Pakistan’s nuclear test 1998; from normative to a strategic approach

by Nazia Sheikh
According to the Realist school of thought, alliances and enmities in international relations are based on the pursuit of national interest, which is considered the primary and enduring goal of states. Friendships and enmities can change over time based on shifting interests and geopolitical dynamics. In the early years of its independence, Pakistan faced economic challenges and sought alternatives to strengthen its security. It aligned itself with the Western Camp and ratified defense pacts such as SEATO in 1954 and CENTO in 1955. Pakistan believed that these alliances, under the leadership of the United States, would help protect it against potential Indian aggression. During the 1950s, Pakistan also advocated for non-proliferation and disarmament, supporting UN resolutions on arms control. This reflected a normative posture towards conventional and nuclear proliferation. Pakistan’s shift from a normative approach to a strategic approach can be attributed to 2 main events in the 1960s and 1970s. These events reshaped Pakistan’s security policy based on the principle that states pursue policies that serve their interests in the best possible manner. One of the important factors was that Pakistan, despite being a signatory of Western security pacts, the United States and its allies did not provide expected military and economic support during Pakistan’s war against India in 1965. The anticipation that Pakistan would get help from the West did not materialize, instead, the US imposed sanctions on Pakistan and prohibited the provision of military equipment and economic aid. Another significant event was the 1971 war, which led to the disintegration of Pakistan. This war further reinforced the notion that the United States is a fair-weather friend of India and would not support Pakistan against India. These events made Pakistan realize the need to prioritize its security interests and led to a reorientation of its policy from relying on external alliances to adopting a more self-reliant and strategic approach. India’s test of its nuclear program in 1974 played a crucial role in Pakistan’s shift from a normative posture towards nuclear programs to a geo-strategic and realistic approach. Pakistani policymakers recognized that if India, a belligerent regional power, became a nuclear-armed state, the existing strategic asymmetry would be further magnified in India’s favor. As a result, Pakistan’s prospects of adhering to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) dwindled, as it would only consider becoming a party to the treaty if India did so as well. In response to India’s nuclear program, Pakistan initiated efforts to develop its nuclear program. In the same year 1998, both Pakistan and India became nuclear-armed states. Pakistan conducted its first publicly acknowledged nuclear tests on May 28 and 30, 1998. These tests were conducted in response to India’s nuclear tests earlier that same year. The tests were conducted in the Chagai Hills region of Balochistan province in southwestern Pakistan. In recent years, Pakistan has adopted a more resolute approach driven by geopolitical realities. Since 2010, Pakistan has maintained that it would only join the NPT as a recognized nuclear-weapon state. Pakistan relies on its nuclear weapons as a deterrent against its more powerful neighbor. Pakistan views the NPT as discriminatory because it advocates for non-proliferation while recognizing five countries as “Recognized Nuclear Weapons States.” Moreover, the NPT has made limited progress in implementing provisions for disarmament. This disregard for NPT provisions by major powers underscores the treaty’s lack of strict enforcement mechanisms. Pakistan declaredthat it will not enter into an arms race with any other country but remaining aware of evolving security dynamics in South Asia and also stated its intention to maintain a full spectrum deterrence capability to deter all forms of aggression. Pakistan perceives the rising hegemonic ambitions of India, as a significant threat that disrupts the strategic stability in South Asia. In response to this perceived threat, Pakistan sees no choice but to maintain a strong stance regarding its nuclear deterrent. Pakistan views its nuclear arsenal as a means to counterbalance India’s growing capabilities and ensure its security in the region.

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