Pakistan-India dialogue is imperative to prevent inadvertent war in South Asia

Pakistan-India dialogue is imperative to prevent inadvertent war in South Asia

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The exchange of pleasantries between Pakistan’s newly elected Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has germinated optimism about breaking the ice between the nuclear-armed rivals.

Since the misfiring and crashing of the Indian supersonic missile in Pakistani territory last month, security observers have been contemplating the alarming hypothetical scenarios and chalking out possible preventive measures. The missile misfire has sent shockwaves through South Asia. However, the incident was too weak to cajole Western and American security observers. Maybe they are too busy with the Russian-Ukrainian war or South Asia, famously referred to as a nuclear flashpoint, has lost significance of late in their strategic threat calculation.

Significantly, the technological error in the nuclear-capable missile’s navigation frightened the inadvertent or accidental use of Indian nuclear weapons. However, such a threat becomes more natural in the current situation; because Indian strategic pundits have been engaged in revamping the country’s nuclear doctrine, i.e., swapping no-first-use with first-use nuclear weapons option and transiting from non-deployment of nuclear assets to deployment of nuclear assets at sea. The nuclear doctrine transformation aims to strengthen India’s surgical strike punch.

Since 2016, Indian military planners have considered preemptive counterforce options against Pakistan permissible doctrinally and advantageous strategically. The 2017 Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces-2017 (JDIAF-2017) manifested that "India has moved to a pro-active and pragmatic philosophy to counter various conflict situations. The response to terror provocations could be in the form of a surgical strike, and these subsumed in the sub-conventional portion of the spectrum of armed conflict."

Simultaneously, Pakistan has been advancing its full spectrum nuclear deterrence capability and seems committed to its quid-pro-quo-plus retaliatory strategy. Indeed, this action-reaction syndrome is a staple of unbridled India and Pakistan nuclear competition. The nuclear arms race obligates New Delhi and Islamabad to develop and test supersonic and hypersonic cruise and ballistic missiles.

The nuclear arms race, absence of nuclear confidence-building measures, and the technological error in the Indian supersonic missile’s navigation, demand a mature response from Indian and Pakistani ruling elites to the region’s looming nuclear complexities.

Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal

Currently, the Indian military is perfecting the BrahMos, a medium-range (400 km) stealthy ramjet supersonic cruise missile (maximum speed Mach 3) that can be launched from submarines, ships, and aircraft or land (installed on ground vehicle).

On April 9, Pakistan successfully conducted the flight test of an advanced version of the surface-to-surface ballistic missile Shaheen-III with a range of 2,750 km. The missile was equipped with Post-Separation Altitude Correction (PSAC) system. The PSAC feature provides it the ability to adjust the warhead trajectory for greater accuracy and to evade anti-ballistic missile defense systems.

The nuclear arms race, absence of nuclear confidence-building measures, and the technological error in the Indian dual-use supersonic missile’s navigation, demand a mature response from Indian and Pakistani ruling elites, to the region’s looming nuclear complexities. Indeed, they cannot prevent the approaching dangerous strategic instability in South Asia without restoring a sustainable dialogue process aimed at nuclear risk reduction.

The resumption of nuclear/missile confidence-building processes enables India and Pakistan to conduct a thorough investigation into the recent missile accident, which is a prerequisite to chalking out standard operating procedures to respond to eventualities such as accidents and the unauthorized use of weapons. Moreover, such an arrangement will prevent both sides from quickly becoming prey to miscalculation and misperception during the crisis.

Indeed, both sides' leadership's seriousness in an objective dialogue process could enable India and Pakistan to establish Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers dedicated to official communication and the rapid exchange of relevant information. The centers improve information sharing and establish a notification mechanism in time to prevent the escalation of a crisis into a war due to miscalculations. Besides, the centers symbolize the two governments' commitment to responsible nuclear stewardship.

Another item that requires immediate attention is the 2005 agreement between India and Pakistan on the pre-notification of flight testing of ballistic missiles, which necessitates each party to provide to the other party no less than three days in advance notification of the flight test that it intends to undertake of any land or sea-launched, surface-to-surface ballistic missiles. Moreover, it requires each party to ensure that the planned trajectory of the ballistic missile, being flight tested, shall not cross the international boundary of the line of control between India and Pakistan. Therefore, there is a need to broaden the scope of the said agreement to include the advance notification of the test flight of cruise missiles.  

Notably, in February 2017, India and Pakistan extended the 2007 agreement on reducing the risk of accidents related to nuclear weapons by five years. According to this agreement, India and Pakistan have to notify each other immediately in the event of an accident relating to nuclear weapons. However, due to deadlock, the agreement was not extended last February. Hence, it is appropriate to extend it for the next five years.   

The resumption of a sustained dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad is a prerequisite for avoiding the accidental or inadvertent escalation of conflict between India and Pakistan. 

- Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is an Islamabad-based analyst and professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @zafar_jaspal

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