Towards A Safer Asia: An Indian Perspective

Jasjit Singh, Director, IDSA


Historically, (geographic) Asia has experienced some of the most horrendous violence in the 20th century, a century which will be remembered for being the most violent in human history so far. Practically all the long wars (World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq-Iran, Arab-Israeli War and Afghanistan) have taken place on Asian soil. The only nuclear weapons to be used so far were on Asian soil. If Asia were at peace, more than half the people of the world would be at peace.

Every revolution in human history has brought violence in its wake which starts to subside only when the revolution begins to stabilise. Normally revolutions get recognised by the violence that accompanies them. The challenge at the close of the 20th century is that violence appears to be reaching endemic levels and has seeped into the civil society without sufficient consciousness of the revolution that lies at its roots. For more than two decades, a revolution has been sweeping across the globe, diffused in time but expanded in space, perhaps a combination which reduces sensitivity to the phenomenon. This is the revolution of rising expectations where the gap between satisfaction and expectations has been widening. The information revolution and satellite communications have intensified the process where awareness of what is possible in terms of quality of life is brought home even to the poorest and the deprived. The reality, unfortunately, lags far behind the television images. But a deep sense of relative deprivation permeates members of society almost all across the world. The poor have always wanted to get rid of their poverty; but the rich want to get richer, and the gap between them has been increasing. This is leading to frustration and disillusionment; and among the youth, who are inevitably in a hurry, it translates rapidly into violence. Little wonder that the militants and terrorists of the world are mostly in the age group of 15-30 years. In many countries of Asia, ranging from Russia on one end to Indonesia on the other, economic crisis has compounded the revolution and given it a lethal dimension.

In many other countries like Pakistan, Cambodia and Sri Lanka (besides parts of India), the fading of the promise and hope of independence a generation or so after decolonisation, has started to deepen ethno-sectarian divisions. Instead of focussing on the true nature of the problem, the world appears to be grappling more with the symptoms of this revolution which manifest themselves in terms of ethno-sectarian nationalism, religious extremism, corruption and erosion of human values. Easy availability of sophisticated means of violence in the shape of military-type small arms and light weapons makes violence easy and more lethal. Like other revolutions, this one also takes deeper roots where relative prosperity, especially where it increases inequity, widens the expectations-fulfilment gap and consequent instability.

The obvious solution to the problem is an accelerated rate of human development, the other alternative being conscious suppressing of access to information and/or ideological motivation. The latter, as the Soviet experience tells us, has its own implications and risks. But the experience of Asia facing economic setback after the promise and reality of rapid growth is already creating conditions of political tensions and conflict within society and even among states. The essential point is that unlike the earlier periods, factors of globalisation and interdependence have reached levels where human development of the under-developed needs to be seen as a key interest of the developed if they wish to sustain their quality of life. It is not enough to look down on the misery of North Korea as a self-imposed condition, but to realise that its collapse would create an even bigger problem. Similarly, development of Bangladesh and Myanmar is in India's interest if its hopes to ward off demographic invasion and transnational crime are to bear fruit.

Culture of Violence

The widening expectations-satisfaction gap raises the basic question: can we address the issues of inter-state security without concurrently coping with societal turbulence and violence. Unfortunately, while inter-state war and conflict are on the wane,1 the culture of violence has been spreading into society and now threatens the very fabric of civil society in most countries of Asia. The revolution of rising expectations promotes violence, and violence in turn aggravates the negative effects of the revolution. Armed violence was traditionally associated with inter-state conflict. But the culture of violence has now begun to seep into society. To a large extent this is the legacy of doctrines and belief systems which legitimised targetting civil society since the days of Clausewitz, and raised it to new heights through concepts of strategic bombing of population centres, reaching a tragic climax at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since then, targetting of innocents has become endemic through pursuit of ideological and political agendas. In some countries, official scholarship has propagated the concept that the Holy Quran teaches its followers to use terror as a weapon.2

Steps are required to alter the culture of violence, especially in society. Transnational terrorism poses a serious threat to peace and security in Asia. Almost all the terrorist groups are located in Asia and many Asian countries have been suffering from the effects of terrorism. If Asia is to be made safer, ways and means of controlling and stopping the menace of violence and terrorism must be evolved. By its very nature, transnational terrorism requires international cooperation which needs to be strengthened in the coming years.

