out significant damages in a nuclear armed conflict. This applied with the “Rational Deterrence Theory” further emphasises that the threat of MAD constraints the states to go into direct conflict. As a result, the nuclear weapons available to the states have not been used; this further strengthens the optimists’ idea that the RDT and MAD have significant factors when it comes to these states’ foreign policy approach.

Even though the relations between India and Pakistan-China has not significantly improved since before they acquired nuclear weapons. They remain very unlikely to go into a conflict anytime soon. Although, there are border disputes between India and Pakistan, they have fought a war in 1999 which was not a large scale conflict and they are continuously attempting to undermine each other through proxy groups near the disputed areas.

Additionally, India’s inclusion in the Nuclear Supplier’s Group shows that even though India started its nuclear advent on the wrong footing. Due to its achievement of a successful nuclear programme made the ‘international community’ (mainly Western countries) to welcome them into the NSG and this further illustrates that diplomacy got the upper hand. Arguably this was facilitated by the fear of further proliferation and the spreading of such technology.

The Indian inclusion in the NSG is possibly to avoid future spread of technology into other states which has a basis on pessimist theories. Also Pakistan’s nuclear scientist Khan’s role in spreading nuclear technology was a concern for the ‘international community’ and was later dealt with. This demonstrates that even with Pakistan’s ‘unstable’ conditions, it was made possible to constrain a negative impact such as horizontal proliferation sponsored by Pakistani scientists is further supported by the optimist theorists.


Image result for india pakistan nuclear
An illustration of the Asian nuclear race, making it one of the most unstable nuclear zones.



In conclusion, the optimist and pessimist proliferation theorists are quite distinct in interpreting proliferation issues around the globe. Both of these theories use historical justification and logical deductions to base their arguments.

The pessimists argue that proliferation essentially leads to competition thus endangers the countries by driving them into a risk of engaging in a conflict. Contrastingly, the optimists would argue that even though the pursuit of nuclear weapons might be a dangerous task due to international pressure and might often cause other competitor states to halt the progress. However, after the acquisition of nuclear weapons the states are less likely to engage in a direct conflict with other states. This is due to the reason that the other states would want to avoid a conflict with a nuclear powered state and this works as a major deterrence against hostile states.

If the theories are applied to the South Asian case, both India and Pakistan has a history of confrontation. They had a few significant wars, and after the acquisition of its nuclear weapons both of these states have tried to avoid a direct conflict, scholars would argue because of the nuclear deterrence (RDT). However, the Kashmir debacle is yet to be solved and this remains a point where both India and Pakistan could collide in the military front. Further, the destabilising factors of Balochistan and Khalistan in both the countries remain a key point that these two states need to resolve.

In addition to that, the Sino-Indian relations have not improved since they last had a conflict, however, after both countries acquired nuclear capabilities it has been made obvious that they avoided a direct full scale conflict because of that particular factor. Therefore, in order to explain horizontal nuclear proliferation both of the theories have their own a justification, however, it seems all the cases of nuclear proliferation are unique.

Hypothetically, it seems states due to the RDT they avoid conflicting directly with other states after acquiring nuclear weapons. However, avoiding proliferation all together puts fewer risks in the hands of the states and avoids MAD.

Please check the previous part of this report if you have not already.

Image credit: Stimson.org

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