South Asia's Nuclear Tests, Ten Years Later: So What?
In May 1998, India and Pakistan stunned the international community by conducting back-to-back nuclear tests. The development officially made the two nations "nuclear weapons states," ushering in a new period in their relations with each other and with the international community. Ten years later, the four experts who spoke at an April 23 Asia Program/Division of International Security Studies event discussed the strategic implications of these tests for the Indo-Pak rivalry and the two countries' relations with external actors, as well as the overarching impact on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Devin Hagerty refuted the notion that India and Pakistan both "went nuclear" in 1998, arguing instead the year marked the point the two countries openly demonstrated the ability to build nuclear weapons. Both countries, Hagerty added, crossed the nuclear threshold prior to this date. However, he noted, the 1998 tests effectively ratified India and Pakistan's nuclear capabilities and allowed both states to "thumb their nose" at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Despite the apprehension that followed the 1998 nuclear tests, Hagerty argued, they were "not the disaster that many predicted." Instead, the tests had a relatively positive impact on the India-Pakistan rivalry, as well as the countries' relations with external actors like the United States and China. Although nuclear weapons did play an enabling role for the Pakistanis during the 1999 Kargil incursion, Hagerty argued they also effectively deterred an Indian military reaction to the crisis. Similarly, despite a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 that caused a subsequent buildup of Indian and Pakistani troops along their common border, the presence of nuclear weapon capabilities hindered a major aggressive response from New Delhi. Ultimately, Hagerty noted, the acknowledgment of both countries' nuclear weapons capabilities has ushered in a period of "tentative détente" between India and Pakistan. Moreover, he noted, both the United States and China take India a lot more seriously than before the 1998 nuclear tests.
Like Hagerty, Robert Einhorn also noted that India and Pakistan crossed the nuclear threshold prior to 1998. This period before 1998, he added, can be referred to as "recessed nuclear deterrence." However, Einhorn emphasized that the May 1998 nuclear tests had a negative impact on the global Non-Proliferation Regime, adding there was a shift in expectations, from a period of "proliferation optimism" to one of "proliferation pessimism." According to Einhorn, India and Pakistan were the first states since China in 1964 to test weapons and to declare themselves "nuclear weapons states." The 1998 tests, he argued, reshaped expectations of further proliferation because they lowered the perceived cost of going nuclear. The international response to the nuclear tests showed other states that the costs of defying the NPT norms are manageable.
Naeem Salik, a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University's SAIS, also served in Pakistan's military for three decades, most recently as the Director of Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs at the Secretariat of Pakistan's National Command Authority from 2001-2005. During his presentation, he argued that the situation between India and Pakistan has improved since the May 1998 tests. Both countries, he noted, are more "responsible," adding that their current commitment to sustained dialogue may derail their inclination to resort to the use of force. Salik outlined the major developments that have occurred between the two nations since May 1998, underlining several points of both India and Pakistan's nuclear doctrines, as well as their respective command structures, which, in his eyes, makes the seizure or unauthorized use of these weapons improbable.
The final panelist, Peter Lavoy, the national intelligence officer for South Asia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, spoke off the record.
Drafted by Kalsoom Lakhani, Consulting Project Coordinator
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program, Ph: (202) 691-4020