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South Asia without nuclear weapons

Nuclear weapons, unlike other armaments, are the most brutal manifestation of man’s ability of annihilation. It is not just the offensive obliterating capabilities, but the omnicidal nature of these weapons which makes them a subject of moral abhorrence and should ideally be rejected for military purposes.


South Asia rightly claims civilizational status for itself. The unfortunate break-up in 1947 split the sub-continent into multiple nation-states, and since then civilizational status is just maximally employed to peddle an oriental image set in a modernist frame. The many pathologies of caste, growing economic inequalities, religious strife, although biting us in the face, have a history. In other words, these are not deliberately acquired through a conscious programme of action. But there is one barbaric thing that was not only consciously acquired but has been elevated as a matter of national pride – nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons, unlike other armaments, are the most brutal manifestation of man’s ability of annihilation. It is not just the offensive obliterating capabilities, but the omnicidal nature of these weapons which makes them a subject of moral abhorrence and should ideally be rejected for military purposes.

The South Asian nuclear dyad of India and Pakistan is most susceptible to nuclear conflagration. Both countries possess sufficient firepower to annihilate one another twice over. The Indian doctrine of ‘no first use’ might seem assuring but the late Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar’s statement of ‘responsible use’ of nuclear weapons and his declaration of “why bind ourselves to the no first use doctrine” should alert us to the horrid possibilities of a doctrinal revision. His later clarification that these were his personal thoughts, barely holds. And one also wonders what a ‘responsible’ use of nuclear weapons could possibly be.

This was not the first time that a senior national leader questioned the no first use doctrine. In 2011, ex-foreign and defence minister Jaswant Singh went one step ahead and said: “I am of the view that the policyframework that the NDA devised in 1998 is very greatly in need of revision because the situation that warranted the enunciation of the policy of ‘no first- use’ or ‘non-use against nonnuclear weapons’, ‘credible deterrence with minimum force’, etc. has long been overtaken by events.”

In the case of Pakistan, the situation is even more delicate as it relies on tactical nuclear weapons with a weak command, a radicalised military, a lack of strategic depth and conventional military weakness which makes it more susceptible to ‘first use’. The presence of China is usually less talked about because of the frequency of conflict with Pakistan, yet the Indian deterrence doctrine was directed towards it right from the beginning. After the 1998 Pokhran tests, Prime Minister Vajpayee sent an assuaging cable to the angry Americans that the bomb was for China.

And the very next day, he sent his then-National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra to mollycoddle Beijing. Pakistan soon followed up with its own explosion something which it could never have done unilaterally. This newly drawn nuclear Rubicon also emboldened it to take up the Kargil intrusion in Jammu and Kashmir.

The debates around nuclear weapons have existed right from their acquisition. After the US acquired the bomb, USSR exploded its own in the year of Stalin’s death in 1953. The transition to a post-Stalinist USSR was marked by a debate around the future war against capitalism. Georgi Malenkov and Vlachyslav Molotov emerged as the contenders for the leadership of USSR. The former argued that the advent of thermonuclear weapons meant that the competition between socialism and capitalism would have to become a peaceful one whereas the latter labelled this position as revisionist and argued that the end of capitalism would come through war, therefore to say otherwise was to reject Marx.

The emergence of Nikita Khrushchev led to his appointment of a Kremlin committee in 1954 which concluded that a nuclear war could eventually destroy the Soviet Union and perhaps ‘all life on earth’. David Holloway noted that ‘this remarkable document was open and explicit about the consequences of nuclear war and had nothing about the destruction of capitalism or socialism’.

At the 20th Party Congress in 1956, Khrushchev announced that the ‘the policy of Soviet Union and the communist world at large will be of peaceful co-existence’. On the other hand, the US under President Truman, had already used the bomb against the hapless civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki primarily to impose an immediate end to the war before the Soviet Union could seize northern China, Manchuria, Korea, the Kurile Islands, Hokkaido in northern Japan and insulate his political future.

Since then, the US had on 30 occasions prepared/threatened to initiate nuclear war during international crises, confrontations, and wars— primarily in the Third World. For instance, in 1954 the US offered France the option of two bombs to break the Vietnamese siege at Dien Bien Phu which the latter fortunately declined. On another occasion in 1969, notes the late radical journalist Christopher Hitchens, the notorious US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger contemplated, in the face of the Vietnamese revolutionary intransigence, the use of nuclear weapons just to clear the pass through which ran the railway link from North Vietnam to China.

Khrushchev’s insistence on peaceful co-existence was also predicated upon political-economic arguments. He contended that the presence of nuclear weapons would ward off military aggression from the US and allow the Soviet Union to outperform the former in technological innovation, provide a decent material life for the masses and focus on the Third World. The latter aim was most successfully achieved much to the discomfort of the capitalist West.

Soviet economic and technical assistance reached non-aligned states like India, Indonesia, Egypt, and Ghana. Cuba’s independence was also assured in this window of peace through the successful negotiation of the Khrushchev-Kennedy agreement. Such was the euphoria that Khrushchev in the same declared to the Western diplomats that ‘we will bury you’.

Economically, there was substance in Khrushchev’s thinking. Since a socialist system is supply-driven, unnecessary military expenditure is always a drag, owing particularly to the absence of organic links between the civilian and military sectors of the economy and the concomitant non-presence of a militaryindustrial complex — the hallmark of post-war capitalism even more rampant in the neo-liberal era. Demanddriven Western capitalism well understood this weakness and ruthlessly promoted the armament industry, which was also, according to Mike Kidron, the reason for their economic revival from the economic ravages of the Second World War.

Following Khrushchev, the chief Ayatollah of Neo-Realism, Kenneth Waltz argued that nuclear weapons provide ‘cheap security’ to its possessors i.e., there would be no need to spend heavily on conventional armaments and the nuclear umbrella would suffice as a solid deterrence.

Although powerful and parsimonious, it is historically untenable. After acquiring nuclear weapons, India is far from reducing expenditure on importing armaments. Within a decade, India became the largest importer of arms accounting for 14 per cent of net imports and is currently trailed by Saudi Arabia which has been engaged in a devastating war against Yemen. India imports 9.3 per cent of the total arms production and became the third-highest military spender in 2019 by spending $71.1 billion.

Other nuclear-armed states already armed to the teeth, also saw an increase in military expenditure. The US increased its spending to $732 billion; China remained the next highest spender by spending $261 billion marking a 5.1 per cent increase from 2018 and 85 per cent percent higher than in 2010. And Russia too marked an increase in its military expenditure by 4.5 per cent moving up from the fifth to the fourth-highest spender. Contrary to the cheap security thesis, both Russia and the US are engaged in extensive and expensive programmes to modernise their nuclear warheads, missile and aircraft delivery systems, and nuclear weapons production facilities.

For instance, in late 2019 the US started to deploy a new low-yield warhead on some of its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. The nuclear arsenal of China is in the middle of a significant modernisation program whereas both India and Pakistan are thought to be increasing the size of their nuclear arsenal. These trends are even more baffling given the fact that the US and Russia have 1,750 and 1,570 deployed warheads respectively with 4,050 and 4,805 readied for further deployment. Whereas China, India, and Pakistan are said to have 320, 150 and 160 warheads with none deployed. Instead of a negative correlation what we see is a positive correlation between nuclear arms production, overall military spending, and conventional arms acquisition — a bad recipe for peace.

The writer is a student of world history at the University of Cambridge. To Be Concluded