Why India and Pakistan need to leverage their cultural rituals to kick start arms control talks

By Dr. Nasir Mehmood and Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill

India and Pakistan have been unable to resume productive arms control negotiations since 2008 because of an accumulation of mistrust caused by the festering dispute over Kashmir and worsened by air-to-air skirmishes in February 2019.

The purpose of arms control is the very challenging task of negotiated design of stable military power between rivals. Typically, this involves removing or closely supervising weapons that are useful for a surprise first strike, that facilitate offensive action, or have a strong use-it-or-lose-it dilemma, like vulnerable missiles or mobile tanks. Arms control increases the adversaries’ security by reducing unintended military incidents and escalation, and through the process of deliberate military cooperation, it improves understanding and reduces tensions. It thereby mitigates escalation during the action-reaction spirals of arms races and political-military crises, buying time for dialogue and conflict resolution. According to economics Nobel-prize winner Thomas Schelling, arms control also reduces the incentives and likelihood of war, minimizes the cost of war preparation, and limits damage if war erupts.

However, arms control cannot be successful where mistrust is so great that the two states in a confrontation are willing to risk unintended war. Former Pentagon strategist Colin Gray observed that achieving arms control is impossible under extreme conditions of mistrust, when it is most needed, but easily attainable when it is most irrelevant. This apparent paradoxical condition leads arms controllers to expect major challenges when mistrust is so profound that even arms control becomes an adversarial process. How can the hurdle of mistrust be overcome?

The Tradition of Gifting

Gift-giving is a socially and culturally pervasive custom in India and Pakistan. Typically, it is practiced at both leadership and diplomatic levels. For example, former Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, gifted a traditional dress to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mother. Modi reciprocated with a traditional pink turban to wear on his granddaughter’s wedding. Their respective armed forces regularly exchange sweets at their common border on important national days, including major cultural/religious festivals. As a goodwill gesture, both states frequently make reciprocal releases of each other’s fishermen, typically arrested for fishing illegally in each other’s waters. The two sides also frequently return inadvertent border crossers, often sheep herders and smugglers. The ritual of gift-exchanges has the material effect of instilling a reservoir of goodwill, and the repeated interactions build confidence that these behaviors can be reliably expected in the future.

India-Pakistan Strategic Animosity

Persistent tensions between India and Pakistan resulting from their enduring rivalry, have thus far curtailed the practice of gift-giving in the domain of arms control. They are embroiled over issues of geographic security, regional and minority influence, and recent historical enmity built upon civilizational grievances. In their contestation, they have developed the world’s fourth and seventh’s largest armed forces, respectively. According to SIPRI Yearbook 2022, India was the world’s largest arms importer, whereas Pakistan stood 8th during the period between 2017 and 2021.

Pakistan and India have increased their arsenals by an average of 6 and 7 nuclear warheads per years, respectively, since 2010. Although Pakistan does not have a declaratory nuclear use doctrine, it is widely believed that it has a first use policy. On the other hand, the Indian leadership is gradually diluting its commitment for No-First Use (NFU) policy.  It is important to note that India and Pakistan contemplate a wide spectrum of offensive applications of their conventionally-armed militaries. These include striking quickly and deeply into each other’s territory in the initial stages of a crisis. With very large armies driven by hostile nationalism, it is easy to imagine rapid conflict escalation through the nuclear threshold. Historically, India and Pakistan have escalated from crises to war in 1947, 1965, 1971, and fought a limited conflict in 1999 shortly after both testing nuclear weapons.

The Limited Accomplishments of Arms Control

India and Pakistan have a decades’ long history of track-one, track-two, and track one-and-half diplomatic dialogue, interrupted only by intermittent bilateral crises in 1987, 1990, 1993, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2008, and 2016. They conducted three official rounds of broad security dialogues, including the review of arms control proposals, in the periods 1988-1994, 1997-1999, and most recently 2004–2008. However, high levels of mistrust and antagonism led to agreements for only a few non-intrusive, functional arms control measures. These agreements include: 1) Prohibition of Attack against Nuclear Installations and Facilities (1988), 2) Re-establishment of Director Generals Military Operations Hot Line (1990), 3) Advance Notice on Military Exercises, Manoeuvres, and Troops Movement (1991), 4) Prevention of Air Space Violations (1991), Unilateral Moratorium on Nuclear Testing (1999), Foreign Secretary Hotline (2004), Prenotification of Ballistic Missile Flight Testing, and Agreement related to Nuclear Accidents (2007).

