As the world awaits Pakistan's reply to last week's underground nuclear tests by India, a dangerous new era of instability is dawning on South Asia, one of the most volatile regions in the world.
With India crossing the nuclear threshold and Pakistan promising to do the same, the nuclear ambiguity that maintained the region's strategic status quo has been shattered, analysts say. "Nuclear ambiguity had enormous advantages," argues Maleeha Lodhi, former Pakistani ambassador to Washington and now editor of an Islamabad newspaper. "It suited South Asia because it allowed these two countries to have the means to deter each other at a level of capability which was really not very dangerous."
For the past two decades, that ambiguity has prevented conflict between the two belligerent neighbors, despite India's overwhelming superiority in conventional forces. India and Pakistan have already fought three wars between them, and skirmishes along the de facto border dividing the disputed territory of Kashmir still claim the lives hundreds of soldiers each year.
"[Crossing the nuclear threshold] will add considerably to the insecurity of the region," says former Lt. Gen. Talat Masoodand, an Islamabad-based strategic analyst. "This is not a region where nuclear deterrence might work like it did between America and the Soviet Union during the cold war. We have a history of mistrust, territorial disputes, and contiguous borders. Think of all the things that can lead to conflict and they are all here."
Aside from the economic impact of sanctions if Pakistan goes ahead with the tests, the strategic cost of going nuclear is worrying analysts because Pakistan could never match India bomb-for-bomb in an atomic arms race. "We wanted nuclear capability to offset the tremendous disadvantage we had in terms of conventional capabilities. Now we are feeling vulnerable on both counts because India has escalated tensions so much," says Rifaat Hussain of the Department of International Relations at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.
According to Shirin Mazari, former head of Defense and Strategic Studies at Quaid-i-Azam, that imbalance might force Pakistan into a high-risk deterrence strategy with far-reaching consequences for the social and economic fabric of both countries. "[Pakistan] will not deploy a counterforce strategy because we will not be aiming to destroy their military targets. Instead we will go in for massive retaliation because that is the only way you can deter them from attacking in the first place," adds Dr. Mazari. "The nuclear reality of the Indian state is here to stay, it cannot be undone by sanctions or by other means," she says.
One unintended consequence of India's testing, analysts say, will be to bring Pakistan and China closer together. The two countries have cooperated on building up Pakistan's nuclear and missile capabilities. And, with India justifying its testing program by pointing to China's alleged nuclear threat, a strengthening of ties between Beijing and Islamabad appears inevitable. "[A nuclear deterrence] will be immensely credible if there's something that the Pakistanis can work out with China," says Dr. Hussain. "Because we are geographically contiguous, it can create enormous problems for the Indians. It can tie them up on two fronts."
That China should step in ahead of America might worry Washington, but the view from Islamabad is strongly against relying on the world's only superpower for protection. "The lesson of our history is that you don't put your faith in the United States," says former Ambassador Lodhi.
But Lodhi does see a role for the US and other Western countries in brokering some sort of agreement between India and Pakistan to stop further proliferation. "This is a potentially explosive situation. The international community needs to send out a strong signal that this is where you stop," she says.
But if history is any guide, the prospect of either India or Pakistan accepting third-party mediation to stop a subcontinental arms race appears remote. The last time India and Pakistan agreed to outside mediation to resolve a bilateral dispute was in the 1960s, when the International Court of Arbitration resolved a dispute over an uninhabited barren strip of border land known as the Great Rann of Kutch. Admits Lodhi: "Our track record for resolving bilateral problems is not good."
Despite the era of uncertainty that awaits South Asia following India's gate-crashing of the nuclear club, the mood in Pakistan is still overwhelmingly in favor of testing. "This is the moment of truth," says Hussain. "What is at stake is the credibility of your deterrence."