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India and Pakistan

Posted by Sohini Sircar, PSR Research Associate on May 18, 2009

Question: What is the difference between Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons programs?

The nuclear arms race between South Asia’s two main powers, India and Pakistan, has been an area of intensive research and heated controversy. Most nuclear powers have signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and regard arms reduction as an honorable goal. However, neither India nor Pakistan has signed the NPT, and both countries have nuclear weapons. This paper will contrast the historical and present-day reasons why these two powers have decided to pursue nuclear weapons programs. While India’s quest for nuclear weapons has been more focused on its quest for international power and legitimacy, Pakistan’s nuclear program largely has been a reaction to India’s program.

India’s nuclear program is focused on its quest for status in the international community. Indian commentator Chandan Mitra explained this concept quite succinctly, “The bomb is a currency of self-esteem.”1 The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was the political party in power when India tested nuclear weapons in May of 1998, views power and status in military terms, and more specifically in terms of nuclear weapons capability.2 While the BJP sees nuclear weapons as a military weapon, K. Subrahmanyam notes that “Nuclear weapons are not military weapons. Their logic is that of international politics and it is a logic of global nuclear order . . . India wants to be a play in, and not an object of, this global nuclear order.”3 Both the BJP and Subrahmanyam can agree, though, that India’s nuclear weapons program was developed to elevate India to higher power status in the international community.

India's perceives that acquiring nuclear weapons will give it importance in international power equations, which would allow it to become a larger player in the realm of international politics. India has been vying for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, as this body is composed of arguably the world’s most powerful nations. India notes that all nations on the United Nations Security Council possess nuclear weapons.4 Thus, India believes that acquiring nuclear capabilities is key to joining this group of important players.

Additionally, India views its possession of nuclear weapons as crucial to state sovereignty.5 India’s view of the NPT reflects this idea that nuclear weapons make a nation powerful. Under the NPT, five states are recognized as nuclear weapons states, and these nations have agreed to slowly decrease the size of their nuclear arsenals. All other nations that have signed this treaty have agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons, and in exchange they receive nuclear energy support from the five nuclear states. India views this treaty as a “nuclear apartheid” that is unfair and discriminatory because it aims to keep the balance of power in favor of the five states that have nuclear capabilities.6 In a world with nuclear weapons, India is committed to ensuring its own security and legitimacy. As stated by Jaswant Singh, the basic tenant of Indian nuclear policy is “that the country’s national security in a world of nuclear proliferation lies either in global disarmament or in exercise of the principle of equal and legitimate security for all.”7 India sees itself as being unfairly reprimanded for possessing nuclear weapons while five other nations are allowed the status of a legitimate nuclear state under the NPT.

Nuclear weapons have played a role in India's quest for policy independence and a break from its colonial past. Under the British, India's economy, military, society, and foreign policy were controlled by the British. As it is for many colonized peoples, this lack of autonomy was humiliating for the Indians; thus, after independence, India fought, and continues to fight, for status and policy independence. One mode of accomplishing this fight for legitimacy and independence is through nuclear weapons acquisition. With the acquisition of nuclear weapons, India became equal to Britain.

While India’s desire for nuclear weapons can also be seen as a reaction to its neighbor China’s development of nuclear capabilities, India also sees nuclear weapons as important instruments of regional power equations. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee used China’s attainment of nuclear weapons as a reason for India’s own nuclear testing program. As China grows in power in the region and the world, Indian government officials claim the need for deterrence. China, at the same time, works to counter the U.S. missile defense program. China, in turn, has provided equipment and knowledge to Pakistan and has been a critical player in Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs.8

While most of India’s reasons for attaining nuclear weapons have an international focus, Pakistan reasons are based on regional concerns. Pakistan’s goal of attaining nuclear weapons has largely been reactionary and motivated by fears of Indian domination. This view is shown in Pakistani army chief General Aslam Beg written statement that “Pakistan’s nuclear programme was India specific and there it was of no consequence to Pakistan what other nuclear power nations decided for themselves.”9

Pakistan views its procession of nuclear weapons as crucial to its security in the region. After partition, Pakistan and India fought many wars regarding territorial disputes. After India (though not blatantly stated) helped East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh, gain independence from West Pakistan, Pakistan covertly initiated its nuclear weapons program convinced that it was imperative to the nation’s survival.10 Pakistan had lost a majority of its people and half of its nation; it could not afford to lose more.

Since the partition of the South Asian subcontinent in 1947, Pakistan’s population and economy have been dwarfed by India’s magnitude. And before nuclear weapons, India had a clear military advantage over Pakistan. Due to the development of nuclear weapons by Pakistan, India no longer has that advantage.11 The equalization of military power between India and Pakistan may have allowed Pakistan the ability to initiate the Kargil conflict in 1999 and thwarted India’s ability to respond effectively. Because international officials feared the idea that Pakistan would detonate one of its nuclear weapons, American diplomats worked hard to diffuse the conflict.12 Some analysts feel that the possession of nuclear weapons by all key players in the region increases the probability of smaller wars and conflicts but minimizes the risk of a nuclear weapon actually being detonated. Other analysts fear the possibility of a smaller war or conflict spiraling out of control and becoming a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan.

The reactionary nature of Pakistan’s nuclear program is exhibited in its actions. For example, while Pakistan had developed nuclear capabilities by the mid 1980’s, Pakistan only tested its weapons in 1998 after India had tested its own.13 Even as India developed its Nuclear Doctrine, which was announced in January of 2003,14 Pakistan waited to observe India’s before developing its own.15 Additionally, while the Indian nuclear weapons program was developed at a moderate pace and is composed of mostly native equipment, materials and knowledge from Indian scientists,16 the development of Pakistan nuclear and missile program was a reactionary scramble that used imported equipment and knowledge from China and North Korea17 to catch up with India’s advancement.

While Pakistan’s other minor motivations for nuclear weapons include a desire for status and leadership in the Islamic world, popular nationalist sentiments, and political and bureaucratic pressures,18 Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons is predominately a reaction to India’s development of the same.

Understanding the similarities and differences behind India and Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons is pertinent in current efforts to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, especially for activist in the field of non-proliferation who lobby the Indian and Pakistani governments to give up their prized nuclear weapons. These activists must focus on countering India’s belief that nuclear weapons bring about status in the international arena and Pakistan’s perception that its possession of nuclear weapons serves as a deterrent against Indian aggression.

1 Talbott, 116.
2 Cirincione, 222.
3 Talbott 116.
4 Cirincione, 222.
5 Talbott, 116.
6 Talbott, 116.
7 Singh, 41-42.
8 Cirincione, 239
9 Cirincione, 241.
10 Cirincione, 240.
11 Cirincione, 241.
12 Cirincione, 241
13 Cirincione, 240.
14 Cinncione, 227.
15 Talbott, 118-119.
16 Talbott. 110-122.
17 Cinncione, 239.
18 Cirincione, 240.

Cirincione, Joseph, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar. Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear Biological, and Chemical Threats. 2 ed. Washington, D.C.:
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005: 221-258.
Singh, Jaswant. "Against Nuclear Apartheid." Foreign Affairs 77, no. 5 (1999): 41-52.
Talbott, Strobe. "Dealing with the Bomb in South Asia." Foreign Affairs 78, no. 2 (1999): 110-122.


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