Prospects of Arms Control Gifting in South Asia

The symbolic offer of a gift is a communicative act and appeals to prevalent customs and norms. The act is neither frivolously cheap, as prime ministers and legislators have to invest their reputations in what is termed an audience cost, nor excessively risky, as it demonstrates political courage and will. The problem is that the electoral risk of non-reciprocation means that policymakers are wary of being criticized by their press as feeble on security. In India, a decades-long tradition of defense critics, coupled with a recent emergence of Hindutva nationalism, has subdued most politicians in the issue area of geopolitics. In Pakistan, the lack of the continuity of popular and stable governments has created a conservative foreign policy.

There are intermittent instances of unilateral arms control gifting in the relationship. For instance, in 1989, Pakistan conducted its largest army and air force exercise to date, named “Zarb-e-Momin,” mobilized to test new operational plans, tactical schemes, and weapon systems. Despite the absence of a bilateral agreement on this matter, Islamabad unilaterally informed and invited the Indian ambassador and military attaché to attend. This had the effect of routinizing a potential escalatory crisis, as India chose not to counter-mobilize its forces.  Similarly, in 2018, the Pakistani prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, extended an invitation to the Indian High Commissioner and Defence Attaché to join national military parade in Islamabad amid heightened tensions along the Line of Control (LoC) and Working Boundary (WB). More recently on March 7, 2022, the Indian Air Force (IAF) postponed its major military exercise, named “Vayu Shakti,” held tri-annually at Pokhran Training Range, near the Pakistan border, in response to tensions created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The foregoing highlights the prospects and significance of meaningful unilateral symbolic arms control acts between India and Pakistan.

India and Pakistan can exchange arms control related gifts in both the conventional and nuclear domains without jeopardizing one another’s national security. India can make, inter alia, the following offers to Pakistan: a stronger commitment to refrain from nuclear testing, prevention of cyber-attacks on command & control system, avoidance of the deployment of strategic conventional missile systems at forward positions, announcement of flag-meetings at Line of Control, a reduction in the artillery pieces deployed in Siachen, expeditious military transits through Pakistan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). On the other hand, Pakistan can provide various options, including dialogue of senior officials working on strategic matters at bilateral/multilateral fora, advance notification of cruise missile tests, reinforcement of no-first placement of weapons in outer space, avoidance of anti-satellite missile tests, refraining from public nuclear rhetoric, reporting of incidents at sea, anti-terror military exercises, and regulation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) closer to the common borders.

Displays of public gifting helps mitigate the unhelpful effects of bureaucratic skepticism. It can get easy traction, even in a jingoist media. Given the unilateral nature of the undertakings, it requires neither the commencement of a formal arms control dialogue nor the resolution of wider geo-political conflicts between the two contending parties. Secondly, it can kick off a fresh and relatively sustained phase of détente through small but discrete unilateral arms control gift measures. Over time, the cluster of these unilateral gift could provide context to resume broader security dialogue, not pursued since 2008.

Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is associate professor of international relations at Concordia University, and author of Militarization and War (2007) and of Strategic Nuclear Sharing (2014). He has published extensively on security issues and arms control, and completed research contracts at the Office of Treaty Verification at the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, and the then Ballistic Missile Defense Office (BMDO). 

Dr. Nasir Mehmood (Ph.D. Reading, UK 2020) is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Strategic Studies, National Defence University, Islamabad, Pakistan. With a background in strategic theory, his primary research areas include arms control, military doctrine, military strategy, and intelligence studies. Dr. Nasir received a fellowship from the James Martine Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, U.S. in 2021. Prior to the current position, he served as the Assistant Director (Academics) at Foreign Service Academy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Pakistan.

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