South Asian Nuclear Deterrence: historical context and its future

History is key to making sense of the utility of nuclear weapons to Pakistan, and the state’s heavy reliance on them. A point that is often ignored is that India went nuclear even when there was no need for it. Zachary Keck rightly argues that India’s nuclear development was a mistake because it has not served the purpose of deterring China, since China only enacts low intensity attacks along their shared border.

Brig. Naeem Salik in his book, The Genesis of South Asian Nuclear Deterrence: Pakistan’s Perspective, studied how and why India’s nuclear program began, and concluded that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and father of the Indian bomb Dr. Homi Bhabha recognized the dual nature of nuclear technology, and believed it could be beneficial for India.

Moreover, history has shown that what matters in terms of risks is not whether or not a country has nuclear weapons, but what it intends to do with them. And that we often don’t exactly know. An example can be that of India when it conducted a “peaceful nuclear explosion,” in the early 1970s. This was seen then as hard proof that India was looking to become a nuclear power, given the country’s long feud with Pakistan. For the same reason, as a deterrent to India, Pakistan developed itself into a nuclear- weapon state.

The story of the nuclearization of South Asia is also a story of Indian ambitions for modernization, and Pakistan’s paranoid efforts to catch up. Pakistan’s program has been reactive to India’s nuclear hegemony. Recent statements from Pakistani diplomats show that Pakistan has “no desire to engage in a conventional or nuclear arms race in South Asia.”  But if needed, Pakistan will rise to the challenge. This is especially keeping in mind the current ceasefire violations along the Line of Control by India.

Aggression means any aggression against Pakistan, whether conventional or nuclear, and full spectrum deterrence means that aggression will be responded to with nuclear weapons.  With the exception of India and China, every other nuclear nation has a policy of first use of weapons to any outside misadventure taken against them. Former foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmad puts it very aptly: “The development of our nuclear programme will be determined solely by such requirement which is now an indispensable part of our security doctrine.”

India’s nuclear program is moving forward steadily, without any hindrance from great powers. Pakistan’s problem is not that India has nuclear warheads— even if India has just one functional warhead, it is one too many. That means Pakistan reserves the right to take all appropriate measures for its security.

India, a country in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions on matters of international peace and security, such as the Jammu and Kashmir dispute, by no means qualifies for a special status in the Security Council. It secretly pursued nuclear weapons and declared in the late 1990s, yet the international community engaged with New Delhi, constantly extending a hand of friendship, exemplified by different diplomatic measures such as the Indo-US nuclear deal. It’s a country that is favored for Nuclear Suppliers Group membership, without signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Carnegie Endowment of International Peace and Stimson Center’s recent report A Normal Nuclear Pakistan characterizes the Pakistani government’s position as dangerous. It is difficult to understand why every year such reports want to stop Pakistan from increasing its nuclear arsenal, when it is only defending itself. Munir Akram, former Pakistani ambassador to the UN, very rightly said:

Pakistan’s is not the ‘fastest growing nuclear arsenal’. In fact, with the revival of their Cold War post the Ukraine crisis, the US and Russia have deployed the largest number of additional nuclear weapons last year.”

Is Pakistan the only “maniacal” country that flaunts its weapons? Isn’t it true that India after its nuclear explosion in 1998 warned Pakistan that it “should realize the change in the geo-strategic situation in the region,” and “roll back its anti-India policy, especially with regard to Kashmir”? Didn’t Israel blackmail the world into accepting their domination of the region, on the back of their nuclear arsenal? Also, a higher nuclear warhead count doesn’t mean superiority. France has more bombs than China, and USSR had more warheads than the United States. That doesn’t mean France has an advantage over China. The basic aim is to deter enemies from nuclear attack.

Despite dramatization of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities, it is quite clear that South Asia remained safe from any major conflict due to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry accurately points out that “Pakistan had been obliged to develop nuclear capability for self-defense and deterrence,” adding that it was an “existential choice that Pakistan made to preserve strategic stability in South Asia. However, despite cancellation of NSA-level talks due to the Kashmir issue, both countries need to establish a good framework for dialogue based on diplomacy, statesmanship, an awareness of history, and an acknowledgement that states can change over time. This will make the region peaceful, and will be key to tackling the risk of nuclear weapons in future.


Usman Ali Khan is a freelance writer with a degree in Defence and Strategic Studies


Image: Anadolu Agency, Getty

Posted in , History, India, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan

Usman Ali Khan

Usman Ali Khan is an Islamabad-based freelance writer and is currently an MPhil candidate at Quaid-i-Azam University. He has an MSc in Defence and Strategic Studies from the same university. His research is mostly focused on nuclear issues in South Asia and the United States. He tweets @Shau_ni

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4 thoughts on “South Asian Nuclear Deterrence: historical context and its future

  1. A very accurate and unbiased analysis of Pakistani nuclear program development. India had set the tone in early 70s to nuclearize South Asian region.

  2. Chinese Conventional military superiority is enough to take down any deterrence capability of India, even the Indian nuclear capable ballistic missiles cannot assure defense of its territory. So the ambitions and aims of the Indian nuclear weapons program and its expansion is really a thoughtful question as it threatens the regional peace.

  3. A very apt, simple and crisp analysis. The bottom line is that Indian nuclear weapons programme is Pakistan specific and Pakistan’s programme is India specific. When India tested its nuclear weapons in 1998, did it remind China of changed realities, it only chose Pakistan for this warning.

  4. Usman,
    Thank you for contributing to SAV.
    You write,

    “The story of the nuclearization of South Asia is also a story of Indian ambitions for modernization, and Pakistan’s paranoid efforts to catch up. Pakistan’s program has been reactive to India’s nuclear hegemony. ”

    My take is that Pakistan has outpaced “India’s ambitions for modernization.” India has no nuclear “hegemony” when Pakistan possesses more warheads, has four Plutonium production reactors to India’s one, and is producing new warheads at a multiple of about 4:1 over India.

    The question facing Indian leaders is now whether to pick up their relaxed pace — or to maintain their current course on the continued assumptions that (a) nuclear weapons do not have military utility, and (b) money is better spent on electricity and providing for other social needs.


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