Managing the China, India and Pakistan Nuclear Trilemma: Ensuring Nuclear Stability in the New Nuclear Age

At one level, the existing nuclear order has been a success – the nuclear taboo has held for over 75 years; nuclear weapon stockpiles have come down from 70000 weapons in the early 1980s to 15000 today; and only four countries are outside the NPT. And yet, there is a chorus of concern that nuclear risks are rising. Why?

A paper published by the Journal for Peace and Disarmament that will appear later in 2023 as a chapter in a forthcoming title

Harmonising the NPT and Ban Treaty in Nuclear Risk Reduction Measures

Nuclear risk has always cast a shadow over the world since the beginning of the nuclear age. Since the 1960s, the NPT was seen as the only near universal treaty but today, many NPT member states are so disappointed with it that they have helped negotiate the Ban Treaty, as the decisive step to delegitimise nuclear weapons and reduce nuclear risks. Can this be a step in the right direction? Can it help redefine a new global nuclear order?

I have contributed a chapter in the book – The Nuclear Ban Treaty

Nuclear Asymmetry and Escalation Dynamics

In a paper for the Chao Track (a Track II initiative between India and Pakistan) I examine the nuclear dynamics between India and Pakistan by examining the various crises that have challenged the leadership in both countries since the 1980s. Conclusion-the two countries must have a strategic dialogue to ensure that miscalculations do not lead to inadvertent escalation.

Nepal Politics, Past, Present, and Future

Published in the Hindu on December 29, 2022

The general elections in Nepal held in November passed off peacefully but prospects for a stable government remain elusive. Neither of the two electoral coalitions managed to secure a clear majority. Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ who had broken up with United Marxist- Leninist (UML) in 2020 and joined the Nepali Congress (NC)-led coalition, once again switched to the UML. On Christmas day, he was appointed Prime Minister for the third time. To demonstrate his majority within 30 days, Prachanda will have to satisfy the demands of UML and six other political parties with widely diverging agendas.

With 89 seats in a House of 275, NC had emerged as the largest party. It had an opportunity to form both the federal and six of the seven provincial governments with its coalition partners but missed the bus, thanks to the NC leader Sher Bahadur Deuba’s ego (he is 76 and after five stints, remains convinced of his destiny to be PM six times) and poor advice. Yet, thirty days is a long time in Nepal’s politics and Prachanda may again realise too late that he had been manipulated by UML leader K P Oli.

A messy transition

Nepal’s transition from a monarchy to a republic began in 2008. In fifteen years, Nepal has had three NC Prime Ministers (G. P. Koirala, Sushil Koirala and Mr. Deuba twice), two Maoist Prime Ministers (Prachanda twice and Baburam Bhattarai), three UML Prime Ministers (Madhav Nepal, Jhala Nath Khanal and Mr. Oli twice), and a Chief Justice as caretaker PM in 2013. In such a fluid environment, political horse trading has been rampant.

Following the adoption of the new constitution in 2015, elections were held in 2017. Then too, Prachanda was in a coalition government with the NC but a month before the elections, switched to form an electoral alliance with the UML. He soon realised that he was relegated to being the junior partner with 53 seats compared to UML’s 121. Mr. Oli assumed the post of PM in 2018 and despite promising Prachanda, never ceded control of the merged Nepal Communist Party.

Mr. Oli’s authoritarian traits soon antagonised some of his senior colleagues, Madhav Nepal, Jhala Nath Khanal, and Bhim Rawal who made common cause with Prachanda. However, Mr. Oli had a clear run till early 2020 because under the constitution, a no-confidence-motion cannot be entertained for the first two years. By summer of 2020, intra-party rumblings came to the fore, creating a showdown by the end of the year. Fortunately for Prachanda, a Supreme Court judgement in early 2021, annulled the merger of Maoists with the UML, enabling Prachanda to claim his party back.

As Mr. Oli realised that he was losing his majority, he tried to retrieve the situation by recommending dissolution of the House. President Bidya Devi Bhandari has been Mr. Oli’s close comrade since she entered active politics after the untimely demise of her husband Madan Bhandari, a charismatic UML leader, in a car accident in 1993. Mr. Oli had taken on the role of her political mentor and in 2018, backed her elevation to the presidency. She reciprocated the favour by ignoring constitutional propriety and approving dubious ordinances that were repeatedly struck down by the Supreme Court.

Maoists under Prachanda and the dissident group of the UML led by Madhav Nepal eventually jumped ship and backed the NC Sher Bahadur Deuba’s appointment as PM in July last year. The three coalition partners had fought the elections as an alliance but Mr. Oli succeeded in splitting the alliance by weaning away Prachanda, who by his own admission, admits to being easily tempted.

