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    South Asia
     Mar 31, 2012

Pakistan's empty nuclear claim
By Saloni Kapur

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani stated earlier this month that his country sought access to civilian nuclear technology, arguing that this would maintain a balance of power in South Asia - the suggestion was that a bipolar sub-region with India and Pakistan as regional powers would be more conducive to security than a unipolar one with India dominant. Gilani's reasoning is based on the neo-realist proposition that a bipolar world is less likely to face wars than a unipolar one, where the


lone superpower's actions go relatively unchecked.

While this theory applies at the global level, Gilani's attempt to apply it to South Asia is fallacious. South Asia does not exist in a vacuum, immune to outside influences. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), dominated by the United States, has a strong presence in Afghanistan and has a major stake in what happens in the sub-region and especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak).

I would argue that the United States acts as a counterbalance to India's power in South Asia. Although the United States (and other NATO member countries) are not physically situated in the Indian subcontinent, they exert a definite influence on the politics of the sub-region and have exhibited an enduring interest in what transpires in South Asia. In addition to NATO military operations in Afghanistan, the United States military's killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, its continual drone strikes against Taliban militants in north-western Pakistan, and the United States' presumed negotiations with the Pakistani government to secure the release of United States embassy employee Raymond Davis, also in 2011, demonstrate the United States' power in South Asia and particularly in AfPak.

It may be argued that India and the United States have similar concerns vis-a-vis Islamist militants based in Pakistan, and the two could conceivably act in unison against Pakistani interests. To this I would retort that there is a third power that balances the equation - the militants themselves. Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Toiba - the major militant groups operating in Pakistan - may be non-state actors, but they operate at a global level and are a force to contend with. India is highly unlikely to harbor imperialist ambitions towards Pakistan, because to invade Pakistan would be to inherit its high risk from terrorism. In that respect, the militants act as a counterbalance to India's powerful status in the subcontinent and prevent it from seeking to extend its boundaries westwards.

It is true that the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan with the express purpose of defeating the Taliban - a far cry from desisting from invading it for fear of Taliban attacks. However, in Pakistan's case, the fact that the country possesses nuclear arsenal is enough of a deterrent to protect it from a similar invasion. The possibility of militants having access to Pakistan's nuclear weapons makes irking them ever so risky, which is why the United States' recent attempts to engage the Taliban in peace talks seem to be the only realistic route to a solution to the situation in AfPak.

Indeed, this is a second reason that Gilani's argument that access to civilian nuclear technology would increase stability in South Asia falls flat on its face. If we are to accept his contention that possession of nuclear capabilities would raise Pakistan to the status of a power in the South Asian context, then Pakistan already is one. Civil technology may notionally enhance its status, but would realistically do nothing to increase Pakistan's might. As for bringing Pakistan economically at par with India, it would be delusional for Pakistan to even seek to compete with India's high growth rate, fueled by its huge domestic market, its vast manpower and its service sector, at least in the near term.

That said, giving Pakistan civil nuclear technology may not be such a bad thing, considering that it would help Pakistan out of its electricity crisis. The country's power companies are in a financial soup and citizens regularly face power cuts for many hours a day, especially in the blistering summers. While it is understandable that the international community should have grave concerns regarding Pakistan's nuclear capabilities and the possibility of terrorists gaining access to nuclear weapons in Pakistan, the fact is that these capabilities already exist.

Providing Pakistan with civilian technologies may be unpalatable because it would appear to bestow Pakistan's nuclear capabilities with acceptability, but in real terms it would not increase the international security risk posed by Pakistan's possession of nuclear weapons. The international community's concern about proliferation of nuclear technology via Pakistan is valid - the potential for such activities would admittedly grow if Pakistan were to start using nuclear energy on a large scale. However, the truth is that that is a risk that has already materialized - Pakistani nuclear scientist A Q Khan's proliferation activities are well known - and the possibility of further proliferation through Pakistan persists, regardless of whether the country is granted access to civil nuclear technology.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

(Copyright 2012 Saloni Kapur)

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