What is Strategic Stability?

By

Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

Strategic Stability: the Cold War Paradigm

There is no consensus on the definition of strategic stability nor is there common understanding of what it comprises; it is also reasonable to assume that there probably never will be. Yet, the awkward irony is that nations of every predilection individually clamour for strategic stability and therefore rises the need for determining its significance.

For the Cold Warriors, strategic stability was a military rationale. It was all about surviving a first nuclear strike and then credibly being able to respond with a massive retaliatory nuclear strike. Moony mirrored rationality, mutually assured destruction and a willingness to fight limited nuclear wars (as if control over the escalatory ladder existed!) were of the essence. But as history so starkly illustrated such an approach catalysed great instability at the regional level and if the regional players were themselves nuclear weapon states then stability persistently teetered on the brink.

An Alternative Characterization

So, it is not in the Cold War paradigm—which sought strategic stability in parity of nuclear arsenals in terms of capabilities, numbers, conceptual permissiveness of limited nuclear war fighting and conformity of intent—that one can find understanding of strategic stability. Not either can pure military analysis of interstate relations provide comprehension of what makes for strategic stability. An alternative characterization perhaps lies in a holistic inquiry into the matter where the parts determine, and in varying degrees, influence the whole. Following this thread, ten determinants of strategic stability may be identified, these include: civilizational memory, recent history, geographical context, political proclivity, social structures, economic interests, religious orthodoxy, technological prowess, leadership and military power. The real question to now answer is what manner, proportion and to what intensity do these determinants influence interstate relations? A report in these terms would offer an insight into strategic stability; this conceivably provides a more sophisticated approach to the matter. Intuitively, the absence of strategic stability is perceived as a proneness to friction and conflict between states.

The South Asian Stability See-Saw

Before applying the determinants to the South Asian region we must first consider that there are dynamics involved that prompt the need to view Indo-Pak and Sino-Indian relations separately, and then discern them together for there exists a collusive orientation that bears on bilateral correlation. Taking Pakistan first, of the ten determinants, other than civilizational narrative (and even there, some suggest that they are in denial), technological stimulus, and an imaginable economic potential; the remaining seven, present an appositeness marred by friction. Assigning the determinants to the Sino-Indian situation we cannot fail to note a sense of accord in eight of ten determinants; other than geography in terms of the un-demarcated border in the north and north-east and military power, where there is undeniable competition, yet relations are not quite “uncongenial.”

A singular feature of the deterrent relationship in the region is its tri-polar character. As is well known today, it is the collusive nature of the Sino-Pak military and nuclear relationship which created and sustains its weapons programme. Therefore it is logical to conclude that there exists doctrinal links between the two which permits a duality in China’s nuclear policy; a declared No First Use can readily fall back on Pakistan’s developing First Use capability as far as India is concerned. Such links have made China blind to the dangers of nuclear proliferation as exemplified by the AQ Khan affair. Also, as was reported, the July 2007 army assault of the “Lal Masjid” was at the behest of China (or was it on orders from Beijing? The then Chinese ambassador’s almost imperial declaration after the abduction of seven PRC citizens in June of the same year that Pakistan must do its utmost to capture the culprits and protect Chinese citizens would suggest who was behind the decision to storm the masjid). It becomes amply clear that the key to GHQ Rawalpindi’s compliance with rational norms of strategic behaviour lies in Beijing. And the direction in which Sino-Pak collusion is headed will, to a large extent, also influence nuclear stability in the region. If the alliance was intended (as it now appears) to nurture a first-use capability in order to keep sub-continental nuclear stability on the boil, then the scope for achieving lasting stability is that much weakened. However, the current political situation in Pakistan represents a very dangerous condition since its Establishment nurtures fundamentalist and terrorist organizations as instruments of their misshapen policies in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The essence of Pakistan’s rogue links will, unmistakably, seduce the Islamic State (IS) into the sub-continent underscoring the distressing probability of the IS extending its reach into a nuclear arsenal. At a time when the politico-ethnic situation in western China remains fragile and the fanatical outburst of xenophobia advanced by the IS has stretched south and eastward to influence the fertile Jihadist breeding grounds of Afghanistan and Pakistan, a nuclear armed Islamic State, is an alarming prospect which China cannot be blind to nor can it be in China’s interest to persist with the promotion of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme.

Nuclear Malfeasance

Against the reality of conventional war with its limited goals, moderated ends, and the unlikelihood of it being outlawed in the foreseeable future, the separation of the conventional from the nuclear is a logical severance. Nuclear weapons are to deter and not for use; intent is the key; coherence and transparency are its basis. These remain the foundational principles that a nuclear weapon state must adhere to. However, given the politics of the region, historical animosities, rising influence of Islamic radicals and the persisting dominance of the military in Pakistan, the dangers of adding nuclear malfeasance to military perfidy is more than just a possibility. The nuclear relationship with Pakistan has catalysed a perverse logic that links sub- conventional warfare with nuclear escalation. This bizarre correlation, Pakistan will have the world believe, comes to play if and when India chooses to respond with conventional forces. Stability in this context would then suggest the importance of not only reinforcing the determinants that foster amity but at the same time for Indian leadership to bring about a consensus among both China and the USA to compel Pakistan to harmonize and at the same time bring about a re-orientation in the Sino-Pak nuclear collusion.

End of the Deep State

The challenge before us is clear. To roll back the Deep State in Pakistan is to wish for Pakistan’s own “Islamic Spring”, this unfortunately, in the short term, remains an anaemic possibility. We noted earlier the discord that existed between the determinants of strategic stability and the impact that Pakistan collusion with China (particularly in the nuclear weapons field) has had on the wobbly condition of interstate relations in the region. What remains is to convince international opinion that it is the Islamists that continue to pose the existential threat to not just Pakistan but rather to the world. Rapprochement with India is anathema to the ‘Deep State’. Therefore, the removal of the Pakistan Deep State is the first step towards Strategic Stability in the sub-continent.

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One thought on “What is Strategic Stability?

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