Election results of 2022

The 2008 elections saw the emergence of two new political actors, Maoists who had come overground after waging a decade long insurgency and Madhesis who spearheaded the call for federalism. Over the years, they have lost their ideological moorings and have aligned with whichever group forms the government. From being the single largest party in 2008 with nearly 40% seats in the first Constituent Assembly, Maoists are today reduced to 11%; the Madhesis have come down from 15% to 10%.

The 2022 elections have seen new political actors emerge. Rashtriya Swantantra Party (RSP), a creation of Rabi Lamichhane, a popular TV talk show host, became the platform for the millennial Nepalis, especially the diaspora. They were disenchanted with the self-serving leaders of the NC, the UML and the Maoist parties. However, the RSP MPs are a diverse group who campaigned on their individual platforms and with their own resources.

Similar disenchantment with the Madhesi parties led to the emergence of the Janmat party, led by C K Raut, a former supporter of Madhesi secessionism, and Nagarik Unmukti Party set up by a Tharu leader Resham Chaudhury who is behind bars but his wife Ranjeeta Shrestha campaigned successfully in his name. RSP, Janmat and NUP managed to win 20, 6 and 3 seats respectively.

This fragmentation of votes has led to a lot of ‘floaters’ who can switch allegiances, just as Prachanda has done. Upendra Yadav (Janata Samajbadi Party) was in talks with the NC when it appeared that it would form the government but shifted back to the UML-Maoist group. The pro-monarchy pro-Hindutva Rashtriya Prajatantra Party supporting the secular Communist alliance reflects the opportunism in Nepali politics!

Prachanda may think that he has a secure two-year term but with barely 32 seats (UML has 78), it is clear that Mr. Oli will call the shots. He will ensure his own candidate as the president once Smt Bhandari’s term ends in March 2023. In the provinces, Maoists will be lucky to get one chief ministership.

India’s role

It is at times of political instability that Nepali politicians start looking for the convenient scapegoat of ‘foreign interference’. India was conspicuously missing during the election campaign and Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first to congratulate Mr. Prachanda on his appointment. Post-2018, China had played a major role in bringing about a UML-Maoist alliance but failed to keep it intact. Senior Maoist leader Barshaman Pun was in China was medical treatment recently and reportedly played a role in the new UML-Maoist rapprochement.

In recent years, India has retrieved lost ground in Nepal by focusing on project implementation. Since 2022, the Jayanagar-Bardibas railway started with India providing technical support. In 2019, the long awaited Motihari-Amlekhgunj oil pipeline was inaugurated. Power generation in Nepal has picked up. The agreement to export 364 MW signed in June has yielded export earnings of $60 million in 2022. According to Nepal Electricity Authority, the figure could quadruple in 2023 with the 900 MW Arun 3 becoming operational.

Yet there are some issues that need to be resolved. Foremost is the demonetised Indian currency issue, pending since 2016. Talks between the two central banks need a political nudge. The second is the recruitment for the Gurkha regiments, held up since the launch of the Agnipath scheme. As PM Modi declared during his last visit, the relationship needs “equality, mutual trust, respect and benefit” to sustain it, irrespective of who resides in Baluwatar.

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The Old But Relevant Script of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Published in the Hindu on October 28, 2022

“Tell me how it ends”, is the common refrain of generals and leaders when in the middle of a war. The Ukraine war is no exception. Neither President Volodymir Zelensky or his Western partners, nor his Russian adversary, President Vladimir Putin, can predict how the war will end.

Earlier assumptions have been upended – Russia’s short ‘special military operation’ to ‘de-Nazify and de-militarise’ Ukraine is already a nine-month-war, and likely to extend into 2023; trans-Atlantic North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) unity under U.S. leadership despite visible internal differences hasn’t collapsed; President Zelensky’s emergence as a wartime leader is surprising; and, poor Russian military planning and performance, a shock. For the present, Russia is too strong to lose and Ukraine, despite NATO support, too weak to win; so, the war grinds on with no ceasefire in sight.

Yet, there is one outcome that must be prevented – a breakdown of nuclear deterrence. Nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945 and a global conscience has sustained the nuclear taboo for over 75 years. None of the three principals in Ukraine would want the taboo breached. However, escalation creates its own dynamic.

Lessons from Cuba

It is time to revisit the sobering lessons of the Cuban Missile crisis that brought the world to the edge of nuclear Armageddon in October 1962, as the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. On October 16, 1962, U.S. President John F Kennedy was informed that the U.S.S.R. was preparing to deploy medium and intermediate range nuclear missiles in Cuba. After deliberating with his core group of advisers, President Kennedy rejected the idea of an invasion or a nuclear strike against Moscow, and on October 22, declared a naval ‘quarantine’ of Cuba. Simultaneously, he authorised his brother Robert Kennedy to open a back-channel with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. 

