Factors increasing both countries’ confrontational risks include the war in Ukraine, rivalries with China and Russia, climate change and pandemics
Why look at India and Pakistan when much of the world is focused on Ukraine? Because of the possibility of the war in Ukraine escalating to the point where the Russians choose to use a nuclear weapon: This would most likely be for tactical gain and psychological effect to force the Ukrainian Government to sue for “peace”.
Yet, if such were to happen, it would be the first time since World War II that nuclear weapons have been used in a conflict since they were successfully banned 75 years ago. It would change the boundaries of confrontation, conceivably forever, as other countries might be encouraged to consider using their nuclear power, and, among the (still) restricted group that has it, India and Pakistan are among those most inclined to do so.
Nuclear weapons analysts estimate that there are currently nine nuclear states — China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, and these numbers are likely to grow.
Possible newcomers include Iran, and Saudi Arabia, the former seen as purposefully seeking nuclear weapon capability, the latter pursuing nuclear development ostensibly for civilian purposes, but notably with the assistance of Pakistani experts, the same country that supported the North Korean weapons program.
The Saudis have not sworn off nuclear weapons and are the largest funders of Pakistan, which became a nuclear state primarily because the Netherlands allowed a nuclear physicist working at the Urenco labs in the Netherlands, Dr. Abdul Quadeer Khan, to take the blueprints of the Dutch nuclear enrichment and centrifuge technology and develop the Pakistani program.
Three countries “voluntarily” gave up their nuclear capability, namely South Africa, Libya, and Ukraine.
With respect to these latter two, their histories probably would be very different today if they had not done so. They serve as warnings for other countries that might think about giving up such capacity.
Overall, few regions of the world– maybe South America– are currently “nuclear arms-free” if you will
A Russian breach of the ban will have implications for all other nuclear-capable or “wannabe” countries, especially those facing confrontation with neighbors—which are nearly all countries.
South Asia is very much such a region with India and Pakistan both nuclear-armed, and with the three largest nuclear powers, China, Russia, and the United States having clients, and chosen sides. Then there is the neighboring failed island state of Sri Lanka, in default and with a history of civil war that had drawn its neighbors into its disputes in the past.
Add to the geopolitical tensions, this comes at a time the region is experiencing unbelievable heat waves, affecting their economies and daily lives.
Everywhere, but surely here, the costs and availability of food, fertilizer, fuel, and access to concessional financing, along with an ongoing Covid pandemic, have created very difficult challenges for any government.
Into this mix are the political and religious differences between India and Pakistan (and China), and religious divide and territorial disputes over Kashmir, which have brought them in the past to armed conflict and lingering mistrust.
India and Pakistan never-ending disputes, plus China and Russia in the mix
India and Pakistan have been at odds since independence in 1947 from Great Britain and have fought four wars over the Kashmir region.
With regard to nuclear policy, India initially declared a No First Use policy, vowing to never use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. However, in 2019 India signaled it was reconsidering this policy.
Unlike India, Pakistan has never declared a No First Use policy and has proceeded to emphasize smaller battlefield or “tactical” nuclear weapons as a counter to India’s larger and superior conventional forces.
Even a small nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan could kill 20 million people in a week.
If a nuclear winter is triggered, nearly 2 billion people in the developing world would be at risk of death by starvation.
India and Pakistan are at odds on many fronts but certainly exacerbated by religious differences, in each case supported by large political majorities, and ultra-national sub-groups, which morph into exclusionary national identity.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been actively persuading India’s 80% Hindu population that they are under threat—and will only prosper if they support the ideology of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism.
Recent public comments on air by a high-level BJP official disparaging the Prophet Muhammad have exploded across the Moslem world. Despite efforts to distance itself, the actions taken may not be enough to quell what is a diplomatic crisis for India’s relations with countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.
For its external big power support, recently India has moved its alliances more to the United States, and away from Russia, its past primary military hardware supplier.
Pakistan, on the other hand, is officially the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” the second-largest primarily Sunni Muslim population in the world. A new Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif was elected in April 2022 and in his first address said, “he will expedite the multibillion-dollar China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project and rebuild broken ties with partners and allies.”
Pakistan’s ties to China go back to the time China chose sides in the 2019 India-Pakistan dispute when India revoked Kashmir’s autonomy in August 2019 and sought to incorporate parts of “Xinjiang and Tibet into its Ladakh union territory,” which China considered violating its own dominion of Tibet.
Mass disenfranchisement of Kashmiri Muslims, deteriorating security, economic backsliding, and a contentious political agenda are causing ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan, building on historical friction in the region.
On its parallel track, Pakistan strengthened its relations with Russia, which has continued despite international condemnation of its invasion of Ukraine. An alliance with Russia had been agreed to by former governments, and now goes forward with the Pakistan Stream Gas Project, also known as the North-South gas pipeline, a multi-billion effort to be built with Russian financing and in collaboration with their companies.
