May 1998, India and Pakistan shocked the
world by carrying out 5 nuclear tests each in rapid succession, reminding the
global population that the power to effect mass destruction was not solely
limited to the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council, and that the end
of the Cold War did not mean the end of nuclear proliferation. This paper
analyses the motivations behind the Indian and Pakistani tests, suggesting that
both states went overtly nuclear for reasons of national security, international
status and domestic politics. In addition, the paper also argues that the
self-declared nuclear power status of both countries will lead to a more stable
South Asia only if a proper arms control regime is developed.
the reasons for India’s 1998 nuclear tests, it can be seen that national
security and international status played a key role towards the country’s
decision to go nuclear, while domestic politics was crucial in determining the
timing of the nuclear tests. In terms of national security, India’s nuclear
weapon development was driven by its concerns over China.
This was especially since the country suffered a humiliating defeat in the 1962
border war with Beijing. In addition, the Chinese nuclear explosions in 1964
affirmed Indian desires to deter any possible attack by China.
Such fears, although unlikely, have been sparked by a genuine concern that
Beijing was encircling New Delhi through its military activities and alliances
with Pakistan and Myanmar.
This was especially because of American support for China after the Nixon visit
and in the post-Cold War Clinton era. Moreover, China’s supplying of Pakistan
with nuclear and missile technology closely linked the two traditional Indian
foes, both with the capacity to use nuclear weapons.
Consequently, the Indian push towards nuclear development was centred heavily on
its national security concerns over China and on how to break away from the
encirclement of the “new Cold War” that emerged in the wake of competing
search for increased international status also influenced its desire to go
nuclear. This can be seen by its position that nuclear proliferation lies either
in global disarmament or in the exercise of “equal and legitimate security”
The position supported the idea of nuclear weapons as the key indicator of state
power and the “currency of influence” operational throughout the world.
Hence, India’s political elite felt that it was unfair for the Big 5 Nuclear
Weapons States (NWS) to admonish New Delhi and yet continue to possess nuclear
In addition, Sino-Indian rivalry prompted New Delhi to desire that it be treated
at least as importantly as China, as exemplified by Beijing’s entry into the
NWS Club and position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
More importantly, the nuclear tests were a reminder to the international
community of India’s political strength, and meant as a message that it was
breaking free from the shackles of its colonial past and determined to chart its
own destiny. Hence, the determination
of India to display its nuclear strength was linked to desires for enhanced
international status, as seen from its strong desire to play an important role
as a global Great Power and as the hegemon on the South Asian sub-continent.
India’s national security concerns and its desire for increased international
status drove the country towards nuclear development, domestic politics
influenced when the nuclear tests were held. This can be seen from New Delhi’s
24 years of underground nuclear activity since the first explosions in 1974.
However, in May 1998 the BJP-led government finally pushed the nuclear button
partly because of its pre-election promises. In pursuing a pro-nuclear policy,
the BJP promised Indian voters that it would not be dictated by anyone in
matters of security and in exercising the nuclear option, to the extent of
staking its political life on the delivery of such a promise. If the elected BJP-led
government had not undertaken to fulfil its promise, it would have been
perceived weak by Indian voters and might not have been able to continue
governing the country for a long period of time.
Hence, the domestic concerns of the ruling party were essential in the final
testing of India’s nuclear bomb.
to India, Pakistan’s reasons for testing the bomb were also linked to issues
of national security, international status and domestic politics, although the
interplay of these three factors affected the country differently than in India.
In terms of national security, Pakistan’s foreign policy and security policy
were formulated with the explicit aim of protection against India. This was as a
result of a Pakistani desire to prevent India from dictating terms on the
subcontinent and posing a threat to Islamabad’s territorial integrity,
especially after the 1971 defeat and the independence of Bangladesh, and in view
of the long-standing instability in Kashmir. Nuclear capacity was therefore
portrayed as the ultimate equaliser against Indian conventional and nuclear
addition, the rise of the nationalist BJP government raised fears of Hindu
revivalism, which was coupled with the perceived views of US support for
India’s nuclear capability as a means to balance Chinese power.
These fears were enhanced by the testing of the Indian bomb in May 1998, seen as
“particularly provocative” to Pakistan because it involved the
“perfection” of battlefield tactical weapons. Subsequently, Islamabad felt a
need to work out a credible response to New Delhi in order to maintain the
credibility of its nuclear capability thorough demonstrated nuclear testing.
It can therefore be seen that the national security dimension of the
Pakistani tests was related to the country’s limited strategic depth and
inferiority to India in terms of conventional forces.
the Pakistani desire for enhanced international status, this can largely be
explained by the country’s need to outperform India in the global arena, so it
can overcome its geographical constraints as a country always in the shadows of
a politically and economically-dominant India.
Hence, Islamabad has been consistent in pursuing the removal of perceived
New Delhi with regards to nuclear and conventional weapons, as well as in
desiring equal treatment with India towards the creation of non-proliferation
architecture in the subcontinent.
To this end, the international status concerns of Pakistan are in relation to
how it is treated vis-à-vis India
in the international arena.
in India, domestic politics was crucial towards determining when the nuclear
tests would be held. This can be seen from the two diverse views present in
pre-1998 Pakistan, adopting radically different beliefs about the attitude of
India and the foreign policies of the United States.
On one hand, there was a pro-bomb group adopting the idea that India was
unconditionally hostile and that the US practised discrimination, favouring a
pro-active stance with nuclear tests to deter India as well as to assert
Pakistani independence from America. On the other hand, there was a
pro-restraint group adopting the idea that India was not necessarily hostile and
that the US was not necessarily discriminatory in its actions. This group called
for a cautious and restrained nuclear policy and pursued the revival of US
military and economic aid.
the Indian nuclear explosion, the pro-bomb lobby gained considerable ground
especially because of domestic pressure by opposition leaders, Islamic rightwing
groups and the army.
Moreover, the Indian threats concerning Kashmir caused many Pakistanis to fear
that New Delhi was prepared to link Kashmir to an altered nuclear balance in
South Asia, because it did not consider Islamabad’s nuclear weapons to be
This was coupled with the inability of Pakistan to elicit real security
guarantees from the US and China if it took a non-nuclear stance.
Consequently, the Pakistani decision to go nuclear was clearly a result of these
domestic political factors, which pushed the country to overtly declare its
conducting the nuclear tests of May 1998, both India and Pakistan sought to
demonstrate to the international community that their nuclear capability was a
force to be reckoned with. However, in the pursuit of a pro-nuclear policy, both
South Asian countries had raised queries regarding the stability of the
subcontinent in the wake of their self-declared nuclear power status.
Considering the issue, this paper argues that stability in South Asia will be
enhanced provided a proper arms control regime is developed.
argument about whether an overtly nuclear South Asia is stable has its roots in
two competing viewpoints regarding the strategic stability of the subcontinent.
The first theory, by Thomas Schelling, argues that during crises, NWS face
tremendous pressures to pre-emptively destroy their opponent’s nuclear power
according to a “use them or lose them” mentality. This premise, involving
the “reciprocal fear of surprise attack”, advocates that the South Asian
continent has been destabilised by the declaration of nuclear power status in
India and Pakistan. The second theory, by McGeorge Bundy, argues that the mere
existence of nuclear weapons imposes a high deterrence for the states involved.
This idea of “existential deterrence” emerges because of the enormous
destructive potential of nuclear power, and the idea that South Asian leaders
will factor the fear of escalation into political considerations, choosing to
find ways so as not to use their nuclear weapons.
arguing that South Asia will be a more stable place in the wake of the 1998
nuclear tests, Bundy’s argument of “existential deterrence” is more
credible than Schelling’s “reciprocal fear of surprise attack”. Consider
the Schelling model, which argues that there are many “hair-trigger”
pressures in South Asia, and that any one of these problems, especially the
Kashmiri issue, could be a potential flashpoint for a fourth Indo-Pakistan war,
and could result in mass nuclear destruction.