The crisis defused on October 28; based on assurances conveyed through the back-channel, Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev announced that Soviet nuclear missiles and aircraft would be withdrawn in view of U.S. assurances to respect Cuba’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. What was kept a secret by both leaders was the fact that reciprocally, the U.S. also agreed to withdraw the Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey.

Yet, there were plenty of unforeseen events. On October 27, a U.S. surveillance flight strayed over Cuban airspace and was targeted by Soviet air defence forces who were deployed. Major Rudolf Anderson was shot down, the only casualty. This happened despite Kennedy having counselled desisting from provocative surveillance and Khrushchev not having authorised the engagement. Both sides kept the news under wraps till the crisis defused when Major Anderson’s sacrifice was recognised and honoured.

A day earlier, a Soviet nuclear armed submarine B-59 found itself trapped by U.S. depth charges, off Cuban waters. The U.S. was unaware that the submarine was nuclear armed and Captain Valentin Savitsky did not know that a quarantine was in operation. He decided to go down fighting but his decision to launch a nuclear bomb was vetoed by Captain Vassily Arkhipov. The Soviets followed a two-person-authorisation-rule and unknown to Kennedy and Khrushchev, a potential Armageddon was averted.

The most shocking revelation emerged decades later when the U.S. learnt that unbeknownst to them, over 150 warheads for FKR-1 Meteor missile, short range FROG missile, and gravity bombs were already present in in Cuba. These were intended for defence in case U.S. launched a repeat of the 1961 failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Despite Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s opposition, Premier Khrushchev insisted on withdrawing these too, conscious that these could provide the spark for a future escalation.

The key lesson learnt was that the two nuclear superpowers should steer clear of any direct confrontation even as their rivalry played out in other regions, thereby keeping it below the nuclear threshold. Deterrence theorists called it ‘the stability-instability-paradox’. With their assured-second-strike-capability guaranteeing mutually-assured-destruction, both U.S. and U.S.S.R were obliged to limit the instability to proxy wars. Nuclear war games over decades remained unable to address the challenge of keeping a nuclear war limited once a nuclear weapon was introduced in battle.

Russia’s nuclear signalling

The Ukraine war is testing the old lessons of nuclear deterrence.  Russia sees itself at war, not with non-nuclear Ukraine, but with a nuclear armed NATO. President Putin has therefore engaged in repeated nuclear signalling – from being personally present in mid-February at large scale exercises involving ‘strategic forces’ to placing nuclear forces on ‘special combat alert’ on February 27.

He raised the stakes again on September 21 when he ordered a ‘partial mobilisation’, announced referendums in the four regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, accused the West of engaging in nuclear blackmail and warned that Russia has ‘more modern weapons’ and ‘will certainly make use of all weapon systems available; this is not a bluff’. He cited U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 as a precedent.

In recent days, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has spoken to his counterparts in a number of countries including defence Minister Rajnath Singh that Ukraine may be preparing to use a ‘dirty bomb’. India’s response was that any use of such weapons would be against “the basic tenets of humanity”.

However, Russian nuclear use makes little operational sense. In 1945, Japan was on the verge of surrender and only the U.S. possessed nuclear weapons. Use of a tactical nuclear weapon will only strengthen Ukrainian national resolve; NATO response is unlikely to be nuclear but will be sharp. International political backlash would be significant and Mr. Putin may find himself increasingly isolated. Many countries in East and Central Asia may will reconsider nuclear weapons as a security necessity.

Role for global diplomacy

During the next few weeks, the fighting in Ukraine will intensify, before winter sets in and the weather freezes military operations till spring. This raises the risks for escalation and miscalculations. Right now, the goal of a ceasefire seems too distant, though eminently desirable. The United Nations appears paralysed given the involvement of permanent members of the Security Council. Therefore, it is for other global leaders who have access and influence, to convince President Putin that nuclear escalation would be a disastrous move.

Indonesia is the G-20 chair and President Joko Widodo will be hosting the summit meeting next month. India is the incoming chair; Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be attending the summit. Both Indonesia and India have refrained from condemning Russia, keeping communication channels open. In a bilateral meeting with President Putin in Samarkand last month, PM Modi emphasised that “now is not the era of war”. In the run-up to the G-20 summit, President Widodo and PM Modi are well placed to take a diplomatic initiative to persuade President Putin to step away from the nuclear rhetoric. This means emphasising the deterrent role of nuclear weapons and not expanding it; to reiterating Russia’s official declaratory position that restricts nuclear use for “an existential threat”.

Such a statement would help reduce growing fears of escalation and may also provide a channel for communication and open the door for a dialogue that can lead to a ceasefire. The lessons of the Cuban Missile crisis remain valid 60 years later.

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