Strategic instabilities in South Asia and Pakistan’s nuclear policy

Strategic instabilities in South Asia 1

Chaired By:   Antoine Levesques

Speaker:       Colonel Imran Hassan

In this webinar, Colonel Imran Hassan explored today’s strategic environment in South Asia from a Pakistani perspective. There are no substantial arms-control measures in place between India and Pakistan; existing confidence-building measures are ageing. India and Pakistan seek space to use conventional military action under the other’s perceived nuclear threshold, risking uncontrollable escalation.

Colonel Hassan discussed Pakistan’s nuclear policy, making the case for dispute resolution and nuclear restraint. Colonel Imran Hassan is the Visiting Research Fellow for South Asia (Strategic Affairs) at the IISS; and is the Deputy Director (Research) for the Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs Branch of the Strategic Plans Division in Pakistan.

He remains a General Staff Officer Grade-1 (Research) at the Institute of Strategic Studies Research and Analysis, National Defence University (NDU) in Islamabad. Colonel Hassan is a graduate of the Command and Staff College, Quetta; Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad; Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey; and holds an MPhil in Strategic Studies from the NDU.

Strategic instabilities in South Asia and Pakistan’s nuclear policy Thursday, 28 May 2020, 1300-1400 hrs IISS Webinar Speaker: Colonel Imran Hassan, Visiting Research Fellow for South Asia (Strategic Affairs), IISS; Deputy Director (Research), Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs Branch of the Strategic Plans Division, Government of Pakistan Chair:

Antoine Levesques, Research Fellow for South Asia, IISS This webinar was the first time the 5th IISS Visiting Fellow for South Asia (Strategic Affairs) addressed an on-the-record IISS discussion meeting. Below is a transcript of Colonel Hassan’s opening remarks, followed by a summary of his answers in the discussion session.

Speaker: Colonel Imran Hassan, Visiting Research Fellow for South Asia

(Strategic Affairs), IISS; Deputy Director (Research), Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs Branch of the Strategic Plans Division, Government of Pakistan.

Chair: Antoine Levesques, Research Fellow for South Asia, IISS.

This webinar was the first time the 5th IISS Visiting Fellow for South Asia.

(Strategic Affairs) addressed an on-the-record IISS discussion meeting. Below is a transcript of Colonel Hassan’s opening remarks, followed by a summary of his answers in the discussion session.

Transcript of Colonel Hassan’s opening remarks

Ladies and Gentlemen, I shall begin with a very profound and inspiring narration by the Founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, when he said that ‘We do not cherish aggressive designs against any country or nation. We believe in the principle of honesty and fair play in national and international dealings and are prepared to make our utmost contribution to the promotion of peace and prosperity among the nations of the world’.

These founding principles continue to guide Pakistan’s foreign policy in a broader perspective and likewise remain at the heart of Pakistan nuclear policy that rests on four broad strands, as I view it:

First, to preserve peace and stability in South Asia at the lowest level of armament.

Second, to pursue resolution of all disputes through negotiations and dialogues.

Third, to have non-discriminatory access to peaceful nuclear technology for socio-economic development and a cleaner environment.

And fourth, to contribute as a responsible and mainstreamed partner in the global non-proliferation efforts.

Pakistan continues to pursue these strands earnestly at multilateral fora and bilateral dealings with partner states. On 28 May 2020 – that makes 22 years of Pakistan’s overt nuclearisation  let me say that Pakistan was a reluctant entrant into the club of nuclear weapon states. India in fact conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, by diverting nuclear material from its peaceful nuclear programme, which prompted the creation of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 1975 to prevent further misuse of peaceful nuclear trade.

Going nuclear thus became a strategic compulsion for Pakistan. Eventfully, Pakistan became an overt nuclear state when it responded to a series of nuclear tests by our neighbour in May 1998, thereby restoring the strategic balance in the region. After becoming overt nuclear weapon state, Pakistan has taken a number of institutional measures to ensure complete and effective oversight of its nuclear programme.

