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Pakistan ‘certainly’ thinks of nuclear weapons as leverage, says strategic expert Ashley Tellis

Discussing his new book at ThePrint's 'Off the Cuff', Tellis spoke to Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta about divergence in nuclear policies of China, Pakistan and India in the 21st century.

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New Delhi: Pakistan views nuclear weapons as a “form of leverage”, with the weapons having utility not only for deterrence but also as a “licence for underwriting provocative behaviours”, according to senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Ashley J. Tellis.

In conversation with ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta during a virtual session of ‘Off The Cuff’, Tellis talked about his new book, ‘Striking Asymmetries: Nuclear Transitions in South Asia,’ the divergence in nuclear policies of China, Pakistan and India in the 21st century and much more. 

Elaborating on his view about Pakistani nukes and the importance of leverage, the Mumbai-born strategic expert predicted that Pakistan would not threaten to use its arsenal in order to get its way, but could exploit it to “wage low-intensity conflicts” against India and support terrorism. 

“The nuclear weapons then act as any deterrence against any Indian reaction that takes the form of conventional military operations … nuclear weapons provide you cover. They give you a certain immunity and that is utilised to support low-intensity warfare against India on the calculation that the warfare will bleed India, but if India ever chooses to react then the nuclear weapons really come into their own as they are the best deterrence against that response,” Tellis said. 

Pakistan’s diversified nuclear weapons

At the outset of the discussion, Tellis explained his reasoning behind writing his new book by laying out his observations on the “dramatic divergences” undertaken by Pakistan, China and India in terms of nuclear policy in the last 20 years. 

While India is the only nation among the three that apparently “hewed” the vision articulated in 1998 and China transformed from a “weak” nuclear power to one that will soon rival the United States and Russia, Tellis expressed particular interest in the diverse expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. 

“In 1998, the Pakistani ambition seemed to have been an inventory of 60-70 nuclear weapons, the initial requirement Pakistan had deemed adequate for their security in the aftermath of the [Pokhran] nuclear tests. Today, the Pakistani arsenal has gone way beyond those numbers and obviously there’s still no end in sight,” Tellis remarked. 

He delved into the challenges of determining Pakistan’s current nuclear arsenal strength and stated that the country has evolved from an aircraft-delivered force to being a developer of a range of tactical nukes – the most prominent being nuclear artillery shells, atomic demolition munitions and nuclear-tipped rocket artillery. 

‘Frosty’ India-China relationship 

Speaking on the current situation between India and China, Tellis labelled the relationship as “frosty”. Stopping short of calling it “combustible”, he argued that it is a far cry from the kind of ties the two countries would have aspired to back in 1987.

“[The India-China standoff] forcing India to expand enormous resources in maintaining forces along a border at force levels that historically have simply not been sustained and the costs of maintaining these large numbers of forces is not trivial and the same is also true for the Chinese,” Tellis said, referring to the standoff as “not desirable”. 

Tellis also speculated on China’s political calculations and diplomatic perspective, stating that Beijing seeks clarity over India’s strategic direction, believing that New Delhi is more closely aligned with Washington, DC than China would like, and fearing that this relationship forms part of a “containment strategy” against it.

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