What’s the Future of CBMs in South Asia?

One of India’s eminent strategists, the late K. Subrahmanyam, once observed, “There is not much, if at all any, literature on the game of deterrence among the second- and third-rung nuclear nations under such conditions of uncertainty. So we have to think for ourselves.” The same must also be true of nuclear confidence-building measures (CBMs) among these states. As we mark the 18th anniversary of the subcontinent’s 1998 nuclear tests, it has become clear that the India-Pakistan nuclear nexus can be informed only to a limited extent by prior models, and thus, new ideas and initiatives are needed. In this regard, it is welcome that scholars and practitioners from the region are thinking about the evolution of deterrence between the two states and how CBMs can contribute to stability.

Interestingly, in the South Asian Voices series “18 Years On: Examining State of India-Pakistan Nuclear CBMs,”  the four contributing scholars arrive at rather different conclusions about the success of these initiatives. For Arka Biswas, they “have been fairly ineffective at reducing tensions…because they are unable to address the intricate linkage between nuclear and conventional issues in India-Pakistan relations.” Sobia Paracha similarly assesses that the success rate “has remained unimpressive so far, especially in terms of creating an enabling environment for conflict resolution.” Tanvi Kulkarni offers some tepid praise of the “limited success” of these measures to date in maintaining the status quo, while lamenting the lack of “any major breakthrough in functional and institutional measures.” Finally, Sitara Noor suggests that measures implemented thus far “have played a positive role in India-Pakistan relations,” citing in particular their help “to increase communication, transparency, and openness across the border, thereby reducing the risks of unintended escalation.” What is striking here is the quite varied expectations about what the CBMs are intended to do. One wonders whether a useful CBM might be a bilateral dialogue to clarify expectations about CBMs!

In their assessments, the scholars point to a critical feature of existing CBMs in South Asia: they don’t really address the serious and potentially destabilizing dynamics of the bilateral security competition. In particular, the growth in size and scope of nuclear arsenals, the development of related strategic capabilities such as ballistic missile defense, and an evolving conventional military balance complicate efforts to identify means or steps to bring stability to the picture. Understandably, any CBM that either side would perceive as impinging on or weakening its relative deterrence advantages is easy to dismiss as infeasible or selling out national security. (The same arguments have been and continue to be made about U.S.-Soviet/Russia arms control agreements, of course, yet those measures demonstrate that durable, mutually-beneficial restraints are possible between antagonists.) It is for exactly this reason that Pakistan’s proposal for a strategic restraint regime and India’s offer of a bilateral no-first-use pact have no traction. Kulkarni’s honest assessment of this problem, and thus the lack of bargaining space – and, arguably, lack of sincerity – inherent in the formal proposals advanced by both governments is commendable.

One objective to which existing and potential future CBMs can contribute is what might be termed “avoiding inadvertence.” The ballistic missile pre-launch notification regime, incomplete as it is, fits in this category. Noor usefully identifies two other areas in which both sides, without compromising on operational or national security imperatives, could work out procedures that would help avoid inadvertent crisis or conflict escalation: non-attack on nuclear facilities involving cyber weapons, and cooperative border communication to interdict illicit trafficking in nuclear or radiological materials.  In the case of trafficking, a third party – the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), for instance – could help develop procedures in a way that would give political cover to both sides, given the sensitivity that attends cooperation on nuclear security. Both ideas deserve in-depth technical analysis to consider modalities.  There has been no shortage of good ideas for CBMs in South Asia, including these, but it has been difficult for the two sides to agree even to simple augmentation of existing measures, like adding cruise missiles to the pre-launch notification regime.

By the same token, as Biswas highlights, those potential conventional responses are the most likely trigger of nuclear use, and thus it isn’t possible to isolate nuclear CBMs aimed at conflict avoidance from sub-conventional and conventional catalysts.  This observation does not absolve policymakers of responsibility to address nuclear CBMs, of course, but it is important in thinking about escalation and deterrence. Biswas focuses on the responsibility of Pakistan to address “non-state actors as proxies.” But at this stage, with tactical nuclear weapons now joined to this issue, India must also consider the role of offensive conventional military doctrines. If the joint investigation following the Pathankot attack leads to prosecutions in Pakistan, and further progress in building firebreaks between sub-conventional and conventional violence, could Indian decisionmakers shelve Cold Start? If so, how would this be demonstrated? Biswas is right to highlight the need for this discussion, but in order to gain traction, both sides would need to come prepared to consider reassurance steps.

Kulkarni makes a similar point about the need for Indian and Pakistani decisionmakers to consider “appropriate issue linkages—nuclear to nuclear and nuclear to conventional—[which] can bring out bargains that are not necessarily symmetrical in terms of quality, but similar in terms of the quantity of mutual confidence built in the bid.” This understandably begs the question: if progress can’t be made in nuclear or conventional CBMs singularly, because of the interrelationships between them, is there a strategic framework for such dialogue that might work? Larger dialogue structures have a habit of collapsing under their own weight, as participants in the Composite Dialogue might attest. Yet at this point, is there an alternative? Probably not.  Kulkarni’s suggestion of joint lexicon may be one small step to get there, but the big question is political will.

It is on the political question that Paracha most usefully dwells, highlighting the need for varied stakeholders within the establishments of both countries to agree on a vision. It is a prerequisite that both civilian and military leaders, as well as a broad spectrum of political parties and civil society, support the objectives of CBMs. With apologies to the diplomats, however, peace and stability in the region is too important to be left in their hands.  Political will of a higher order is needed to create a new equilibrium and break the mold that Ashley Tellis termed “ugly stability” that prevails in the region. There are examples from other times and regions of risky political overtures that have resulted in cessation of security competition, if not peace, that serve as inspiration. The trick is in the engineering and alignment of geopolitical fortunes. When the stars do align and a path opens for such change, both India and Pakistan will need policy entrepreneurs – scholars such as Biswas, Kulkarni, Noor, and Paracha – to feed ideas into the system, to argue for them publicly, and to hold politicians and military leaders to account. We should hope that such an opening arrives soon.


South Asian Voices (SAV) endeavors to ensure its contributors are influencing policy debates in India, Pakistan, and the United States. To this end, our feature Experts Ki Rai periodically has experienced South Asia specialists weigh-in on contributors’ analysis, in the hope of continuing to advance meaningful dialogue on the subcontinent and beyond. In this edition of Experts ki Rai, Toby Dalton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace responds to SAV’s series “18 Years On: Examining State of India-Pakistan Nuclear CBMs.”


Image 1: Anadolu Agency, Getty

Image 2: Prakash Singh-AFP, Getty

Posted in , CBMs, Experts ki Rai, India, Pakistan

Toby Dalton

Toby Dalton is co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. An expert on nonproliferation and nuclear energy, his work addresses regional security challenges and the evolution of the global nuclear order. His research and writing focus in particular on South Asia and East Asia. From 2002 to 2010, he served in a variety of high-level positions at the U.S. Department of Energy, including acting director for the Office of Nuclear Safeguards and Security and senior policy adviser to the Office of Nonproliferation and International Security. He also established and led the department’s office at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan from 2008-2009.

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4 thoughts on “What’s the Future of CBMs in South Asia?

  1. I believe the current crop of CBMs have one further weakness: the procedural ones (hotlines, for example) work fine when India Pakistan relations are reasonably stable, but they fall into disuse when relations get bad. This limits their utility as crisis management devices.

    I would also suggest that perhaps the most important function of CBMs is to give each party a better basis for judging whether the other is actually doing what it says. This would argue for CBM’s to be concrete and visible. If India says it will do X, will Pakistan be able to see that this is being done? And vice versa. If the two countries establish a good track record with modest and visible measures, perhaps they can move to measures that aren’t quite so easy to see. Confidence, in this model doesn’t mean that each party is convinced that the other has become benign. It does mean that each one has a pretty good idea that the other’s commitments mean something, and has a way of predicting, with reasonable accuracy, how fully the other will fulfill its undertakings. This is a more meaningful form of “trust” between historical antagonists.

  2. Toby,
    Thank you for your evaluation. And Tezi, thank you for your comment.
    I remember traveling to India and Pakistan in the early 1990s, bringing with me my “tool box” of ideas on CBMs and Nuclear Risk Reduction Measures. These measures were drawn from Cold War experience. I invited my listeners to open up this toolbox to see whether some of these measures might be adapted for use on the subcontinent. To be sure, ground conditions were different in South Asia, but with suitable adaptation, some of these measures might still be very useful. After all, some security concerns are generic.
    At first, I heard the same push back: “This isn’t the Cold War.” This I could see with my own eyes: The LoC didn’t look like the Fulda Gap. But the more I showed up and talked about CBMs and NRRMs, the more receptive my Indian and Pakistani colleagues became. By the time of the nuclear tests — and the Kargil limited war that soon followed — no-one argued against CBMs and NRRMs, at least in principle.. And when these measures were negotiated, it was obvious that they were drawn directly from Cold War templates.It turns out that there is no distinctive South Asian template for CBMs and NRRMs.
    Recognition that CBMs and NRRMs could be valuable was the first hurdle. The second hurdle was — and still is — having the governments of India and Pakistan (also India-China) to take these measures seriously, and to use them as a springboard for more normal ties. This hurdle hasn’t been passed.
    Instead governments use CBMs and NRRMs as they use so many other aspects of the relationship — not as something valuable in their own right, but as tradable commodities. And, of course, there are no trades if there are no negotiations. And there are no negotiations if, after an Indian Prime Minister tries to open this door, an attack on a sensitive Indian target by cadres based in Pakistan closes it.
    That’s where we are today, after Pathankot. Just as we were after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The last CBM/NRRM was negotiated in 2007.
    How can we blame the limited track record of CBMs/NRRMs on the measures themselves? These measures have no intrinsic weight-bearing properties; they are only as meaningful as the commitment that national leaders place on top of them. If there is very limited or conditional support to build on these measures, they become orphans. CBMs and NRRMs work best in the context of sustained efforts to reduce nuclear dangers and improve bilateral relations. And that has been woefully lacking.

  3. This CBM chapter will get accomplished when both the nations will sit down and settled down their disputes on real basis. Pakistan and India needs to create peace in the region which will help them from strategic to economic level. Their must be a seperate identity of these South Asian states rather than making international actors to work on such chapters with them.

  4. Toby,
    Thank you for your assessment and thoughtful observations.
    India and Pakistan have a long road to travel toward effective nuclear confidence building. I am wondering if meaningful NCBMs can still be undertaken (definitely needing political will on both sides) even as the two countries explore what mutual deterrence stability should translate into? If this could be any lesson from the CW: In the post Cuban Missile Crisis phase, while a missile race ensued between the United States and the Soviet Union, both sides also engaged in critical arms control efforts.
    Appreciate your call for involving various stakeholders in promoting confidence building.

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