However, Schelling’s model is merely a human creation and manifested as part
of game theory logic, unlike Bundy’s theory, which had its historical origins
in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the 1969 Sino-Soviet border clash and the 1990
Kashmir crisis. In addition, there is the
question of why either side would use nuclear weapons if fallout could easily
drift back over the attacker’s territory. Moreover, it is also difficult to
determine whether it is possible to destroy all of the opponent’s nuclear
weapons in a pre-emptive strike.
All these reasons suggest that the idea of “existential deterrence” is more
credible than “reciprocal fear of surprise attack’, and that South Asia is
indeed a more stable place after the self-declaration of nuclear power status in
India and Pakistan.
the enhanced strategic stability of the subcontinent in the wake of the 1998
nuclear tests, stability in the region could be affected if a nuclear accident
in one state resulted in a reciprocal reaction in its opponent. Hence, it is
pertinent for South Asian states to pursue a nuclear doctrine with guidance from
the established NWS.
To this end, it is crucial for both India and Pakistan to develop an arms
control doctrine to effectively control the use of nuclear weapons. This can be
in the areas of defining the actual purpose of the nuclear armoury, shaping the
nature of the deterrence doctrine, and positioning civilians as the ultimate
decision-makers of nuclear power.
Hence, by clearly defining the nature of the nuclear doctrine and in
establishing clear arms control guidelines, both India and Pakistan would be
able to integrate nuclear weapons into their general defence structures,
enforcing deterrence in a doctrinal-military sense.
Consequently, both countries would be able to institutionalise their defence
posture in a manner similar to the American and Soviet powers during the Cold
War, enhancing the stability of South Asia.
conclusion, the May 1998 nuclear explosions of India and Pakistan addressed the
inherent issues of national security, international status and domestic politics
in both countries, resulting in their declaration as nuclear powers. By pursuing
their nuclear aspirations, both India and Pakistan also altered significantly
the strategic climate in South Asia, resulting in a temporary state of
instability, underscored by the possibility of nuclear accidents and the
possible devastation of the region. Consequently, it is only by defining an
effective arms control doctrine that more permanent stability can be
re-introduced to South Asia, regulating the use of nuclear weapons and
integrating them into the strategic climate of the region.
The above essay was written by Mark Lim Shan-Loong on 16th March 2001.
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The Writing Page
 Devin T. Hagerty, “South Asia’s Big Bangs: Causes, Consequences, and Prospects”, Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 53, No. 1, 1999, p. 20.
 Ibid. pp. 20-1.
 Mohan Malik, “Nuclear Proliferation in Asia: The China Factor”, Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 53, No. 1, 1999, p.31.
 Ibid. pp. 33-4.
 Jaswant Singh, “Against Nuclear Apartheid”, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 77, No. 5, September/October 1998, pp. 41-2. Jaswant Singh’s views as a Senior Adviser to the Indian Prime Minister and Member of Parliament for the ruling BJP were crucial towards understanding the prevailing views of the Indian government.
 Ibid. pp. 43-4.
 Devin T. Hagerty, “South Asia’s Big Bangs”, p.21.
 Brahma Chellaney, “India’s Nuclear Planning, Force Structure, Doctrine and Arms Control Posture”, Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 53, No. 1, 1999, p.57.
 Devin T. Hagerty, “South Asia’s Big Bangs”, pp. 21-2.
 Samina Yasmeen, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Tests: Domestic Debate and International Determinants”, Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 53, No. 1, 1999, pp. 43-4.
 Ibid. pp. 46-7.
 Ibid. p. 49.
 Devin T. Hagerty, “South Asia’s Big Bangs”, p. 22.
 Samina Yasmeen, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Tests”, p. 45.
 Devin T. Hagerty, “South Asia’s Big Bangs”, p. 23.
 Samina Yasmeen, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Tests”, p. 54.
 Devin T. Hagerty, “South Asia’s Big Bangs”, p. 23.
 Ibid. p. 24.
 Ibid. p. 25.
 Ibid. pp. 24-5.
 Ibid. p. 26.
 Ibid. pp. 26-7.
 Brahma Chellaney, “India’s Nuclear Planning”, pp. 65-7. While Chellaney’s ideas were applied specifically to India, they are also relevant to Pakistan in the formulation of a coherent arms control doctrine.
 Ibid. p.65.