A robust command and control structure has been established, led by the National Command Authority known as NCA, which is the apex decision-making body chaired by the Prime Minister. The NCA represents a fusion of important civilian, military and techno-scientific leadership. It exercises complete command and control over all aspects of Pakistan’s nuclear policy.

The Strategic Plans Division, known as SPD, is the Secretariat and the workhorse of the NCA. SPD ensures smooth and effective implementation of all decisions by the National Command Authority. Pakistan’s nuclear weapon capabilities are intended solely for Pakistan’s own defence against a specific existential threat to preserve peace and stability in South Asia.

Restraint and responsibility remain the cardinal principles upon which Pakistan’s policy of ‘Credible Minimum Deterrence’ is rested. Pakistan neither has the intent nor can afford to engage in a conventional or nuclear arms race. Pakistan does not seek parity with India but a strategic balance that prevents space for war and creates a conducive environment for socio-economic development of our nation.

Nevertheless, durable peace in the region would remain elusive if it does not envisage resolution of all outstanding disputes – in particular the issue of Kashmir – alongside nuclear and missile restraints, as well as the conventional balance. These three inter-locking elements are Pakistan’s proposal of establishing a Strategic Restraint Regime (SRR) in South Asia.

Strategic instabilities of South Asia have linkages with the contemporary global strategic environment. As the world gradually moves towards multipolarity, American ascendancy over the global system has been affected by China’s rise and Russian resurgence. This phenomenon has triggered multiple dynamics.

The US – still the world dominant power – has spread itself thin, and the power gap between it and its rivals has gradually narrowed. Around the world there is a sense that everything, including US hegemony is in question. To me, 2020 can best be described as a year on the edge – a transition between the post-Cold War era and a new era that has yet to be defined.

A conjoint denominator of this puzzle is that big-power competition is sucking others into a new confrontation. While many countries are still striving to get rid of the repercussions of superpower rivalry during the last century, the renewed competition for pre-eminence and global hegemony implicates the global strategic scenario.

The fifth age of technological development is another imperative that marks the common American, Russian and Chinese choices to place arms control on a backburner. The arms control structure between the US and Russia appears to be deconstructed; the US withdrew from the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty, extricated from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the fate of New START and Open Skies hangs in the balance.

This super-power Troika is jostling to gain a competitive strategic advantage over one another. This inter-play affects South Asia. India has emerged as a major beneficiary of this competition while playing on both sides of the gallery. The US has opened all vistas of opportunities for India to develop enhanced and modern capabilities.

It took a formal start from the Indo-US Nuclear Deal in 2005; Indian Exception to the NSG in 2008; Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) in 2012; Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016; Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018; Industrial Security Annex (ISA) in 2019; and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) that is lined up in 2020, to name a few in the strategic domain.

From Russia, the acquisition of the state-of-the-art S-400 Missile Defence System; the stealthy with lots of fire power Akula-class nuclear powered attack submarines (SSN); and BrahMos – one of the fastest supersonic cruise missiles in the world, are a few examples. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) fascism is another factor that could prompt its leadership to increase hostility towards Pakistan and risk waging a war.

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), abrogation of articles 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution, is a manifestation and widely reported by non-partisan international organisations across the world. Extremism is also reflected in its nuclear policies as the high ranking Indian government officials hint of a renunciation of India’s No First Use (NFU) policy and threatened the use of nuclear weapons sans provocation – the post-Pulwama crisis turned out to be the evidence.

While an arms race is not advocated, the strategic balance to maintain a credible deterrent at the minimum level of armament is imperative for Pakistan’s security calculus. Let me talk about South Asia’s peculiar strategic environment before I move further.

In the South Asian context, the concept of strategic and deterrence stability should encompass both political and security dynamics, as well as doctrines and force postures for sustainable peace. A stable environment requires that steps be taken at all tiers – including political and military – to avoid confrontation.

Unique strategic cultures and distinct political aspirations shape the strategic environment of the Subcontinent. While Pakistan is trying to maintain a balance, India is attempting to revise the regional order. Its aggressive designs and blind eye towards conflict resolution is empirical evidence.

Alongside, South Asia directly bears the fallout of big power competition. The shifting strategic realignments and global ambitions have led to the notions of counterweights and containment. Attempts to redefine geography, the socalled re-balancing and the Indo-Pacific security construct, are likely to create an imbalance in the Subcontinent detriment to peace and stability.

Kashmir, however, remains a core issue of conflict between India and Pakistan and has become a nuclear flashpoint. Unlike other freedom movements around the world, Kashmir is a UN recognised movement for self-determination. The continued tyranny and oppression in Kashmir has assumed a humanitarian dimension, due to aggravating human rights violations and atrocities on locals to curb a legitimate freedom movement.

One would wonder that Kashmir today is the most militarised zone of our planet, and now since August last year, unfortunately has turned into the world’s largest prison and concentration camp. Let me briefly talk about Indian strategic behaviour before coming to Pakistan’s nuclear thinking. Regional growth and development in South Asia are hampered by set of challenges.

The historical animosity between India and Pakistan, their divergent political and strategic aspirations and New Delhi’s inclination to gather relative gains instead of cooperation shape South Asian security imperatives. India is engaged in an unfettered arms development in a desire to build prestige.

As per the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, commonly known as SIPRI, estimates of 2019, India has become the 2nd largest arms importer in the world and accounts for 9.5% of the total global arms imports across the world. This is detriment to strategic stability and peace in the region.

At the doctrinal level, it endeavours to espouse limited and hybrid warfare against Pakistan. The offensive doctrine, such as Cold Start, that seeks to explore space for sub-conventional and limited warfare under the nuclear overhang signifies its intent to carry out pre-emptive adventurism.

The so-called surgical strikes and ideas of Counter-Force Pre-Emptive Strikes are likely to lead towards conflict escalation. Attempts to exploit conventional advantages in a nuclearised environment directly implicate deterrence stability and will have devastating consequences.

Likewise, employing a sub-conventional prong to use state-sponsored terrorism as an instrument to undermine Pakistan’s internal security, and conduction of false flag operations to divert the world’s attention from Kashmir and domestic issues, is highly counterproductive.

During the February 2019 crisis, an Indian nuclear submarine was deployed to presumably deter Pakistan. Such actions can quickly escalate the situation to get out of hands with disastrous outcomes not only for the region but for the entire globe. On the nuclear posture side, India has been taking the global pulse about the pros and cons to remove the shroud of its so-called policy of nuclear No First Use.

The recent technological and force posture developments indicate that New Delhi is mulling over announcing a pre-emptive nuclear doctrine that relies on counter force targeting. On the developmental side, there is a visible qualitative and quantitative military build-up, which has not only strained the deterrence equilibrium but also runs contrary to New Delhi’s claimed doctrinal position of ‘Minimum Credible Deterrence’.

To date, it has developed fourteen types of nuclear delivery systems and possesses the largest stocks of un-safeguarded fissile material to build enough warheads of various yields to suit this changed strategy. This weapon count far exceeds any reasonable requirements for maintaining a credible and minimalistic deterrence posture around NFU policies. Such numbers can only be required if a state is pursuing nuclear war fighting doctrines and comprehensive first strikes to support pre-emption in expectation of damage limitation.

In the context of growing nuclear asymmetries in South Asia, Pakistan is expected to adhere to unilateral constraint. With the introduction of such destabilizing technologies and doctrines, I do not think any room is left for Pakistan for such a restraint. I would like to take the opportunity to highlight salient aspects of Pakistan’s nuclear thinking and how it contributes to stability in South Asia.

Contrary to aggressive postures, Pakistan’s nuclear policy is based on restrained and responsible pursuit of national security by adhering to the concept of ‘Credible Minimum Deterrence’. In the absence of all other factors, nuclear deterrence lies at the heart of strategic stability in South Asia. Islamabad neither wants, nor is it engaged in an arms race, but the upkeep of regional stability, within the bounds of minimalism, is essential.

Pakistan has been open to arms control measures, which include building confidence and introducing a Strategic Restraint Regime. Lack of reciprocity has only aggravated the regional instabilities. Policies based on discrimination and exceptionalism for vested interests and economic gains are fuelling instability at the cost of undermining the regional balance.

