U.S. engagement in South Asia is "paradoxical," according to Bhumitra Chakma. The United States is "both hated and loved" in the nuclear-armed states of India and Pakistan, and both nations want America on their side. This desire for American involvement in South Asia, says Chakma, has enabled Washington to serve as the "third element" in, and even the "guardian" of, the region's nuclear deterrence. Chakma, a Wilson Center Fellow, was the featured speaker at a February 25 event organized by the Asia Program and co-sponsored by International Security Studies and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Chakma asserted that the United States has been a "critical" factor in maintaining nuclear stability in the region. He contended that American interventions during crises in South Asia have helped avert nuclear escalation. In 1999, hostilities broke out between India and Pakistan in the Kargil district of the disputed region of Kashmir. In Chakma's view, Pakistan instigated this conflict in an effort to internationalize the Kashmir problem—and hence to attract U.S. involvement. Once Washington became involved, India reasoned that its interests would be better served through U.S.-mediated diplomacy than through escalation.

Nearly a decade later, when terrorists attacked the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008, many feared an escalation in nuclear tensions between India and Pakistan. However, Washington pushed hard for resolution, because it did not want Pakistan to send more troops to its eastern border with India, thereby diminishing its presence along the western frontier with Afghanistan—a nation where the United States was at war. The United States was also deeply engaged in resolving a military standoff between India and Pakistan in 2001-02, and again because of concerns about the impact of India-Pakistan tensions on the war in Afghanistan. Indeed, Chakma pointed out that U.S. self-interest—and not any sense of altruism—is a core reason why Washington actively seeks to maintain stability in South Asia.

Chakma acknowledged the view of "nuclear optimists" that the mere existence of nuclear weapons has also played a role in preventing nuclear escalation in South Asia. However, he argued that when "military dynamics" spiral out of control—as so often happens in "crisis-prone" South Asia—it becomes difficult to maintain control over nuclear weapons. Chakma concluded that this structural fragility demonstrates why the U.S. role in South Asia's nuclear deterrence is so crucial.

Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center and diplomat scholar and visiting lecturer at the University of Virginia, argued that U.S. efforts to resolve crises in South Asia have improved immeasurably since the "nuclear cloud" arrived in the region. During South Asia's pre-nuclear era, he explained, the United States had little success in helping end the conventional wars fought between India and Pakistan. Yet the South Asian nuclear era has ushered in a period of U.S. engagement that has been "effective, timely, and appreciated." While Krepon argued that one cannot dismiss the significant position of China in South Asia's nuclear deterrence, he concurred with Chakma that the United States serves the most important role.

However, Krepon warned that American engagement could backfire if India and Pakistan "misread" Washington's interventions. He noted that during the Kargil conflict, both countries were "surprised" by U.S. actions—and "you don't want surprises." Nuclear-armed states could very well fight nuclear wars, he cautioned—particularly in cases where the decision-making process "is confined to a small group of people" (as was the case during the Kargil conflict) and decision-makers are "obtuse" about wider political considerations. In such circumstances, Krepon concluded ominously, "you leave yourself open to gross miscalculation."

By Michael Kugelman
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program