The Cold War period, especially the 1950s and early 1960s, is the best fit to explain an “action-reaction syndrome” where both the US and USSR engaged in a grave nuclear arms race — ostensibly to deter any aggression from the other. But underneath there were several factors that underpinned this peculiar behavior—fantasy for new weapons systems was one of them. Scientists, politicians and military planners used to romanticize new systems—it’s worth-recalling that at the time the US manufactured long range strategic bombers, US policy-circles fantasized “yeah we’ve caused bomber-gap.” Similarly, when the Soviets sent their first space rocket and subsequently mastered ICBM technology, they fantasized “yeah we’ve caused missile-gap.” After a long period of this “tit for tat” romanticism they realized it was time to checkmate this mad thinking. Subsequently, they started cleaning the ash and trash of arms race and have had several arms control and disarmament treaties. However, one must note that they are still in the hangover of that romanticism.
Likewise, as the South Asian security template draws its strategic logic from the Cold War model, resulting in a mad arms race to offset each other’s capabilities, one may argue that India and Pakistan are currently passing through a period of “nuclear romanticism.” Indian self-flattery and China-pretence to justify its arms build-up makes South Asia the most complex region in strategic terms. On the other hand, Pakistan’s over-projection of the Indian threat makes the India-Pakistan nuclear dyad a nasty business. Though at the official level, both India and Pakistan claim to pursue “credible minimum deterrent” policies, at the practical level both are augmenting their respective nuclear arsenals rather rapidly. Increasing numbers of nuclear warheads in both countries coupled with the heavy build-up of an array of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and short-range low-yield battlefield missiles, Indian endeavors to achieve sea-based deterrent and BMD ambitions are totally in contrast to other facets of national power.
Apart from indigenous development, both countries heavily import conventional weapons from great powers. India is the world’s largest arms importer, accounting for 12% of the import share during the period 2008-12. Roughly, it imports 70% of its defense equipment from foreign sources. In Pakistan, the defense budget – which has never been properly debated in Parliament – has remained a sensitive and controversial subject and there have been calls for greater scrutiny of the spending. Pakistan has increased its defense spending by 15% for the current fiscal year that accounts about 28.2% of the country’s total budget.
The plain fact is that South Asia does not need this conventional and unconventional arms race given the fact of extreme poverty prevalent in both the countries. Needless to describe all shades of that poverty, I would restrict mentioning only one of the biggest problems faced by people living on both sides of the border. If one unravels the myth of shining India, it tells that out of total poor people in the world 33% live in India. According to a report: “of the 1 billion people in the world who have no toilet, India accounts for nearly 600m.”
The poverty level in Pakistan is increasing day by day and more than 40% of people within the country are living their lives below the poverty line. The globalized high-tech world has done miracles to improve living-standards, but sadly Pakistan is worst hit by long power outages virtually paralyzing all spheres of life.
The question arises: who benefits from this “nuclear romanticism” in South Asia—interestingly those very powers who were once involved in such a preposterous action-reaction cycle. Secondly, powerful domestic constituencies; the “deep states” in both countries want to continue an arms race primarily to safeguard their respective vested interests. The following image tells the one aspect of the whole story:
The bottom line is: complete denuclearization is not an option for both India and Pakistan given the realist nature of the world politics. So, what’s the viable middle ground for both countries? To start some genuine efforts to resolve all disputes – including Kashmir. There must be urgency to build up deep military–military contacts resulting in regular dialogues between both militaries. Already-concluded CBMs need greater transparency and verification mechanisms, excellent ideas for further CBMs need to be materialized sooner rather than later. Save South Asia from the nuclear as well as poverty bomb.