Exceptionalism facilitated certain states to import huge quantities of uranium while allowing them to keep their reactors outside International Atomic Energy Agency that is IAEA safeguards, consequently freeing all domestic uranium to make plutonium for developing nuclear warheads. As a responsible nuclear power, Pakistan does not believe in brandishing nuclear arsenals or coercing its neighbours.

It maintains a modest force posture and rationality in its nuclear doctrine, to credibly deter one adversary that constantly keeps expanding the spectrum of threat. Pakistan desires regional peace, stability, and security while remaining strongly committed to international non-proliferation norms and best practices.

While concluding I would say that conflict resolution, strategic stability and arms control are pre-requisites for durable peace. These three inter-locking elements reduce the risks of war by eliminating hostilities among States while ensuring a stable environment.

The US-Russo strategic stability paradigm has averted a major war since 1945, an order has been built around it and it had a big following. This recipe for peace helped both the superpowers from contemplating offensive doctrines and encouraging them to develop institutionalised measures to pursue arms control.

I believe that there is a need to capitalise on the already agreed upon global norms to facilitate mutual co-existence. In these troubled times; cooperation instead of containment should be our best way forward. While zero-sum games only entrap us in an unending competition, win-win cooperation promises widely shared benefits and incentives.

South Asia is the most populous and one of the most resource rich regions of the world but also, one of the least developed. The future lies in the hands of its human resources, and only through a peaceful environment can we unleash this priceless resource to fully realise its due potential.

Summary of Colonel Hassan’s answers in the Discussion session (for replies as delivered, see recording

On the most important factor impacting strategic stability in South Asia: This was the unresolved dispute in Kashmir. As of today, India blamed Pakistan for supporting an insurgency in Kashmir; and Pakistan conversely accused India of supporting terrorism in its territory. Pakistan had been a victim of terrorism and suffered the loss of more than 65,000 lives.

On whether India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had created instability in South Asia: The BJP’s fascism could be a major factor of instability. The BJP had turned India into an overtly Hindu state, and its August 2019 revocation of articles 370 and 35A in Kashmir and December 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act, reflected that.

On Pakistan’s previous proposals for arms control in South Asia: Arms control contributed to strategic stability; however, Pakistan needed a partner for arms control. Pakistan had put forward various arms control measures to India, including the 1998 Strategic Restraint Regime. But implementation depended on India’s willingness. Pakistan had to bolster its nuclear deterrent. Nuclear war did not benefit anyone.

On whether Pakistan’s focus on strategic stability in South Asia accounted for India’s own concerns with China, and whether China was a benign presence in the region: While it was agreed that India and China had a history of border issues, all three of the Indian army’s strike corps were focused on Pakistan, along with 70% of the Indian air force. Additionally, many of India’s missiles were Pakistan-specific due to their limited ranges. India had been a beneficiary of great power competition. However, why should the cooperation between Pakistan and China be so irritating to India? China had strategic partnerships of its own with many countries. The Pakistan-China friendship was ‘allweather’ and to be welcome.

On Pakistan’s lessons from the February 2019 Pulwama-Balakot crisis: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi threatened the use of the mother of all bombs against Pakistan during the 2019 crisis, an irresponsible threat. India was developing a suite of nuclear capabilities and making statements about pre-emption and counter force use. This was the time to be responsible. There were no winners in a nuclear war.

On concerns over placing nuclear weapons onto naval platforms in South Asia: This was a matter of great concern. This had the potential to upset the fragile balance of Indian Ocean security. There had been alarms raised over the safety and security of India’s nuclear arsenal.

Once inducted, India’s four Arihant-class ballistic missile submarines could carry up to one hundred ready-to-fire nuclear weapons. Therefore, Pakistan was compelled to carry out tests of its Babur-3 cruise missile. Pakistan had to take action within its minimalistic approach.

On Pakistan’s view of India’s nuclear No First Use (NFU) policy: India’s NFU pledge had been contested by high-ranking Indian officials. India’s defence budget was not minimalist. A look at India’s NFU policy over the last two decades was evidence that India’s NFU pledge was irrelevant.

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