Formalising Restraint: The Case of South Asia

Dilip Lahiri, Add. Secretary, MEA, Govt. of India


The meaning of restraint is "to hold back". In the context of national security, particularly its nuclear dimension, restraint on the part of a government would imply holding back from measures which go beyond what can reasonably be regarded as essential requirements, while exercising due care to avoid affecting adversely the interests of countries not involved in its security calculus. Formalising such restraint could extend from unilateral articulation to bilateral, regional or multilateral dialogues and agreements.

In national security matters, a responsible democratic government can scarcely be expected to hold back from the minimum steps necessary to guard against the kind of threats and challenges emanating from its security environment that have been part of its historical experience. The degree of restraint that can prudently be exercised will, therefore, naturally be affected, at the very least, by the behaviour of all the major actors whose actions impinge on its security. Taking into account the reach of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, India's perimeter of security concerns clearly extends well beyond the confines of the conventional geographical definition of South Asia. This sub-region by itself cannot accordingly be an appropriate construct for trying to formalise a restraint regime involving India.

The global context of nuclear restraint would also inevitably affect what is possible in a certain region or among a group of countries. This would be of particular relevance in the formalising of restraint in South Asia, where a number of extra-regional players apparently expect to be involved. The record of these countries in exercising restraint themselves in security and nuclear matters, and of their past role in contributing to stability in South Asia, would obviously be relevant in determining whether or not their involvement in the formalising of restraint could be useful. Apart from this, it would clearly be unreasonable to hold India to a higher standard of restraint in national security matters than the rest of the world.

With these caveats, which seek to broaden the scope of the title of the paper to enable a meaningful treatment of the subject, it is only reasonable to recognise and take on board the well intentioned, even if somewhat misplaced, expression of concern about nuclear stability in South Asia since the May 1998 tests, the consequences of an unrestrained nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan, possibly involving China, and the dangers of further proliferation. India, on its part, has shown a consequent readiness to engage in dialogue with important and interested interlocutors with a view to reconciling the national security considerations which constrained India to weaponise, with the legitimate concerns of other countries, pertaining, inter alia, to proliferation, which India shares.

Neither India nor Pakistan possess the economic resources or the fissile material stockpiles and manufacturing capabilities to engage in an unrestrained nuclear arms race. Restraint is, therefore, in a sense, built into the objective circumstances in South Asia. Beyond this, India has also shown great voluntary restraint in its defence expenditure, as evidenced by its declining defence budget, amounting to only 2.44 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) this year, by far the lowest among relevant countries in Asia. We have, of course, had our share of armed conflict, but the more bloody manifestations of 20th century warfare in terms of the fire bombing of cities and civilian targets, unrestricted aerial bombardmnt of economic infrastructure, etc. have never been part of our war-fighting culture. This is not to dismiss the existence of any nuclear danger in South Asia resulting from nuclear weapons, but only to suggest that this is probably much less than generally assumed, and, ironically, more acutely felt and expressed by sources outside the region than in India or Pakistan.

Why should this be so? A part of the explanation probably has to do with the evolution of Western, primarily US, thinking on nuclear doctrines. Since at least the mid-1950s, the US had prepared for a "bolt from the blue" scenario, a nuclear attack without prior warning. Nuclear doctrines postulated that deterrence was safest from breakdown if credible preparations for all contingencies in fighting a nuclear war were convincingly demonstrated to the adversary. A mirror image of this doctrine in the Soviet Union created vast superpower arsenals, approaching 100,000 warheads at its peak, a substantial part of it permanently on hair-trigger alert to avoid getting destroyed by a bolt from the blue. Much of the nuclear danger of the last half century, a danger which persists even today due to the continuance of this launch on warning posture 10 years after the end of the Cold War, is the legacy of this nuclear theology. It does not, however, necessarily follow that South Asia's nuclear future is condemned to follow the same trajectory.

An element of nuclear danger is, of course, unavoidable as long as nuclear weapons exist, and this element of danger is present in South Asia, just as it is in every part of the world that hosts nuclear arms. The only true solution to this danger is the complete abolition of nuclear arms, which India has long campaigned for, and to which India has recommitted itself in the aftermath of the tests in May 1998. But this is an objective that is unlikely to be realised as long as the nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nuclear weapon states continue to reaffirm the indispensable role of nuclear weapons for their national security indefinitely, and refuse to engage in any serious multilateral negotiations for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

If global nuclear disarmament will remain a distant dream, nuclear weapons in South Asia are there to stay. What then can be done to reduce the nuclear danger in South Asia? The first principle in any effort to achieve a stable and restrained nuclear order is the willingness of the parties to commit themselves to a common goal of stability. This might appear obvious, but such commitment has not always been forthcoming from NPT nuclear weapon states. To mention only one example, proponents of nuclear superiority in the US used to argue against nuclear arms control agreements with the Soviet Union because of the perception that it gave the Soviets nuclear "parity". In this regard, the South Asian scene presents a far brighter picture. Both Indian and Pakistani leaders have repeatedly emphasised their intent to search out mutually acceptable solutions to build a stable nuclear order in South Asia. The Lahore bus trip, and the Lahore Declaration that followed, are excellent indicators of the mood in both capitals, and of the willingness and commitment of both governments to manage their nuclear responsibility.

Nuclear doctrines both determine the conditions under which nuclear weapons could be used, as well as outline the procedures for the handling and use of these weapons. Nuclear doctrines thus significantly influence the risks associated with maintaining a nuclear arsenal. Some nuclear doctrines are inherently more dangerous than others, since they increase the chance of accidents and inadvertent use of nuclear weapons. India has adopted a no-first-use doctrine and has firmly rejected concepts and postures based on Cold War models or arms races of any sort. If India will not use nuclear weapons first, the logical conclusion is that India must have an invulnerable, passive, retaliatory nuclear capability. The political commitment to no-first-use, combined with assured retaliation, has a technical corollary—the rejection of launch on warning postures. This should be borne in mind when we contemplate scare scenarios of short ballistic missile flight times, since Indian nuclear forces do not have to be on hair-trigger alert. This substantially reduces the burden on any Indian nuclear command and control system and lessens the risks of an inadvertent nuclear war.

Confidence building measures (CBMs) must evidently be an integral part of a nuclear restraint regime in South Asia. But such a regime should go beyond just CBMs, and eventually address itself to the kind of nuclear forces that are developed and the nuclear doctrines that determine their employment. Neither India nor Pakistan have well developed nuclear forces. Both are in the preliminary stages of determining their strategic requirements. This creates difficulties for a restraint regime based on nuclear force planning because of the necessary secrecy surrounding these developments. A restraint regime that leaves one or both sides vulnerable will do more harm than good. Pakistan's concerns in this matter are focussed almost entirely on India. But India's worries are not centred on Pakistan alone, but also on China, and equally important, on the alliance between the two. Any force restraint proposal that does not also consider these complexities is bound to leave India vulnerable, and is thus doomed to fail. This is not an unreasonable position in a situation where the UK claims that the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests will be a factor in its future decisions regarding nuclear weaponry, or that maintaining a degree of uncertainty about precise UK nuclear capabilities is a necessary element of credible deterrence.

India has taken the lead in initiating discussions at the bilateral level on formalisation of restraint in its neighbourhood, both in the India-Pakistan and the Sino-Indian contexts. Measures to build confidence with China were initiated during the visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to China in 1988. The dialogue with Pakistan during the 1990s also testifies to India's commitment to confidence building.

Before we proceed to examine formalisation of restraint in the Sino-Indian context, it is useful to recall that China is India's largest neighbour and features prominently in the security calculus in the Southern Asian region. It is India's sincere desire to improve relations with China and enhance economic and other interactions. Nonetheless, India cannot but take into account the realities on the ground. First, China remains in occupation of large tracts of Indian territory as a result of the 1962 war and maintains substantial claims over additional parts of India. Second, China's military modernisation programme will enhance the force projection capabilities of its armed forces into India's security perimeter. Third, China's assistance to Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme and the transfer of missiles and missile technology to Pakistan complicates the nuclear dimensions of India's security environment. China's military collaboration with Myanmar is well known. It is said that countries can choose their friends, but not their neighbours. India would like to develop mutually beneficial and friendly relations with all its neighbours. However, India cannot be blind to the existing and future military capabilities of neighbouring countries that have a bearing on its security.

The Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity Along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the India-China Border Areas signed on September 7, 1993, and the Agreement between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People's Republic of China on Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the India-China Border Areas signed on November 29, 1996, provide a framework for CBMs in the conventional field. There are arrangements for regular consultations between the Foreign Offices of India and China as also the institution of a Joint Working Group on the border issue. Some of the CBMs agreed to under the above two agreements include:

l limiting military forces within agreed geographical zones along the LAC;

l avoiding large-scale military exercises involving more than one division (15,000 troops) and giving the other side notification of any exercise involving more than one brigade (5,000 troops);

l prohibiting the flight of combat aircraft within 10 km of the LAC without prior notification;

l prohibiting firing, blasting and hunting within 2 km of the LAC;

l expanding the number of flag meetings between border commanders and authorities at designated points;

l exchanging information on natural disasters and diseases along the border.

It is evident that a number of conventional CBMs already exist and they need to be updated to cover the nuclear and ballistic missile fields. This may not be difficult given the commitment of both countries to no-first-use doctrines, and given that India and China do not have the kind of complex command and control apparatus of the US and Russia. India has also stated that its "credible minimum nuclear deterrent" would not be shaped by considerations of parity with any particular nuclear weapon state and would be guided solely by considerations of sufficiency and survivability. The above combined with a mutual no-first-use policy makes the India-China nuclear equation a relatively stable one.

India signed an Agreement on Prohibition of Attack on Nuclear Installations and Facilities with Pakistan in December 1988. The agreement entered into force in 1991 and the first lists of such facilities were exchanged in January 1992. Since then, these lists have been exchanged every year. Two more agreements were agreed to in April 1991: an Agreement on Advanced Notice of Military Exercises, Manoeuvres and Troop Movements, as well as an Agreement on Prevention of Airspace Violations and for Permitting Overflights and Landings by Military Aircraft. A dedicated communication link exists between the Director Generals of Military Operations of both since 1971 and earlier sporadic contacts were elevated to regular weekly conversations after 1990.

India and Pakistan have been quick to recognise that the fundamental strategic objectives of the two nations must now be the avoidance of any war--either nuclear or conventional--between them, and that existing conventional CBMs need to be updated and supplemented with nuclear and missile related CBMs.

It needs to be remembered that it took nearly 40 years for for US and the Soviet Union to discover that "a nuclear war cannot be won and ought not be fought". The hotline between the US and the USSR was established in 1963, 15 years after the commencement of the Cold War, the Nuclear Accidents Agreements was signed in 1971 and Nuclear Risk Reduction Centres set up only in 1987. All this while the two countries were engaged in an arms race with expanding nuclear capabilities, combined with doctrines of first strike and launch on warning postures. In contrast, the heads of governments of India and Pakistan have met thrice in the last 10 months--at Colombo in July 1998; New York in September 1998; and Lahore in February 1999. In between, they have spoken on the phone and exchanged letters. What is of greater significance is the agreement between India and Pakistan to negotiate a varied menu of CBMs to prevent the outbreak of a nuclear or conventional war in the subcontinent.

In September 1998, the prime ministers of India and Pakistan had confirmed their common belief that an environment of peace and security was in the supreme interests of both India and Pakistan, and the region as a whole, and had expressed their determination to renew and reinvigorate efforts to secure such an environment. India and Pakistan commenced a composite dialogue covering a number of bilateral issues with foreign secretary level talks in Islamabad in October 1998. The two sides exchanged various ideas on confidence building and sat down quickly to build on the many common elements of the two sets of proposals.

The Lahore Summit has given a special thrust to the immediate negotiation of measures for nuclear restraint. The Lahore Declaration calls for "immediate steps" to reduce the risk of a war--accidental or otherwise--between the two nations. The proposed CBMs identified in a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed by the two foreign secretaries, range from a reaffirmation of their commitment to a moratorium on nuclear testing to strengthening of communications. The CBMs, to be finalised in the coming months, are likely to help stabilise the nuclear deterrent relationship between the two countries, and provide a more secure environment to resolve outstanding political differences and promote economic cooperation.

An agreement on specific measures by each nation to prevent an accidental or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons, and quick reporting of dangerous incidents to each other, will be an important step towards preventing escalation of tensions. The agreement to notify each other of impending missile launches will help to avoid the kind of tensions that arose in April 1998 when Pakistan tested the Ghauri missile.

The decision to engage in bilateral consultations on security concepts and nuclear doctrines is significant and should facilitate a better understanding of each other's positions. India has articulated a broad outline of its nuclear doctrine and the recently established National Security Council is engaged in fleshing it out. Though Pakistan has said little in public about its nuclear doctrine, some Pakistani leaders have stated that they will keep open the option of the first use of nuclear weapons, inter-alia to offset what they consider to be the Indian conventional military superiority.

A replication of the offensive orientation of Pakistan's conventional military doctrine in the nuclear field would imply that Pakistan will need to keep its nuclear forces, small though they might be, in a constant state of readiness. Pakistan would also need to acquire all the paraphernalia required for such a doctrine and force posture, such as early warning and command and control system. Existing Pakistani capabilities in this area evidently leave a lot to be desired: they were unable to detect the dozens of US cruise missiles that violated Pakistani airspace during the US assault on terrorist camps in Afghanistan. On the other hand, they "detected" non-existent Indo-Israeli attack preparations the night before the Pakistani nuclear tests. This situation, married with a dangerous first-use doctrine, could be cause for serious concern. The public acknowledgement by Pakistani leaders that each of the three major military conflicts with India in the past was initiated by Pakistan, combined with their recognition that India does not need nuclear weapons to manage a conventional threat from Pakistan, gives us hope that a bilateral dialogue could result in rethinking in Pakistan of the utility of its first use posture. Through discussions on security concepts and doctrines, we intend to dispel the misperception that the link between conventional and nuclear weapons forms a continuum and to reassure Pakistan that it can ensure its own defence in terms of its own requirements and resources without getting entangled in notions of parity.

India and Pakistan have agreed to review the existing communication links between the two security establishments, such as those between the two Army Directors Generals of Military Operations, and upgrade them to modern standards of safety and security.

Among the other CBMs is a proposal to prevent incidents at sea between the two navies and air forces, and expanded consultations between the two nations at multilateral fora such as the United Nations and the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.

The two sides are to set up "consultative mechanisms to monitor and ensure effective implementation" of the many existing CBMs.

