It is five years since India and then Pakistan conducted underground nuclear tests in 1998. They triggered howls of international protest.
Amid dire predictions that the
world had moved one step closer to a nuclear holocaust, the United States
and other western countries imposed sanctions and demanded the two countries
India's Prithvi missiles - not just pointed at Pakistan, India says
But the politicians in Delhi and Islamabad had another view.
that nuclear deterrence had kept the peace between the United States and the
Soviet Union during the Cold War and that it could do the same in South
Both countries had possessed nuclear weapons long before 1998.
tested a nuclear bomb in 1974.
Pakistan, by contrast, maintained a policy of
deliberate nuclear ambiguity.
Nevertheless it had first built a workable
nuclear device in 1982 and by the end of the 1980s it was widely accepted by
the international community that Islamabad had become a de facto nuclear
So has the nuclearisation of South Asia deterred war between India and
The last full-scale war between the two countries was in 1971.
While it is impossible to prove that the risk of a nuclear conflict has
been the overriding factor preventing another all-out conflict, there is
good reason to believe that it has been a significant constraint on policy
makers in both countries.
In 1987 India conducted a huge military exercise - Operation Brasstacks -
near its border with Pakistan.
Fearing attack, Islamabad mobilised large
numbers of troops and there were genuine fears that war could begin.
According to Indian officials, at the height of the crisis a Pakistani
minister threatened the use of nuclear weapons.
A few days later, when Rajiv
Gandhi was considering launching a conventional strike, an adviser from his
Ministry of Defence urged caution.
"India and Pakistan have already fought
their last war'" he said, "and there is too much to lose in contemplating
Land and air attacks
Since the 1998 tests the two countries have come close to war on two
In the 1999 Kargil crisis, Pakistan infiltrated over 1,000 troops
into Indian-held Kashmir.
India responded with land and air attacks forcing
the Pakistanis to retreat.
And in 2002 India deployed hundreds
of thousands of troops in forward positions on its border with Pakistan following the attack on the Indian parliament the previous December.
Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Khursheed Kasuri, believes that India's eventual
decision to withdraw those troops can be explained by India's fear of
provoking a retaliatory nuclear strike.
"We draw a fair conclusion from
that," he says.
"We are not making any boasts but the Indians have come to the
conclusion that the military solution is just not there."
It is impossible to prove that, on any of these occasions, nuclear weapons
deterred military escalation.
But there are good reasons for believing that
the nuclearisation of South Asia has restrained military and political
"Nobody dares launch a conventional conflict of any consequence for
fear it will escalate to nuclear levels", says Professor Stephen Cohen of
the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The uncertainty surrounding the deterrence value of the nuclear arsenals is
The Indian Government does not want to say that the risks of a
nuclear conflict mean it is no longer prepared to use its conventional
superiority against Pakistan.
For its part Pakistan makes little secret of
its view that it needs a nuclear weapon because of its conventional weakness
vis a vis India.
That is why Islamabad has consistently resisted Delhi's
offers of a nuclear "no first use" agreement.
Despite the reassurance it gains from having nuclear weapons, Pakistan has
offered to dismantle its arsenal if India does the same.
Washington does seem to have accepted that India and
Pakistan will have nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future
It has made the
suggestion, in part, because it is confident that India would never consider
India has nuclear weapons not only because of
Pakistan, but also because of China and its desire to win big power status
on the world stage.
"Pakistan's nuclear program is India-specific," said
India's Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, earlier this week.
"But we are
concerned about other states as well."
Even though the United States wants to limit the proliferation of weapons of
mass destruction, it seems to have given up on denuclearising the sub-continent.
Shortly before he left for his May 2003 official visit to India
and Pakistan, the US Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, played
down the latest Pakistani offer of nuclear disarmament.
"I think we have to
keep our appetites under control," he said.
Washington would never want to say that the nuclearisation of South Asia is
a force for stability.
But it does seem to have accepted that India and
Pakistan will have nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future.
Owen Bennett-Jones is a former BBC correspondent in Islamabad and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm