On July 8, 1996, the World Court ruled that countries possessing nuclear weapons have not just a “need” but an “obligation” to commence negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament. Nearly two decades later thanks to the disinclination of so-called “established” nuclear weapons powers — US, UK, France and Russia — the ruling of the World Court remains an ever-receding mirage. Even today, a quarter of a century after the Cold War ended, the US deploys an estimated 150-200 tactical nuclear weapons in Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Turkey, its NATO allies.

The US has for long held the position that it would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons for its security and to protect its NATO allies. The 1999 NATO doctrine retained the option to use nuclear weapons against states possessing chemical or biological weapons even if they had signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). NATO’s new strategic concept adopted in 2010 avers that it would retain nuclear weapons as long as anybody possessed them. While the former Soviet Union had declared it would never be the first to use nuclear weapons, the Russian Federation adopted a “first strike” doctrine in 1993, which was subsequently reaffirmed.

The Bush administration was prepared to use nuclear weapons even against non-nuclear weapons states in regional conflicts. In contrast, the 2010 Review by the Obama administration avers the US will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are signatories of the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.

China and Pakistan

China adopted a No First Use (NFU) policy in 1964, stating it would “not be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances”. It reiterated this policy in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2011. But some Chinese statements have cast doubts on whether their NFU pledge would apply to states like India which have not acceded to the NPT.

The Pentagon has noted that “there is some ambiguity on the conditions under which China’s NFU would apply”. China has offered to sign agreements on “no first use” of nuclear weapons with the other five NPT “recognised” nuclear weapons states. It has signed such an agreement with Russia and concluded a “non-targeting” agreement with the Clinton administration immediately after our nuclear tests. New Delhi should seek and obtain a formal confirmation from China that their NFU pledge applies to India.

While Pakistan has not formally enunciated a nuclear doctrine, the former head of the strategic planning division of its Nuclear Command Authority Lt-Gen. Khalid Kidwai told a team of physicists from Italy’s Landau Network in 2002 that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were “aimed solely at India”. Kidwai said Pakistan would use nuclear weapons if India conquered a large part of Pakistan’s territory or destroyed a large part of Pakistan’s land and air forces. Kidwai also held out the possibility of use of nuclear weapons if India tried to “economically strangle” Pakistan or pushed it to political destabilisation.

This elucidation by the man who was the de facto custodian of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal for over a decade and a POW in India in 1971-1973 was a precise formulation of Pakistan’s nuclear thresholds. It now appears that Pakistan’s military wants to also keep open the option of mounting further Mumbai-style terrorist attacks. India has no intention of either destroying Pakistan’s armed forces or conquering its territory. Pakistan cannot, however, assume it would be free from an appropriate Indian response to 26/11 style terrorist attacks.

Under threat

The threats by Pakistan to use tactical nuclear weapons in a conflict against India arise for two reasons. First, Pakistan wants to warn India and the world that it will respond with nuclear weapons if Indian forces cross the border in the event of another 26/11 style terrorist attack. This is a crude resort to blackmail to enable Pakistan to perpetuate cross-border terrorism. Second, there is a cold calculation in this thinking. India’s nuclear doctrine is premised on restraint. India has pledged “no first use” while voicing a commitment to developing a “credible minimum deterrent”.

Realistically, India’s nuclear deterrent will be credible only after Agni 5 and the nuclear submarine Arihant become fully operational. India’s doctrine also contains provisions for a massive response, should Indian territory or India’s armed forces anywhere be subject to attacks by nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Pakistan evidently believes that if it uses tactical nuclear weapons against Indian forces attacking or poised for attack, India will not risk a massive retaliation, as this would lead to a full-fledged nuclear conflict.

Signal response

Given these circumstances, we need to review how we should signal to Pakistan and the world that we have the capability and willingness to inflict damage on Pakistan’s military if it resorts to the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Lt-Gen. Kidwai has clearly spelt out Pakistan’s thresholds. India has no reason to cross these thresholds while responding to a 26/11 type strike emanating from territory under Pakistan’s control.

Thanks to liberal assistance from China, Pakistan has developed the capability to build a large arsenal of plutonium-based weapons — both strategic and tactical. There is, however, no need to change our basic commitment to NFU. We need to be firm and clear about our intentions.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan