May 28, 1998 was a watershed moment in the South Asian regional political discourse when, Pakistan restored the strategic balance, by conducting six nuclear tests in response to India’s five nuclear tests, codenamed ‘Pokhran II’. It was expected by local and international observers that the overt ‘nuclearisation’ of India and Pakistan would introduce new dynamics in the India-Pakistan bilateral relations and conflict resolution, where nuclear restraint would have a prominent role to play in their future relations.
The existence of nuclear deterrence has since played a major role, among other factors, in the prevention of a full scale war. The hope of this nuclear dissuasion, preparing likely grounds, for further improvement of relations between the two new nuclear states, however did not materialise. There has been virtually no progress on important issues pertaining to existing CBM’s, doctrinal restraints, conflict resolution, arms control measures and a common vision for regional strategic stability has remained elusive. As we stand today looking back at 28th May, many developments have taken place on the nuclear front which was not envisaged 17 years earlier.
Before moving to assess the post 1998 nuclear developments in South Asia, it would be pertinent to mention two assumptions prevalent in the strategic thinking at the time of overt ‘nuclearisation’ of South Asia. Both proved to be false, resulting in the prevalence of the existing nuclear environment in the region.
In conclusion, nuclear deterrence in the region will continue to face formidable technical and political challenges. Both politics and technical factors may erode an already fragile peace settlement in the region, as opposed to the situation in May 1998, where arms race rather than strategic restraint will shape the course of nuclear resistance in South Asia, in the coming years. Resumption of nuclear testing in the subcontinent in the future is a scenario that cannot be entirely ruled out.
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