Weapons of Mass Destruction

While the risk of a nuclear war has subsided significantly, there are still over 30,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the weapon states. Russia has reversed the position adopted by the USSR in respect of support for nuclear disarmament and has now adopted a first-strike doctrine. Even China has regressed from its earlier stand that it will join the arms reduction process when the two superpowers come down to 50 per cent of their Cold War peaks. US determination to deploy ballistic missile defences (BMD) is bound to trigger counter-BMD measures by China which would result in a bigger and more sophisticated arsenal. As it is, some estimates of China's arsenal indicate holdings of nuclear weapons almost six times that of the normally cited figure of 400-odd weapons. These may include as many as 550 tactical nuclear weapons used for nuclear war-fighting, indicating a shift in Chinese nuclear doctrine and strategy. The implications for peace and security in Asia may be gauged from the fact that over 98 per cent of China's nuclear weapons have relevance only for the countries on its periphery in Asia and the contiguous oceans. China also secured its northern flank by its 1996 agreement with Russia wherein both committed not to be the first to use nuclear weapons against each other. This is to be welcomed, and the model needs to be expanded to include other countries through bilateral and multilateral arrangements.

For India, independent defence policy and hence, self-reliance in defence capabilities are as important as the US-Japan security alliance is for Japan. In the nuclear dimension, India did seek security assurances from nuclear weapon states like the US and USSR in the 1960s without success. In 1971, the evolving situation of domestic instability and military genocide in Pakistan created new challenges. Without its own nuclear deterrent capability, India felt compelled to enter into a treaty with the Soviet Union in 1971 to provide the political instrument to deal with possible Chinese intervention. The nuclear test in 1974 restored its autonomy by reducing dependence on the Soviet Union in this critical area. The need to depend on other nations for strategic capability put India on the path to the threshold of nuclear weapon capability.

In 1993, former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone of Japan (along with Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore) had stated, "The NPT is often criticised as being an unequal treaty. Therefore, those countries with nuclear weapons, including all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council--Russia, the United States, France, Britain and China--should effectively display their commitment to nuclear disarmament in line with the principle of the NPT. If these countries do not make substantive progress in disarmament, it is possible that developing countries and the non-nuclear powers will oppose the extension of the NPT in 1995."3 While calling for a concrete peace policy, Ichiro Ozawa had stated that "Japan is in a unique position to lead the world toward large scale nuclear disarmament." He went on to caution that "Today's system--the de facto recognition that certain nations but not others 'legitimately' hold nuclear weapons--is patently unjust. There is ample reason to fear that this system actually invites an increase in the number of nuclear nations."4

Unfortunately, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was extended for an indefinite period in 1995, and with it the system of five states holding nuclear weapons legitimised nuclear weapons for an indefinite period. The time-table for existing arms reduction agreements between the US and Russia has already slipped and no further agreement is in sight. China is building up rather than building down its nuclear arsenal. At a time when the leading powers of the world are emphasising the rule of law in national and international affairs, the ruling of the World Court in 1996 that there exists an obligation to negotiate and conclude a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons has been cynically ignored by the five keepers of international peace and security under the UN Charter. On top of that, the nuclear non-proliferation order has been seriously undermined by its intrinsic fragility and the violations by parties to the NPT. Of these, while world focus has been on Iraq and North Korea, the more significant violation has been by China which transferred nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan, and other powers were unwilling or unable to rectify this.

At least India which has crossed the threshold to overtly become a state with nuclear weapons has not violated any treaty obligation or political commitment in this process. On the other hand, it has opposed the NPT and other non-proliferation regimes for the same reasons that Nakasone, Lee Kuan Yew and Ichiro Ozawa criticised it: absence of balance of obligations and serious commitment to disarmament. The difference is that India does not enjoy the luxury of a nuclear umbrella. But we still need to reflect on how long the non-proliferation order can be sustained without umabiguous movement toward abolition of nuclear weapons from national inventories.

Reducing Nuclear Dangers in Asia

The need to contain the nuclear dangers becomes evident when it is recognised that six out of the eight nuclear weapon states are Asian powers, that is, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel and the United States. While global nuclear disarmament is the only durable method of eliminating nuclear dangers, the need for stability and risk reduction in the interim must assume high priority. But explicit arms control measures cannot even start to be seriously considered as long as we refuse to acknowledge that India possesses nuclear weapons.

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that the world in general and Asia in particular have been rendered unsafe by India acquiring nuclear weapons. But surely, there is no reason to believe that India would have continued to watch with inaction all the efforts of Western democracies to undermine its position of restraint? The first issue in this is an understanding of why India exercised its nuclear option, held open for more than three decades? It is easy to adopt a condemnatory attitude. But little is likely to be achieved by attempts to isolate a large country like India now on the threshold of economic and social breakthrough on the basis of a resilient democracy that has stood the test of time over more than five decades.

The three countries in Asia that have been the most critical of India crossing the threshold in May 1998 have been China, Japan and Australia, each for its own reasons. But all of them ignore the basic point that India did not violate any treaty obligation, political commitment or assurance. In fact, the very fact that it did not sign treaties like the NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and had a declared policy of keeping the option was enough indication that this option would get closed one day in favour of weaponisation if the world did not move toward global nuclear disarmament. One can only hope that the leadership in Japan is conscious of the high probability that continuing isolation of India, a condemnatory attitude toward it and punitive measures that only hurt the process of human development in the largest democracy in the world will only strengthen the hard-line positions in India and marginalise its moderates.

What steps can be taken to make Asia safer from nuclear dangers? At the core of the efforts must remain the goal of total abolition of nuclear weapons. In the interim, the nuclear restraint regime needs to be established in Asia, if not the whole world. China has always committed itself not to be the first to use nuclear weapons. India has always pressed for a global no-first-use convention, and has now declared a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons. China and Russia entered into a mutual no-first-use agreement in 1996 as part of a broader non-aggression pact. There is, thus, sufficient basis for a broader declaration/convention (possibly an Asian convention) on no-first-use between China-India-Russia to which other nuclear weapon states could be invited to join at least in terms of applicability to Asia. Similarly, commitments and agreements on de-alerting and de-activating of nuclear weapons need to be formalised so that risks of accidental use or miscalculation are avoided.

There is also a need to de-legitimise nuclear weapons and their role in international relations. The World Court in 1996 had, in fact, pointed to the absence of a law governing the legitimacy of nuclear weapons. In this respect, the 1925 Geneva Convention on chemical weapons provides a sound basis. The Geneva Convention had banned the use and threat of use of chemical weapons although it did not specifically require states to give up such weapons. Countries were even allowed to enter caveats, mostly on grounds of self-defence, a right now recognised by the UN Charter. What we need in Asia is the nucleus of a similar convention in respect of nuclear weapons. This will go a long way in establishing norms against the use and threat of use and will be in consonance with the letter and spirit of the UN General Assembly resolutions passed with overwhelming majority over the years on the subject.

There is also a need to circumscribe the scope and reach of nuclear weapons. This will require abolition of ballistic and cruise missiles, at least of ranges beyond about 100 km. But in the interim there is a need to seriously work for expansion of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty which abolished land-based ballistic missiles of 500-5,500 km range in Eurasia. The INF yardstick could then be applied to the Asian region and space programme placed under verification systems.

