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June 2, 2022
India, Pakistan Hold Nuclear Talks

July/August 2004

By Gabrielle Kohlmeier

Efforts to ease tensions between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan continued in June, despite a change in government in New Delhi. In nuclear confidence-building talks June 19-20, the two South Asian nations agreed to continue a 1998 bilateral moratorium on further nuclear tests and establish a hotline between each country’s foreign ministry.

The communications link is designed to “prevent misunderstandings and reduce risks relevant to nuclear issues,” according to the countries’ joint statement.

A hotline between their senior commands has already been used to ease tensions after violence on the Kashmir border, but the new link will be upgraded, dedicated, and secured, and will connect the foreign ministries, reducing the likelihood of an accidental nuclear war caused by a lack of communication. India and Pakistan also agreed to renew a nuclear test ban, except in “extraordinary circumstances.”

These talks marked the first discussions on mechanisms to prevent the use of nuclear weapons, and the first movement on the Lahore Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) of February 1999, designed to reduce the risks of a nuclear exchange due to an accident or misunderstanding. (See ACT, January/February 1999).

In their joint statement June 20, India and Pakistan vowed to “continue bilateral discussions and hold further meetings towards the implementation of the Lahore MoU of 1999.”

The talks came after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) unexpected defeat in May’s Indian national elections. The BJP, led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had shocked the world and Pakistan in 1998 by carrying out nuclear tests soon after coming to power. Pakistan matched India’s move soon thereafter, raising the prospect of a nuclear exchange when both countries came to the verge of full-scale war in 1999 and 2002. (See ACT, March 2004).

Tensions had begun to ease, however, in 2003 after Vajpayee and Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharaff took steps to improve relations. Vajpayee’s defeat raised concerns that this progress might be undone. Concerns grew more pronounced when the talks, initially scheduled for May 25-26, were postponed indefinitely at the request of the new Indian government.

Those concerns were dispelled on May 27 when the Congress party and its coalition partners, which comprise the governing United Progressive Alliance, put forth their policy agenda. The Common Minimum Programme stated that “[t]he UPA government is committed to maintaining a credible nuclear weapons programme while at the same time it will evolve demonstrable and verifiable confidence-building measures with its nuclear neighbours.”

More pointedly, it reiterated new Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s assurances that close ties are a priority, stating that “ [t]he UPA will give the highest priority to building closer … ties with its neighbors in South Asia…Dialogue with Pakistan on all issues will be pursued systematically and on a sustained basis.”

Still, challenges remain in easing nuclear tensions, particularly as the talks have not yet slowed either country’s missile or military modernization programs.

On May 28, Pakistan initiated the first of two missile tests within less than a week, test-firing it’s Ghauri V, which is believed to be based on North Korea’s Nodong missile. It has a range of 1,500 kilometers enabling it to reach most cities in northern India.

On June 4, Pakistan test fired a Hatf missile. Musharraf insisted the tests were not meant as a hostile sign to India, but were undertaken to ensure the reliability of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Pakistani officials did emphasize, however, that the tests ought to clear up any false impressions that Pakistan will roll back its nuclear program.

Some countries reacted with disapproval to the missile tests. Japan’s foreign ministry issued a statement June 4 expressing “deep regret” over the missile tests, calling on Pakistan to “respond sincerely to the efforts of the international community to promote the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.”

Some of India’s governing Congress party also expressed dismay, accusing Pakistan of starting an arms race. But the official response was more measured. Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan Shiv Shankar Menon said India had received prior notice from Islamabad, and was unconcerned about the two tests. He also rejected the notion that these tests carried any sort of message.

This tempered response may be related to the recent advances of India’s own nuclear initiatives. In May, New Delhi released a new Maritime Doctrine calling for the construction of a two-dozen-ship ballistic missile submarine fleet by 2030. In the interim, India plans to deploy a submarine by the end of next year, two years ahead of its originally scheduled deployment date.

And on June 13, India test-fired a Brahmos supersonic cruise missile, which, until then, had been in its experimental phase.