Pakistan and the notion of nuclear abstinence in Asia
21 Oct 2015|
President Barack Obama welcomes Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan to the Oval Office prior to their bilateral meeting, Oct. 23, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In recent weeks the airwaves have been aflutter with the idea that President Obama and Prime Minister Sharif might attempt to conclude some sort of nuclear deal during the latter’s visit to Washington on 22 October. The idea seems to be that the US would assist Pakistan’s move towards the nuclear mainstream in exchange for constraints upon the Pakistan nuclear arsenal. The prospects are gloomy but, regardless of whether the deal comes off in the next day or so, the idea’s worth pursuing. The Asian nuclear order is in sore need of signals of restraint, especially from Pakistan—a nuclear weapon state that in recent years has been producing warheads at a prodigious rate.

Pakistan clearly would like closer ties into the mainstream nuclear world. In essence, it wants what India already has—the recognition that it’s a legitimate nuclear power despite its non-membership of the NPT. India accepted some years back that the world of the nuclear weapon states was dividing into two groups: those inside the NPT, readily accepted as legitimate players; and those outside it—itself, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, and potentially down the track, Iran. Unsettled by its presence in the second group, it began a campaign to change its status so that it looked more like the countries in the first group.

Pakistan argued long and loud at the time that whatever concessions were made to India should simultaneously be made towards it. Those arguments fell on deaf ears. Pakistan, with its worrying links to radical groups, weak civil–military relations, and a nuclear program haunted by an insider problem (principally AQ Khan), was in a much weaker position than India to claim that its broader behaviour fitted it for special consideration. With India accorded such a status, and the Iranian program temporarily deflected, Islamabad now recognises that it has only Tel Aviv and Pyongyang for company in the second group.

Obviously, Pakistan wouldn’t buy into any deal that required it to give up its nuclear weapons altogether. But we shouldn’t be aiming at that objective—at least not in the first instance. More important would be to find some suitable cap on the program—either in relation to total warhead numbers (since the Pakistani nuclear arsenal is already bigger than India’s), or in relation to specific types of deployments. The Americans worry, for example, that Pakistan’s new enthusiasm for short-range tactical systems, like the Nasr missile, could lead to problems of command and control similar to those they themselves encountered decades ago in relation to their own NATO deployments.

So what would Obama be asking from Sharif? Firstly, of course, he’d be acknowledging the improvements in safety and security that seem to have been unfolding over recent years in relation to Pakistan’s arsenal, and stressing the continuing importance of such measures. And secondly, he’d be arguing for some sign of abstinence on Pakistan’s behalf if Islamabad’s to be recognised as a legitimate nuclear power within a stable Asian nuclear order. Admission to the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group would, after all, turn upon Islamabad’s willingness to provide such a sign.

He may be talking to the wrong man. Nawaz Sharif might be prime minister, but Pakistani nuclear policy is typically made by the Pakistani military. And the military seems, so far, relatively unimpressed by arguments that it should forsake its current doctrine of ‘full spectrum deterrence’—a doctrine aimed at deterring India from exploiting its conventional force advantage—in order to advance an aspirational goal of arms control and disarmament. The military might well think it’s being forced to choose between a system of deterrence and a system of abstinence and, like all militaries, its reflexive reaction would be to opt for deterrence.

Still, even if Pakistan’s not ready to take the step yet, it’s probably in its own long-run interest to find a path back to the mainstream. And it’s most certainly in the interests of others—including Australia—that Pakistan be drawn into a managed system of abstinence in Asia. The Asian nuclear order can’t just be about effective deterrence across a region of uneven multipolarity. It has to reflect as well the buy-in of regional powers, nuclear and non-nuclear, to a set of constraints and withholds that maximise the prospects for arms-race stability and crisis stability. The sooner Pakistan gets on board for that, the better.