Cooperative Peace in Asia

The nature and extent of relationship between the United States and China is likely to become the central strategic factor in the world in general, and Asia in particular. No other single country except the two themselves, including Japan may be able to influence this process. Any polarisation caused by the policies of either country will lead to difficult choices for others, and risks expediting polarisation of the international order, with far reaching consequences for the future. The worse case scenario, of course, would be a return to a bipolar confrontation, somewhat reminiscent of the just-ended Cold War. Some people believe that an incipient Cold War has already begun on this basis. China sees the redefined and strengthened US-Japan security alliance (constructed against the USSR, which dissolved seven years ago) relationship as directed toward it; while the expansion of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) especially if it includes Russia at a future date, appears to China as another step in its "containment" (and to others as the sign of formalising a North-South divide).

China in turn has sought to embark on a path of "strategic partnership" with Russia, reminiscent of the 1950s to expand its leverages in dealing with the United States. At the same time, it is expanding its relations with the states of the Muslim world (many of which are seen by the West as rogue states or pursuing policies inimical to Western interests). The most far-reaching example is that of nuclear cooperation with Pakistan to which it is reported to have transferred nuclear weapons technology even after it signed the NPT in 1992 and helped in creating the "Islamic Bomb."

On the other hand, it is quite likely that the US may move closer to China in pursuit of its engagement policy especially since domestic prosperity in the United States (which has replaced foreign policy goals of the Cold War in terms of presidential priorities) is increasingly dependent on cooperative relations with China. President Clinton's pronouncements during his visit to China in June 1998 are symptomatic. The US appears to find it difficult to adjust to the fundamental changes taking place in the world, and seems to be trying to manage an Asian "balance of power" by itself being the (sole) balancer. For Asia, the question will remain whether this is the best approach to managing the future; and, more importantly, will this approach succeed?

Retrenchment of its strategic presence in the Pacific Rim has already led to the US strategic shift forward into the north-western Indian Ocean region. Although the redefinition of US-Japan alliance holds the promise of strengthened presence, all other indications point toward reduction of US presence in the West Pacific, and possible shift southward from where it would be able to play a more effective role in protecting US interests. These may not necessarily coincide with the interests of most Asian countries, especially if there is a tension or conflict of interest among the key players of Asia. Future energy scenarios tend to indicate that the US will need to focus even more on the region of Central and South-West Asia. Barring what China can establish directly via overland routes, all other transportation of current and future energy supplies not under Russian control must pass through northern Indian Ocean region. This is also where US and Indian interests overlap.

In view of the strategic uncertainties, most Asian countries tend to agree that after the end of the Cold War, US presence in Asia is a positive factor of stability. But it is difficult to visualise any major US military presence on the Asian landmass on the Pacific Rim by 2010. Many East Asian countries, in fact, would be greatly concerned about what is seen as reducing US commitment in Asia and the Pacific Rim, renewed US-Japan security guidelines notwithstanding. India, which used to be deeply disturbed about US military presence in the Indian Ocean (essentially because it brought the Cold War to its shores), is far more relaxed about this presence now that the Cold War is no more and Indo-US relations have been on the upswing. There is a growing convergence of US-Indian strategic interests related to ensuring peace and stability in the Persian Gulf region (where nearly three million Indian expatriates bolster local economies) and access to energy resources especially in the longer term perspective. But the key issue here is not merely that of US presence; but much more of the terms of its engagement. For example, US engagement in the Persian Gulf has increased since 1983. But the pursuit of a containment policy toward Iran in post-Cold War era raises many doubts about the feasibility and desirability of such an approach, especially when most of the allies of the US are not willing to lend full weight to this approach. Similarly, the US role in South Asia in the past in pursuit of its own strategic interest has been, if anything, divisive.

India has seen cooperative relations among Asian countries as essential to peace in the region as well as at global level. India had called the Asian Relations Conference in 1947, months before it became independent, where Jawaharlal Nehru emphasised the need for greater cooperation for peace. The Panchsheel Agreement with China in 1954 was an effort to establish the norms and principles for cooperative peace. Similarly, the Indus Waters Treaty and the Simla Agreement with Pakistan also sought the same objective through mutual cooperation. It needs to be recognised that while peace and security in North-East Asia require cooperation among the US, Japan, the Koreas, Russia and China, in Southern Asia cooperative relationship among China, Russia the US and India is critical to peace and prosperity.

How shall we approach the issues? There will be a need to agree on basic principles and build actual measures on agreed principles. Fundamentally, the UN Charter and the India-China Panchsheel Agreement provide the basic framework. Essentially, the modern sovereign nation-state system intrinsically generates a competitive paradigm of inter-state security. The principle of collective security built into the covenant of the League of Nations did not succeed because of clash of interests of some of the major powers. If the 21st century is to be made safer, and Asia is to find the direction to achieve that, a paradigm shift to cooperative peace and security would be necessary. Here we have a framework constructed by the International Commission for a New Asia which had devoted a great deal of thought and time to evolve the principles for cooperative peace and security in Asia.5 Conscious efforts are required to take these principles to their logical conclusion in terms of pursuit of policy. The focus for the future must be on seeking harmony and equilibrium rather than balance of power. The 14 principles proposed by the Commission for a New Asia are listed below:

1. Commitment to peace as a pre-condition for human development. Peace and security, therefore, must be sought in an integrated approach to ensure harmonisation at the global, regional, national, societal and individual levels.

2. Recognition that the right to life with peace and security must be treated as an inalienable human right.

3. Respect for the sovereignty of states, and cooperative rejection of all attempts to compromise state sovereignty.

4. Acceptance of the principle of mutual and equal security, military sufficiency and the maintenance of military balances at the lowest possible levels.

5. Recognition that all states--large and small, rich and poor--are equal, respect for the equality of states and cooperative rejection of all attempts to compromise the principle of equality.

6. Cooperative rejection of any attempt at hegemonism, imperialism, colonialism and political dominance, whether these be from regional or external powers.

7. Refraining from the direct or indirect use of force, and cooperative rejection of all illegitimate use or threat of use of force, either by Asian or non-Asian powers.

8. Respect for the territorial integrity of states, and cooperative rejection of any attempt to violate the territorial integrity of states.

9. Commitment to peaceful settlement of disputes, and cooperative pro-active action to encourage or ensure the pacific settlement of disputes.

10. Respect for the inviolability of frontiers and mutually accepted lines of control, and cooperative rejection of any attempt to violate them.

11. The construction of processes of conflict prevention, confidence-building, and conflict management and resolution, at the bilateral and multilateral levels.

12. Respect for national self-determination and the recognition of the right of each country to choose and develop its own political and economic system, including the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.

13. Respect for fundamental comprehensive human rights and freedoms, and cooperative rejection of all gross violations of fundamental and comprehensive human rights and freedoms.

14. The deliberate construction of comprehensive cooperation between states, including economic cooperation, based on the principle of mutual respect and mutual benefit.



1. This substantively due to the ongoing transmutation in the nature of war and armed conflict where conventional war has been giving way to sub-conventional armed violence. The reasons for the trend include the increasing vulnerability of modern states to even a conventional war, erosion of the traditional monopoly of the state over instruments of violence and retrenchment of conventional military power.

2. Brigadier S.K. Malik, The Quranic Concept of War, (foreword by President Zia-ul-Haq), (Lahore: Wajidalis, 1979). The interpretation in the book has been subsequently used regularly by senior military officers to exhort officers and men to use terror as a weapon.

3. Yasuhiro Nakasone, Lee Kuan Yew, A Message from Asia to President Clinton, February 1993.

4. Ichiro Ozawa, Blueprint for a New Japan, (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1994) pp. 117-118.

5. Towards a New Asia, Report of the International Commission for a New Asia, Kuala Lumpur, 1994.