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Editorial: South Asia’s Nuclear Threat

The ongoing nuclear arms race between Pakistan and India does not bode well for the peace necessary to achieve regional economic prosperity

by Editorial

Interim Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar, in a recent podcast, has warned India of dire consequences if it resorts to any aggression like the Balakot airstrike of 2019: “Pakistan will exactly do the same as it did in 2019. We will hit their planes. We will respond in the same coin … Neither our bullets nor determination are old. Our bullets are new and our determination is quite renewed and fresh.” He also stressed no one should harbor any delusions about Pakistan’s response to any aggression, as it has a defense mechanism in place to protect its people. While almost routine, this statement points to a fundamental flaw in the mutual animosity between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, in place since Partition in 1947.

Over the past 75 years, bilateral ties between Pakistan and India have seen them fight wars in 1947, 1965 and 1971, the last of which resulted in the secession of East Pakistan and formation of Bangladesh. Rather than move forward with coexistence through trade, the neighbors adopted mutually dismissive nationalisms, with the longstanding Kashmir dispute as a central plank that shows no signs of resolution. Making matters worse was India successfully detonating a nuclear bomb in 1974, culminating a process that began in 1962 after a border quarrel between China and India led the latter to realize the ancient protection of the Himalayan Mountains was no more.

Pakistan similarly started developing nuclear weapons in 1972, formally emerging as a nuclear state in 1998 after its own successful tests. Fortunately, neither state has thus far used nuclear weapons in conflict, but experts fear any serious crisis could escalate beyond the use of conventional weapons and even a minor nuclear exchange could kill 20 million people within a week. Latest estimates suggest India has approximately 164 nuclear warheads with land-, sea-, and air-based launch capabilities. While the state formally has a No First Use policy, indicating it would never initiate the use of nuclear weapons in a conflict—its leaders have hinted at reconsidering it since August 2019.

By contrast, Pakistan has approximately 170 warheads, exceeding U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimates from 1999 that it would possess 60-80 warheads by 2020. If the current growth is sustained, its arsenal could reach 220-250 warheads by 2025. With neither state willing to back down from its “strategic” deterrence, the prevailing scenario does not paint a rosy picture of regional peace necessary for economic prosperity.

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