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International relations

India and Pakistan's Kashmir dispute stirs nuclear fears

Rhetoric intensifies as rivals rush toward sea-based launch capability

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, left, and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi. (Source photo from Reuters and Nikkei)

ISLAMABAD -- As India and Pakistan engage in a war of words over Kashmir, a related threat has experts worried -- both neighbors' intention to make it easier for themselves to deliver nuclear weapons on short notice.

Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh on Aug. 17 triggered doubts over the country's commitment to its "nuclear no first use" policy, and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan fired back this week.

"In a nuclear war, no one will win," Khan said during a televised speech on Monday. "It will not only wreak havoc in the region, but the entire world will face consequences." His words, according to Western diplomats, were meant to deter India from increasing military pressure on the part of Kashmir under Pakistan's control, known as "Azad Kashmir." Azad means free.

The situation in South Asia darkened on Aug. 5, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi oversaw legislation that removed the special status for India-controlled Kashmir. With the change, predominantly Muslim Kashmir must allow Indians from outside the province to buy property there.

India and Pakistan have fought three major wars and many skirmishes during their 72-year history, all over Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan, though China controls a small slice. Analysts warn that the risk of military escalation has become more acute since 1998, when Pakistan became a nuclear weapons state. India declared it had acquired nuclear arms in 1974.

Almost two weeks after India altered its constitution on Aug. 5, Singh raised questions over India's adherence to the "nuclear no first use" principle. "India remains firmly committed to the doctrine of NNFU," he began, "but what happens in future depends on circumstances."

India has historically defended its buildup of conventional military forces, nuclear arsenal and delivery systems as necessary due to China's larger military force. "India has taken the position that its military spending is the answer to the combined military growth of China and Pakistan together," said a Western diplomat in Islamabad who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Estimates released this year by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute suggest that India possesses from 130 to 140 nuclear weapons, while Pakistan has 150 to 160.

Kashmiris run for cover as a teargas shell fired by Indian security forces explodes during clashes, after scrapping of the special constitutional status for Kashmir by the Indian government, in Srinagar on Aug. 23.   © Reuters

"India and Pakistan have enough nuclear bombs to blow [up] each other many times over," the Western diplomat said. "It's going to be a very dangerous situation if there is ever a major war between these two countries."

For years, India and Pakistan were known to keep their nuclear warheads separate from their missiles and other delivery systems. But Petr Topychkanov, a senior researcher on arms control and nonproliferation at the Stockholm institute, warned that "technological changes" have also increased the risk surrounding nuclear weapons of both countries. "The trend in both countries," he said, "is to have weapons that can be used at short notice."

Topychkanov said moves by India and Pakistan to develop sea-based nuclear capabilities make it "impossible to keep the warheads separate from delivery systems. It makes the situation in the region more dangerous."

Both India and Pakistan have already demonstrated their ability to launch nuclear-capable missiles from submarines, thus completing the nuclear "triad": the ability to launch nuclear weapons from land, air and sea.

India has the edge, with nuclear-powered submarines that can remain submerged for extended periods. Although Pakistan's submarines are conventionally powered, it has added air- independent propulsion systems that let them stay under water longer than before.

Separately, a senior Pakistani government official who spoke to Nikkei on condition of anonymity said analysts often ignore a silver lining in the neighbors' nuclear saber-rattling. Since 1998, when Pakistan demonstrated its nuclear ability, the government official said, "we have managed to keep our tensions going alongside peace. The very fact that there hasn't been an all-out war has to do with the MAD (mutually assured destruction) theory working in practice."

Topychkanov has noticed another positive, one that came about after India-Pakistan tensions flared in February, following a terrorist attack in India-administered Kashmir. Delhi immediately claimed the attack was the work of a Pakistan-based Islamic militant group. "Pakistan's decision to de-escalate the situation [by returning] an Indian pilot who was captured clearly sent the message that there was no military solution" to the crisis, he said.

After the militants' attack, India ordered an airstrike on a suspected terrorist training camp in northern Pakistan. It later came out that India's air force hit the wrong target, possibly due to faulty intelligence. Pakistan retaliated by shooting down two Indian fighter jets and capturing one of the pilots, who bailed out over Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.

India and Pakistan, the Western diplomat said, need to embark on a "peace initiative and resolve their differences. As long as these two countries remain enemies, the risk of another conflict escalating to a nuclear exchange of some kind will remain in place."

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