In the context of CBMs and nuclear doctrines, a word is necessary about Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) which has frequently been portrayed as a potential nuclear flashpoint. Some Pakistani security experts have even argued that nuclear deterrence provides an umbrella for Pakistan to press its aims in J&K through low intensity warfare such as terrorism and insurgency. It is, of course, common wisdom that a nuclear deterrence umbrella could facilitate the quick exploitation of a localised conventional superiority, since it is not credible that a rational decision maker will resort to nuclear escalation to reverse a localised setback. On the other hand, the party which took such a step would then be required to maintain a defence in depth at a high level of alert along the entire Line of Control (LOC) since it would otherwise be vulnerable to a similar localised reverse in a different area. As regards Pakistan fomenting terrorism in J&K through induction of mercenaries, etc., India has already declared its intention to control the situation through counter-terrorist and counter-insurgency operations, instead of resorting to a conventional attack across the LOC on terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan-held territory, despite the many precedents for such action in other parts of the world. The steady normalisation of the situation in Kashmir demonstrates that this is successfully being done. Pakistan's nuclear capacity and its first use doctrine can have no relevance at all, in a situation of deterrence, in assisting Pakistan to further its aims in J&K. Barring acts of total irrationality, and we have no reason to expect this from Pakistan, suggestions that J&K could become a nuclear flashpoint have no basis whatsoever. Indeed, the more this is repeated, the more it gives the appearance of protesting too much, perhaps with motivations which are quite different. It has echoes of the saying coined by a US expert some years ago that the road to non-proliferation in South Asia goes through J&K.

At the regional level, India has participated since 1996 as a full dialogue partner in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) which brings together the ten ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) countries, Australia, Canada, China, India, EU, Japan, Mongolia, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Russia and the United States. Unlike the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the ARF is not a treaty based organisation but is best described as a framework for first order CBMS. The ARF process is three-tiered: Track I which includes activities to be discussed and addressed by member states, Track I and a half with activities which are pursued by representatives from member states in their individual capacity and Track II which brings together academics, scholars and government servants in their private capacity. An inter-sessional working group on CBMs acts as a clearing house for CBM proposals. The importance of the existence of such a forum that strives to build trust and confidence through dialogue and consensus in a region which has complex security problems and divergent experiences cannot be over-emphasised.

To summarise the Indian perspective of formalisation of restraint and its unilateral, bilateral and regional aspects, I would reiterate that it is inappropriate to examine restraint in security matters in an arbitrarily defined sub-region such as South Asia. The security concerns of at least one of the countries of South Asia extend well beyond that sub-region. The reach and impact of nuclear weapons and missiles inducted into service or under development envisage contingencies which have their origin beyond the geographical confines of South Asia. Unlike in the East-West bipolar context, formalisation of restraint for India is a much more complex issue, because of the wide variation in the security concerns of different countries encompassed in the perimeter of India's security concerns. CBMs or other means of formalising restraint need to be tailor-made to specific situations and be multi-dimensional, encompassing political, military, arms limitation, economic and cultural aspects. Examples of unilateral restraint practised by India include a defensive orientation of security concepts and force postures; strict control and reduction of defence budgets; and, in the nuclear field, commitment to no-first-use, moratorium on nuclear testing, minimum credible nuclear deterrence and the rejection of an arms race or concepts and postures from the Cold War Era.

Bilateral formalisation of restraint has taken place in both the India-Pakistan and Sino-Indian contexts. With Pakistan, conventional CBMs have now been supplemented with nuclear and missile CBMs in the framework of the MOU signed between the foreign secretaries of the two countries at the February 1999 Lahore Summit. Updating of conventional CBMs in the light of new realities is also envisaged. As regards China, the hiatus in dialogue after May 1998 has been resolved. The question of bilateral restraint arrangements in the nuclear field could also easily be included in this Indo-Chinese dialogue, subject to mutual agreement. At the Asia-Pacific level, the only arrangement for a regional security dialogue is the ARF. The ARF has been focussing on building confidence and trust and has built a basket of proposals on CBMs which can be negotiated.

At this stage, it will be useful to look at the global context of restraint. India's position on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has evolved since 1996, particularly after the limited series of nuclear tests conducted in 1998. Not only did India declare a voluntary moratorium on May 13, 1998, but it has also indicated that it is prepared to bring the ongoing bilateral discussions with various interlocutors on a range of security-related issues, including the CTBT, to a successful conclusion so that the entry into force of the CTBT is not delayed beyond September 1999. India is engaged constructively in the negotiations in the CD towards a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT). India's own export control procedures to prevent the leakage of materials and technology relating to weapons of mass destruction are recognised as among the most stringent, with a record superior to that of most NPT nuclear weapon states.

India believes that nuclear weapons are not weapons of war-fighting and there is no continuum between conventional and nuclear weapons. That is why India has voluntarily announced a policy of no-first-use. It has also announced a readiness to formalise this undertaking bilaterally or multilaterally. An international agreement on no-first-use will be the first step on the road to de-legitimisation of nuclear weapons, a path that was followed with respect to chemical and biological weapons in 1925 with the Geneva Protocol. India has taken another initiative at the UN General Assembly that calls for a review of doctrines and postures with a view to reducing the danger of accidental and inadevertent nuclear conflict. Despite growing non-governmental organisation (NGO) and academic support for de-alerting and other measures of "horizontal disarmament", the US and its allies voted against this resolution. This reluctance to embrace even modest global measures to demonstrate restraint contrasts with their own vocal demands for restraints on deployment, etc. in regional situations. Similarly, what are we to make of the uneasy coexistence of patterns of increasingly frequent unilateral military action in contravention of the provisions of the UN Charter, however seductive may be the excuses to justify such actions?

The Cold War ended almost a decade ago. We are told that the notion of a deliberate and massive nuclear attack by the Cold War protagonists is an unrealistic proposition today. We welcome this development. We had welcomed the statement, made more than a decade ago, by Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev that a nuclear war could not be won and must not be fought. Yet, the nuclear arsenals and the attitudes of these countries still reflect Cold War postures. Thousands of nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, increasing the risk of an accident or unintentional nuclear exchange. The multilateral negotiating process on nuclear issues has remained blocked; all we have are a few partial efforts that have not moved us towards the objective of a nuclear-weapon-free-world. The Canberra Commission report, the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, the report of the Stimson Centre, the appeal by the group of retired senior military generals and commanders, the Pugwash declaration, the initiative launched by the expanding network called Abolition 2000—all these provide an insight into what is expected and more important, today considered feasible, practical and achievable. But all these exhortations seem so far to have fallen on deaf ears.

This is evidently not an encouraging international backdrop, and sets limits on what the NPT nuclear weapon states and their allies can suggest to others on restraint in terms of their own example. There is also a further self-imposed theological obstacle for the NPT nuclear weapon states and their allies and supporters in engaging in a serious dialogue with India on such issues. Starting from the premise that the role of the NPT as the cornerstone of the international non-proliferation regime was written in stone, the NPT priesthood decreed that there could be no nuclear weapon states outside the NPT. Therefore, India and Pakistan, despite possessing nuclear weapons, cannot be nuclear weapon states. Since to continue to describe India as a non-nuclear weapon state, which would be perfectly in accordance with NPT theology, might cause the priesthood to be accused of frivolity, the effort now is to describe us as "threshold" or "nuclear capable" states. The logical development from this illogical premise have been prescriptions by the P-5, G-8 and some others that India should not develop nuclear weapons, or delivery systems, should sign the NPT, participate in a South Asian nuclear weapon-free zone, etc. But all this is water under the bridge, and railing against the waves, like King Canute, will not roll them back. In any case, it would scarcely be reasonable to expect India to play along with this make-believe.

It needs to be emphasised that this global dimension to the formalisation of restraint and the practice of restraint cannot be ignored. India has consistently held as a matter of principle that issues of security cannot be arbitrarily compartmentalised. The importance of non-discriminatory and global instruments that further disarmament, and reduce the danger of conflict, specially nuclear conflict, cannot be over-emphasised. Conversely, a pattern of unilateral action which contravenes the provisions of the UN Charter, destabilising theories which provide for new contingencies for the use of nuclear weapons, and opposition to measures for the delegitimisation of nuclear weapons, will inevitably have adverse consequences for regional restraint arrangements.