No to nuclear race
Arms race Image Credit: Muhammed Nahas/Gulf News

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which puts a cap on the number of strategic nuclear weapons the US and Russia still control, is needed to be renewed on 5 February 2021 to remain in force.

The election of Joe Biden as the US President has brought hope that the New START will at least be extended if not renegotiated and thankfully extension of up to five years does not necessitate Senate approval. But, this is not going to end the world’s worry as the growing danger of the new nuclear arms race gripping South Asia.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968 recognises five nuclear-weapon states, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Besides these five permanent UN Security Council members, India, North Korea, and Pakistan are not signatories of the NPT, but they do have nuclear weapons.

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At the height of the Cold War in 1986 there were nearly 70,000 nuclear warheads in the world, and in 2020, it has come down to approximately 13,400, out of which Russia has 6,375 and the US has 5,800. Though New START does not cover tactical nuclear weapons, it is, however, a critical regime in the context of managing global nuclear danger as American and Russian arsenals account for more than 90 per cent of all nuclear weapons.

No doubt the world has much less nuclear weapons compared to what it had in the 1980s. Even if Russia and the US agree on the extension of New START, both the countries are already engaged in spending trillions of dollars in modernising their nuclear weapon systems.

While Russia is developing new miracle delivery weapons to circumvent America’s missile defence system, US has been engaged in digitalisation and automation of the US nuclear weapons system. New technology significantly enhances the risks of nuclear weapons being subjected to cyberattacks leading to further apprehension over the reliability of the established command and control system.

Vestiges of past fury

Seventy-five years ago, the US had used nuclear bombs against Japan, and since then the world has not witnessed the use of nuclear weapons in a war. At the height of the Cold War, Moscow and Washington had not used their strategic nuclear weapons and it is very unlikely they will use them now against each other. Therefore the modernisation of nuclear arms by the US and Russia should not be seen as a real possibility of leading to a nuclear war. Both countries are in effect trying to hold on to their vestiges of past fury.

The UK and France are not in the nuclear race and have been consistently reducing their stockpile of nuclear weapons. So, the global anxiety from time to time comes over the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons by some smaller countries like North Korea, which is suspected to possess nuclear weapons and engaged in bitter conflicts with their non-nuclear neighbours. However, more often this global fear over the danger of a possible nuclear war avoids discussing the highly volatile nuclear triangle in Asia — China, India, and Pakistan.

These three countries have been increasing their nuclear arsenals among the seven declared nuclear states of the world. In the last decade, China’s nuclear warheads have increased from an estimated 180 to 320, India from 80 to 150, and Pakistan from 90 to 160. Both India and Pakistan have increased their military fissile material production in a big way in recent years.

Diversifying delivery systems

Not only are these countries modernising and diversifying their delivery systems, they have also fought several wars in the recent past, and presently the armies of the three countries are engaged in the border standoff in the Kashmir region. China, India, and Pakistan are not only contiguous neighbours but also have serious territorial disputes among themselves.

While China and India had previously declared their nuclear doctrine as defensive and ruled out a first-strike but gradually they may be moving out of this commitment. Pakistan’s decision to shift its strategy from ‘minimum deterrence’ to ‘full-spectrum deterrence’ and to deploy tactical nuclear weapons also raises apprehension of their safety.

Even if the US and Russia agree to extend the New START, the world is witnessing a dangerous arms race in the nuclear triangle. In 2000, President Bill Clinton had described the subcontinent as the most dangerous place on the earth. India and Pakistan almost come to a nuclear war in February 2019 after India’s air strikes in Balakote.

While Kashmir continues to remain a flashpoint, developments since the summer of 2020 suggest that any confrontation between India and Pakistan in future could possibly draw in China, making the region much more volatile. All efforts must be made to prevent a nuclear triangle that is taking shape in Asia.

Ashok Swain is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden.