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Opinion

Rizwan Asghar
June 7, 2017

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India’s unchecked ambitions

India’s unchecked ambitions

Pakistan, with one of the largest armed forces in the world, is home to more than 200 million people. According to most recent estimates, Pakistan has more than 130 nuclear warheads in its possession.

These facts have made it clear that the global community can afford to isolate or demonise Pakistan only at its own peril. However, the world – for the most part – remains oblivious to these realities and continues to hold Pakistan solely responsible for the ongoing dangerous arms build-up in South Asia.

Pakistani diplomats and scholars find it increasingly difficult to garner support for Pakistan’s legitimate strategic concerns in the world’s capitals. In the US, Pakistan remains a favourite punching bag for many analysts in both academic and policy conferences. Within the American think-tank community, Pakistani scholars have a limited presence and not enough space is allowed for them to express their views.

More alarmingly, people who are seen as pro-India wield massive influence in leading American think tanks. This has given rise to an impression among some scholars that American think tanks might be slightly biased against Pakistan.

The international community must realise that the demonisation of Pakistan will not only result in the structural causes of conflict in the region being ignored. It will also further embolden the most hawkish elements in Pakistan’s nuclear establishment. The space for rational debate on nuclear issues would shrink within Pakistan, making it difficult for independent scholars to sustain dialogue. In order to avoid such a scenario, the outside world needs to have a better understanding of the rationale behind why Pakistan seems to be stuck in its obsession with India. Pakistan cannot simply accept India’s continued efforts for military domination in the region.

Despite innumerable internal problems, we cannot totally ignore external threats. It would be unfair to expect that Pakistan does not strengthen its external defence capabilities to counter the overbearing influence of New Delhi. An obsession with India makes sense on some level since there is a history of subversive activities in Pakistan that can be traced back to India. It is an open secret now that New Delhi has, historically, used its influence in the region to destabilise Pakistan through its use of terrorist proxies in Balochistan and our tribal areas. Since 2014, the Modi government has been implementing the Doval doctrine in the region, which calls for supporting terrorist groups operating inside Pakistan to divert the latter’s attention from the Kashmir issue. This explains why our decision-makers still see India as a bigger threat to our national security.

However, the global community is impervious to understanding that establishing durable peace in South Asia will remain an unfulfilled dream without ensuring that India’s desires for regional hegemony are kept in check. This is also true of India’s rapidly growing nuclear programme, which has largely evaded public attention and media scrutiny.

Over the past few years, the enlargement of India’s unsafeguarded nuclear programme has raised many concerns in Pakistan and other neighbouring countries. Several nuclear analysts, including myself, have emphasised the need for greater international scrutiny of India’s nuclear arsenal. But these words of caution have mostly fallen on deaf ears. In the aftermath of the Indo-US civil nuclear deal in 2005, the Indian nuclear programme is divided into three different streams: military, civilian-safeguarded, and civilian-unsafeguarded. It is feared that, due to a lack of transparency, India can use its civilian facilities to produce more fissile material for military purposes.

A recent paper on India’s nuclear exceptionalism by the Harvard Kennedy School has once again reignited the debate about the actual number of weapons India can build from its current stocks of fissile material. A 2016 report by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) concluded that India had enough weapons-grade plutonium to build 75 to 125 weapons by the end of 2014. However, these estimates do not capture the actual potential of Indian nuclear facilities – including eight pressurised heavy water power reactors (PHWRs) – that are not under the IAEA safeguards. And there are obvious reasons why New Delhi could use these unsafeguarded PHWRs to build more warheads in the future.

The issue has become increasingly controversial because of the radical divergence in assessments made by different analysts. At the heart of this controversy lies the question of whether the reactor-grade plutonium can be used to make nuclear weapons. The disagreement exists because conservative estimates tend to conflate motives and the capabilities of India’s nuclear establishment.

If we only focus on material capabilities, India has technical potential to produce a massive number of nuclear weapons from its existing stocks of fissile material. And it is not scientifically impossible to use a large amount of reactor-grade plutonium for building nuclear weapons. According to a report issued in 1997 by the Department of Energy (DOE): “At the lowest level of sophistication, a potential proliferating state or subnational group using designs and technologies no more sophisticated than those used in first-generation nuclear weapons could build a nuclear weapon from reactor-grade plutonium that would have an assured, reliable yield of one or a few kilotonnes and a probable yield significantly higher than that”.

We can disagree on the motives of the Indian government but an accurate assessment of India’s nuclear capabilities is bound to raise alarms in both Pakistan and China. Unless India brings its eight PHWRs under the IAEA safeguards and establishes itself as a responsible nuclear power, it must be denied a permanent membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Keeping a check on India’s nuclear potential is the only way to prevent a South Asian arms race. The global community must play its role in achieving the goal of a stable and prosperous South Asia.

 

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