Indo-Pak discussions on Deterrence Stability in South Asia

ISSSP Reflections No. 18, July 25, 2014

Author: Ms. Aditi Malhotra


Group Istanbul

In the picturesque city of Istanbul, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and The Stimson Center brought together an interesting mix of young Indian and Pakistani researchers, academics and journalists working on nuclear issues. The workshop held from June 18- 20, 2014 was titled ‘Deterrence Stability in South Asia’ and aimed to delve on issues related to India-Pakistan nuclear deterrence and deterrence stability. Over a period of three days, the gathering deliberated upon the varying perceptions and key challenges to deterrence stability in South Asia and ways to address these challenges. The discussions focused on identifying common grounds and novel approaches on various issues, which could help in furthering better relations and understanding between the two neighbours. Interestingly, all participants agreed to keep the most contentious Indo-Pakistan issues on the back burner and discuss subjects where some progress was possible. The ensuing paragraphs reflect on some of the important points that were discussed during the workshop:

Deterrence Stability

There were lengthy discussions on the concept of deterrence stability in general and factors affecting it in South Asia. A majority of the participants shared the perception that deterrence in South Asia meant different things to both countries and their decision-makers. Even the concept of stability is highly influenced by one’s perceptions and more so in the case of India and Pakistan. Capabilities of a country, internal politics, role of perceptions, structures of state institutions etc. were identified as some factors affecting deterrence stability. It was agreed that the lack of a common lexicon on deterrence stability in South Asia complicates the already precarious situation. Therefore, it was felt that India and Pakistan need to achieve a better understanding of each other’s perceptions, fears and thinking in order to minimise any chances of misunderstanding.

Discussing the nuances of deterrence stability, it was argued that extreme secrecy with limited bilateral dialogue on nuclear issues might lead to a situation wherein the other party may misunderstand signals. Also, during a crisis, a country tends to assume that the other country may act or react in certain ways. Such assumptions result in the creation of grey areas, leaving them contingent on the future shaping of events, which may lead to increased tensions during a crisis.

A majority of the participants agreed that the current leaderships in both the countries are strong. The clear mandate given by the people provides the leaders in India and Pakistan the capability to take some tough decisions and ensure its implementation. On the one hand, this has its advantages. For instance, Pakistan’s Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif’s recent visit to India for Indian PM Narendra Modi’s swearing in ceremony, indicates that both the leaders have the potential and will to work on Indo-Pakistan bilateral relations.

On the other hand, participants felt that strong Indian leadership implied that the Indian government could take an aggressive stand during a crisis initiated by Pakistan or Pak-backed non-state actors. India’s response to another 26/11 type of an attack from Pakistan was discussed, as was its impact on deterrence stability. In this regard, there were mixed opinions, as many believed that India would react aggressively to such as attack, while others disagreed.

Economic Levers

India and Pakistan do not have strong economic linkages. It remains essential to work on this aspect, as both countries do not have any levers that could be leveraged for peace. Economic interdependence could take Indo-Pakistan relations to a level wherein economic links take primacy over military or nuclear-related issues. It was also emphasised that the ‘fauji foundation’ needs to given an incentive in investing in India and vice-versa, which would make them stakeholders in Indo-Pakistan peace. In light of the new governments in both the countries and PM Modi’s pro-economic image, majority of the participants were hopeful of improved economic relations between New Delhi and Islamabad in the coming years.

Challenges to Deterrence Stability in South Asia

Deterrence stability in South Asia has been plagued by a number of challenges. The perceptions of challenges differ. Indian and Pakistani participants came up with what they perceive as major challenges to deterrence stability in South Asia. Predictably, there were differences in the challenges identified. However, there were also some commonalities in the approach.

Participants from Pakistan argued that asymmetries/imbalances between the two countries was the main challenge, that also affects other dimensions of the relationship. Asymmetries remain a major factor in the minds of Pakistani decision-makers. This predisposition in turn affects the political capacity of the state, especially in terms of its political will to undertake arms control and political coherence when implementing policies. These aspects impact the domestic and international policies of both countries.

With regard to conventional asymmetries, most Indian participants argued that the China factor remains relevant. It was reasoned that India’s military modernisation and quest for technologically advanced weapon systems were resultant of China’s growing military prowess and assertiveness along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Most insisted that it remains difficult to decouple the China factor from the strategic landscape in South Asia. Additionally, it would add to the stability in Indo-Pak relations if Pakistan views Indian military modernisation keeping in mind the larger context. 

The Indian participants contended that the primary challenge to deterrence stability is sub-conventional warfare, as it has the potential to spiral into others levels of conflict. Specifically, sub-conventional operations of magnitude and scale that provokes response from New Delhi and wherein the culpability of the Pakistani state can be ascertained are most detrimental to peace in South Asia. The group also identified misperceptions and wrongly interpreted signals as another major challenge. Within this category, factors such as introduction of new weapon systems in the subcontinent, nuclear safety and security of Pakistan were included. It was averred that theft and use of nuclear weapons by Pak-based terror groups could lead to crises, which could spiral out of control. The participants agreed that there is a crying need to address the above challenges that hamper deterrence stability between the two countries. 

Consensus was achieved on trust deficit being an important factor hampering Indo-Pak relations. Over long discussions during the workshop and outside, many innovative ideas were discussed in order to minimise the existing mistrust between the governments and people. It was widely believed that the current Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) were inadequate due to limited impact value and scope. Additionally, some CBMs may be discontinued during a crisis when emotions run high.

The success of the workshop can be gauged from the fact that at the end of three days, the participants concluded a list of implementable and non-contentious CBMs and Nuclear Risk Reduction Measures. Some of the measures included establishing a joint project on social and literary history and introducing it into school curricula, promoting joint technical studies on security issues, establishing liaison programs between the two national nuclear Centres of Excellence etc.

The workshop helped in building bridges and creating pleasant memories. The discussions helped in gaining a better understanding of the ‘other’. Our dinner conversations were a mix of insightful views on politics and light-hearted conversations, ranging from Arnab Goswami being India’s the most credible deterrent to small talk about Pakistani and Indian television dramas. The endless conversations and enjoyment over sumptuous Turkish meals and tea sessions helped all participants realise that at the end of the day, we are not so different from each other. The three days helped build friendships that might last for decades.

About the Author

Aditi Malhotra is a Senior Research Fellow in the International Strategic and Security Studies Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies. She can be reached at: aditimalhotra008[at]gmail[dot]com. She can also be followed on Twitter @aditi_malhotra_

Picture Courtesy: Ali Mustafa


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