India-Pakistan Nuclear CBMs: Addressing Mutual Concerns

If there is a constant element in India-Pakistan relations, it is the unpredictability of events. This unpredictability emerges from unresolved border issues, aggressive military postures, and escalation risks. Notwithstanding persistent hostility, both states seem to have learned, at least in some measure, to work around capricious developments in recent years. However, strategic competition in South Asia will always be a reality, and thus it is essential to increase confidence in areas that are equally threatening for both states, such as cyberspace and nuclear terrorism.

With overt nuclearization in May 1998, India and Pakistan joined the so-called nuclear club, and the unpredictability of their relations worsened. Although deterrence seems to have worked enough in the past 18 years to save the region from any major war, it has largely been a risky journey marred with crisis and nuclear dangers. Evolving nuclear behaviors are still far from being stable, owing to misconceptions and conflicting propositions on both sides.

Confidence-building measures (CBMs) in military and political domains have played a positive role in India-Pakistan relations. However, the CBM process is at risk of becoming irrelevant due to India’s departure from its erstwhile policy of engagement on this issue.  As I have argued elsewhere, this shift in Indian behavior is giving rise to CBM fatigue in Pakistan. While it is erroneous to expect the CBM process to resolve complex issues such as border disputes and terrorism, it is equally unjust to render them completely irrelevant. CBMs between India and Pakistan, in the past, have failed to completely stop crises from developing on the subcontinent. They have, however, helped to increase communication, transparency, and openness across the border, thereby reducing the risks of unintended escalation. The agreement on the Prohibition of Attack against Nuclear Installations and Facilities, signed in 1988, has resulted in regular exchanges of lists of nuclear facilities between the two countries, even at times of crisis. The pre-notification of missile tests represents another successful CBM.

Although deterrence seems to have worked enough in the past 18 years to save the region from any major war, it has largely been a risky journey marred with crisis and nuclear dangers. Evolving nuclear behaviors are still far from being stable, owing to misconceptions and conflicting propositions on both sides.

However, security threats at the global level are assuming new shapes and forms, and South Asia is not immune to that. While strategic competition in South Asia is here to stay, a relative level of communication and openness is important for strategic stability. One area where this is needed is cyberspace. India and Pakistan can exhibit more transparency in this area to avoid an accidental crisis. While one may not be able to completely secure cyberspace, an official pledge to refrain from using non-kinetic means of attack would increase confidence between the two states. A cyber element could be added to existing CBMs to enhance their utility, such as the nuclear installations non-attack agreement. Article 1 of the agreement prohibits an attack on or damage to each other’s nuclear facilities, but does not specify the nature of attack. Therefore, a cyber dimension can be incorporated in the existing agreement, explicitly ruling out the use of any kinetic or non-kinetic means. The agreement could also be expanded to cover other critical nuclear infrastructure not part of a nuclear complex, such as nuclear command and control systems, including early warning systems and critical computers.

Another emerging challenge is the risk of nuclear terrorism. Pakistan has been the center of global attention, its nuclear security constantly scrutinized. Recently, however, Pakistan’s continuous improvement in the area of nuclear security has been acknowledged. Regular scrutiny from the global community prevents complacency and further strengthens Pakistan’s security. However, India’s less-than-satisfactory nuclear security credentials are not subject to similar scrutiny. In light of this double standard, it is important to realize that denying potential risks will only complicate and further endanger fragile deterrence stability in South Asia. Furthermore, with the entry into force of the amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM/A), both states have new nuclear security responsibilities to live up to. In a worst-case scenario, nuclear or radiological material stolen from one country and used in the other could initiate a serious crisis, where it could be erroneously seen as “nuclear first use”. While it is essential to strengthen the existing security measures, it is equally important to maintain open lines of communication and bilateral cooperation to facilitate swift investigation of a nuclear security incident before finger-pointing. It is essential for India and Pakistan to face the risks of nuclear terrorism. This would ideally begin with cooperative measures at borders to interdict any illicit trafficking of nuclear or radiological materials. Both states may notify each other of such an incident and consider the potential trans-boundary impact of any nuclear incident to determine if it might constitute a joint response. Such cooperation is even more important in a post-incident investigation. States may cooperate on forensic analysis/investigation to ascertain the origin of the material and ensure that results are fair and credible.

CBMs emerge and are sustained when states share an equal and mutually beneficial interest in their success, which does not challenge their positions pertaining to national security matters. A realistic assessment of the current situation, where India appears to be dismissive of nuclear security related CBMs, suggests that establishing close engagement on sensitive issues such as nuclear terrorism may be unlikely, at least in the near future. However, given emerging security challenges to nuclear infrastructure globally and increasing home-grown terrorism , India may find it in its interest to create a complex interdependence where both states can cooperate on areas of mutual concern.

The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization she’s affiliated with.


Eighteen years ago this month, India and Pakistan surprised the international community by testing nuclear weapons within weeks of each other. In the aftermath of the tests, the two countries formulated a set of confidence-building measures to mitigate risk and enhance strategic stability. But how effective have these initiatives been? Have they managed to achieve their objective or is a new approach needed? SAV contributors Arka Biswas, Sitara Noor, Sobia Paracha, and Tanvi Kulkarni will explore some of these themes in this series. Read the entire series here.

Editor’s Note: Click here to read this article in Urdu


Image: Koshy Koshy, Flickr

Posted in , CBMs, India, Nuclear, Nuclear Security, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan

Sitara Noor

Sitara Noor is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies in Islamabad, Pakistan and South Asian Voices Visiting Fellow 2019-2020. Previously, Sitara was the director of a Lahore-based policy consultancy and before that, a Research Fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non Proliferation (VCDNP) in Vienna, Austria. Prior to joining the VCDNP, she worked at the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority under the Directorate of Nuclear Security and Physical Protection as an International Relations Analyst. She has been a faculty member at the National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad’s Department of International Relations for two years. She was also a visiting faculty at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST), Lahore, the Foreign Services Academy of Pakistan, and the Information Services Academy of Pakistan.

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3 thoughts on “India-Pakistan Nuclear CBMs: Addressing Mutual Concerns

  1. Pakistan has had no stable civilian government until recently, Pakistan doesn’t have ‘No first use policy’ for Nuclear weapons, and the most important it has soft spot for terrorist organisations. No wonder it gets scrutinized.

  2. Sitara:
    A very strong argument.
    I cannot take issue with any of your points. The absence of engagement serves no purpose. But as I write this, I remember periods during the Cold War where there was no engagement because political conditions shaped by events made it impossible to engage.
    The truth of the matter is that India and Pakistan are very soft states. Both are extremely vulnerable. Recognition of vulnerability is one basis for proceeding with CBMs and NRRMs, but this is insufficient. In my view, the key element for CBMs and NRRMs is a mutual willingness and ability by national leaders to improve relations.
    I see a willingness by the Indian and Pakistani PMs to do this. But I don’t see a change in Rawalpindi’s attitude.
    Thanks for contributing to SAV,

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