For the past few years, global diplomacy has been obsessed with preventing the spread of nuclear weapon ownership. Iran has been forced to deactivate its uranium-enrichment centrifuges after UN Security Council sanctions pummelled its economy into crisis.

Similar sanctions are now being brought to bear against North Korea, because of its absolute refusal to commit to giving up its fledgling nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programme. Indeed, the five permanent Security Council members, despite their many differences, have made a point of working together to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Or so it might seem, from the headlines. Almost unnoticed by the global media, the Indian subcontinent is on the verge of establishing itself as the indisputably most dangerous strategic theatre in the world.

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Already bristling with about 200 warheads, divided more-or-less equally between India and Pakistan, the theatre had been limited to "single-strike" capacity, because both sides were reliant on land-based missiles and warplanes to deliver nuclear warheads.

Strategic stalemate

Technological capabilities being roughly equal, a strategic stalemate of mutually assured destruction has prevailed since the two countries conducted tit-for-tat nuclear weapons tests in May 1998.

That will change when the Indian Navy completes the final trials, ongoing in the Bay of Bengal, of its first nuclear-armed submarine, INS Arihant.


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When these are conducted, very soon, India will possess, for the first time, a platform that would survive a land-based nuclear exchange and give it "second-strike" capability. India has not yet mastered submarine-launched ballistic missile technology, but rapid advancesin its land-based programme over the past two years indicate that it soon would.

Very soon, India will possess, for the first time, a platform that would survive a land-based nuclear exchange and give it 'second-strike' capability.

 

Naturally, Pakistan wants to re-balance the strategic equation and has asked China, its closest ally, for the technology to reproduce its Jin class of "boomer".

China hasn't yet agreed, but considering the two countries' close defence ties and common history of antagonism with India, Pakistan is likely to get what it wants, in due course.

Of course, that assumes Pakistan has not already modified its French submarines to be able to launch ballistic missiles, like it had the US-built F-16 warplanes procured in the 1980s.

Territorial disputes

Thus South Asia is being transformed into a strategic theatre containing three nuclear powers, each with second-strike capability, sharing common borders. Their relationships are definable, largely, by the territorial disputes that have caused wars in which India has been pitted either against China or Pakistan.

And in the case of India versus Pakistan, there have been six conflicts, two of which qualified as outright wars: that's an average of one for each of the seven decades since the two countries attained independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

Their attitudes and behaviour towards each other have not changed since the May 1998 tests, either. Within a year, General Pervez Musharraf, then Pakistani army chief of staff, infiltrated mixed units of regular troops and jihadis into the Indian-administered part of the Himalayas, sparking the so-called Kargil War.

An Indian official walks inside the INS Kursura, on display as a part of the INS Kurusura Submarine Museum, in Visakhapatnam, near Hyderabad [AFP] 

He did so without the knowledge of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but still had the audacity to ask the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) to provide air cover when the Indians fought back.

"You are not the prime minister and I don't take orders from you," was the response he got, the PAF chief of staff at the time, Air Chief Marshal Pervez Mehdi Qureshi, told me at a book-launching in Islamabad, shortly before his retirement in 2000. Had Mehdi agreed, the conflict would have escalated.

The two countries came close to war again in 2002, after Pakistani jihadists attacked India's parliament, prompting the deployment of about one million troops along the border.

Musharraf, by then Pakistan's military ruler, wilted under immense pressure from the US, which had just invaded Afghanistan.

'Cold Start' doctrine

India has since muddied the waters by talking up a military doctrine called "Cold Start", whereby it would invade and seize a parcel of Pakistani territory, big enough to be useful as political leverage in negotiations, but small enough not to provoke nuclear retaliation.


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That baby was thrown out with the bathwater in 2013, when Pakistan started testing battlefield nuclear devices that could be detonated over such an India-held parcel of Pakistani territory.

That is reflective of the mindset the two countries share. Indians and Pakistanis, while essentially the same people divided by a line on a map, have been brought up on a rich diet of hate-inciting propaganda that casts the other as evil, inferior and deserving of subjugation, if not elimination.

In fact, the governments of India and Pakistan have never sought to educate their citizens about the dangers of a nuclear exchange or, for that matter, developed any infrastructure such as fall-out shelters. Thus the nuclear arsenal of either country, generally speaking, is publicly seen as cause for celebration, rather than an existential threat.

Unless there is a highly improbable radical change in diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan, history suggests that a nuclear exchange in South Asia is merely a matter of time.

Tom Hussain is a journalist and Pakistan affairs analyst based in Islamabad.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera