Nuclear Deterrence, Rivalry, and Conflict Escalation in South Asia

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Title: Nuclear Deterrence, Rivalry, and Conflict Escalation in South Asia
Authors: Biber, Eric
Date: 2014-09-17
Abstract: In this paper, I seek to demonstrate the fragility of nuclear deterrence in South Asia. Some students of nuclear weapons proliferation issues tend to believe the argument of “proliferation optimists,” where nuclear-armed states will never clash militarily with one another for fear that such clashes may escalate to conventional war and risk nuclear exchange. “Proliferation pessimists” on the other hand argue that, owing to miscalculation or misperception, this risk is real. Prior to India and Pakistan’s overt nuclearization in 1998, this debate surrounding nuclear deterrence occurred almost exclusively on theoretical grounds. These historic rivals have fought once and endured two crises since going nuclear, challenging “proliferation optimism.” Since independence, both India and Pakistan have come to distrust each other’s motives, and all efforts at rapprochement have been spoiled by military forces and terrorist organizations which stand to benefit from the endurance of the rivalry and the maintenance of Kashmir as the key contested issue. In a nuclear South Asia, the materially-weaker Pakistan is emboldened to engage India in limited conflict, confident that India cannot retaliate lest it risk escalation, which could become nuclear. India has thus explored doctrines which are designed to allow significant retaliation below the nuclear threshold. Pakistan, in turn, has invested in so-called ‘battlefield’ nuclear weapons, designed to ensure that any such actions could well trigger the use of nuclear weapons. This growing set of risks is very real and has prompted international mediation in many crises. This has been the pattern since both states went nuclear. Being restrained by another party is not the same as deterrence and self-restraint, however. South Asian stability is not guaranteed indefinitely. Both sides believe that failure to achieve key objectives in past crises has been a result of not demonstrating sufficient resolve, and thus, in a regional game of Chicken, both parties demonstrate a willingness to escalate conflict and force the other to retreat. This is problematic due to the conventional and nuclear doctrines of both parties which have yet to be tested, as they rely on the premise of striking back aggressively against even the most limited of territorial transgressions in an aggressive manner. Worse yet, these doctrines mutually trigger retaliatory action in response. Should a crisis occur in the future due to the actions of non-state actors allegedly tolerated or supported by Pakistan (yet who cannot be easily controlled or deterred), India has said it will not demonstrate the same restraint as it had in the 2001-2002 Twin Peaks Crisis nor the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai Attacks. Doctrines will be tested, and in order to maintain the credibility of its threats and therefore deter aggression against its people and its territory, either party may seek to punish whomever seeks to conflict with it. Such demonstrations of resolve may be immune to the international intervention that has eased past crises. This scenario would bring great destruction to South Asia, and devastate the foundation of “proliferation optimism.”
URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10393/31559
CollectionAffaires publiques et internationales - Mémoires // Public and International Affairs - Research Papers
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