The arms build-up in the region has raised the nuclear stakes
Separating noise from reality on the subcontinent can be especially difficult. Thus the latest rhetorical hostility between India and Pakistan could be just that — another spat between nuclear-armed neighbours who hesitate to match words with weapons because of the dangers of mutual annihilation.
Yet, the risk of a confrontation that could escalate into something worse has been significantly increased as a result of the arms race in the region. For good reason, global attention is focused on preventing North Korea from developing the ballistic missile capacity to strike the US west coast with nuclear weapons. That should not, however, deflect from the ever-present threat of India and Pakistan stumbling into a nuclear exchange.
As a reminder, officials in Islamabad warned on Thursday that they would not hesitate to deploy the full range of their weapons should India invade. That salvo was a response to confirmation from India’s new army chief of the existence of “cold-start” plans. This was an explicit acknowledgment from Delhi of long-rumoured efforts to develop a swift cross-border response that would pre-empt diplomatic intervention in the event, for example, of a major terrorist incident like that in Mumbai in 2008.
It was wise to keep these plans under wraps until now. By spelling them out, India has not only lost the element of surprise, it has also raised public expectations — potentially increasing the pressure on government in the future to launch a rapid retaliatory response before the wisdom of such action has been adequately assessed. Pakistan’s retort was predictable if equally unhelpful. It is a reflection of how far things have soured.
In December 2015, Narendra Modi became the first Indian premier in a decade to visit Pakistan, when he made a stopover in Lahore to celebrate his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif’s birthday. In the context of 66 years of hostility and three wars, just the tea they shared was a breakthrough. It raised hopes that negotiations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours might resume and even progress.
The mood music did not, however, alter the underlying facts that make their common border the hottest potential nuclear flashpoint in the world. Against the backdrop of rising tensions and cross-border skirmishes in Kashmir, both countries have been engaging in an arms build-up.
Pakistan has always been alert to India’s conventional military advantage, so it has developed tactical nuclear missiles. In theory, the battlefield deployment of these short-range missiles might slow an Indian invasion. But it would also greatly increase the risk of an accident that leads to all-out nuclear war. In any nuclear exchange India would also have the advantage because Pakistan is smaller and its cities closer to the border. This in turn is why Pakistan has been developing submarine capacity, to allow for a second strike. India is working on that too.
Both countries devote huge portions of their budgets on building up this deterrence — in Pakistan’s case around a third. They could both use those funds towards addressing social tensions, which themselves contribute greatly to the threat of conflict. Meanwhile, outsiders including the US, China and France, have seized the arms build-up as a commercial opportunity to sell more weapons. The strategic consequences are alarming. The conflict over the disputed territory of Kashmir has been left unattended for far too long. Associated risks that a border incursion might lead to something worse are not new; what is new are the shortened odds of nuclear war.