In short, territorial, and ethnic tensions remain high, the two countries have chosen different global “sugar daddies,” with both having significant nuclear arsenals.
Not a promising picture for peace.
Two other factors adding to nuclear risks: climate change and pandemics
India and Pakistan are located in a part of the world that is particularly exposed to the threats of climate change and given huge populations and poor health systems are vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases.
Here is what you can expect in terms of impacts on both countries.
South Asia Feels the Heat: On most climate maps, this is the hottest region on the planet. Scorching temperatures were already reached in March 2022 at degrees not usually happening until June.
This current heat wave in India and Pakistan is not a lone event; on the contrary, with the acceleration of global warming, it is estimated to be 30 times more likely than compared to preindustrial times. And it has led to a deep reduction in agricultural output, as wheat crops withered, and mango crops were lost, exacerbating food insecurity, and threatening Indians and Pakistanis with limited income.
Those at or near the poverty levels have limited alternatives to cooling themselves, with millions of villages without any access to basic electricity, and for those living in urban slums, many are too poor to afford it even if it were available.
Roop Singh, a climate risk adviser with the International Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center, makes the point that with more middle-income households having air conditioning, this means widespread power outages in part because the need for more cooling strains the electrical grids, and in part because of a coal shortage in India. “This is particularly impactful for people who might have access to a fan or to a cooler but might not be able to run it because they can’t afford a generator,” she said.
Medical and climate scientists have determined there is a “hard limit” when human tolerance is breached, the ‘wet-bulb’ temperature beyond which the human body is no longer viable. The wet-bulb temperature reflects not only heat but also how much water (humidity) is in the air.
“If the wet-bulb temperature reading is higher than our body temperature, that means that we cannot cool ourselves to a temperature tolerable for humans by evaporating sweat and that basically means you can’t survive,” said Tapio Schneider, a California Institute of Technology climate scientist and professor.
A recent Science Advances study found that some places have already experienced conditions too hot and humid for human survival, including Pakistan where there has been a wet-bulb temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit. “That kind of temperature would make it impossible to sweat enough to avoid overheating, organ failure and eventual death.”
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, should global emissions continue as they are, places in India and Pakistan will approach these limits in this century.
Even before reaching “hard limits” at “adaptation levels”, the impact of unbelievably high heat levels is increasingly threatening living conditions throughout South Asia.
Recalling the lessons in Gunnar Myrdal’s historical work “Asian Drama”, when large numbers of people and communities are incapable of dealing with daily life and it becomes intolerable and without hope, the inevitable consequence is that social peace disintegrates.
This translates into civil disorder and widespread popular anger directed at their leaders. And often when leaders are not able or unwilling to provide meaningful assistance, they evoke external threats (real or imagined) and blame outsiders as a way to both distract and unite their subjects.
When disastrous living conditions occur in both urban and rural areas, political leaders in weak governments look to external escapism politics, a scenario with a high realism index in today’s South-Asian sub-continent. And with an obvious fallout on Pakistan’s and India’s nuclear policies.
The COVID Factor: The current pandemic has affected virtually every aspect of human activity, including international efforts in nuclear arms control and disarmament, and the work of the 1968 Treaty on the Non- Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT).
In South Asia, there was no official ongoing India–Pakistan, China–India, or China–Pakistan nuclear dialogue prior to Covid. The pandemic effectively stopped all in-person, non-official contacts which might have led to such engagement.
The pandemic and its accompanying worldwide panic shed light on why it is a mistake for governments to expend huge sums on building nuclear arsenals and war-fighting capabilities at the expense of basic economic and social needs.
The prospect of new variants of Covid-19, such as Omicron, and/or another potential readily transmissible virus underscores the fact that these can be very costly and destabilizing events, epidemics, and pandemics that undermine stability and even nations’ survival.
Covid infections in India– at least during the first two years– went massively unreported both in terms of morbidity and mortality. In Pakistan, both numbers were and have been considerably lower than its neighbor, but massive underreporting is likely there as well.
According to recent data, these figures in both countries have declined. As of April 2022 reported cases in Pakistan were down while inIndia, by the end of May 2022, an average of 2,574 cases per day were reported, withdeaths having decreased by 11 percent.
The reported drop in COVID-19 infection rates at present has meant less attention in the public space in both countries—at least for the moment.
Again, there is no assurance that new variants and a wave of infections will not happen, which could cumulatively add to inter-country political tensions, especially if there are accusations that new infections came from across the border.
Overwhelming heat currently affecting South Asia means that tens of millions are living with very harmful dehydration, exhaustion, food insecurity, and the possibility of added infectious disease from the ongoing Covid pandemic.
Such conditions potentially pose a level of political unrest which very well may influence the political class of these two nuclear countries.
With fanatic groups on both sides of their borders looking for ways to undermine stability, it will not take much for either India or Pakistan leaders to feel pressed to react, then counter-react, each step bringing them to the brink of choosing nuclear.
Let us hope such a tipping point is never reached, that both cooler weather and heads prevail