The Mumbai attacks, South Asia’s nuclear confrontation, and the “Ottawa Dialogue”

Just two weeks after nuclear-armed India and Pakistan agreed to further
talks on reducing tensions between them,[i] renewed terror attacks in Mumbai threaten to unravel the gains made. But, contrary to the
Globe and Mail’s alarmist headline, “Enraged Indians blame Pakistan,”[ii] the Indian government is actually showing restraint[iii] – a welcome approach encouraged by a remarkable Canadian-led dialogue process involving senior Indians and Pakistanis.

When the Indian and Pakistani Foreign Secretaries, Nirupama Rao and Salman Bashir, met in Islamabad in late June, their commitment to pursue new confidence-building measures related to the management and evolution of their nuclear arsenals was particularly well-received by a distinguished group of academics and retired senior officials and military officers from India and Pakistan that had been urging such an approach through a dialogue process led by Prof. Peter Jones of Ottawa University’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

After the 2008 Mumbai attacks India cut-off all security related dialogue with Pakistan, raising fears that without the enhanced transparency and mutual understanding of each other’s nuclear doctrines and programs that direct engagement makes possible, the danger of miscalculation and of the escalation of conflict to nuclear use would grow sharply in the event of another crisis.

To reduce those dangers, the Canadian-facilitated dialogue process known as the “Ottawa Dialogue,” involving several former Foreign Secretaries and top military leaders from each of the countries, has been promoting ongoing dialogue and contact and at its most recent meeting produced an extensive list of nuclear confidence building measures for Foreign Secretaries Rao and Bashir to consider in the context of their formal talks. [iv]

The two countries have already introduced some measures designed to reduce nuclear surprises, notably advance notification of ballistic missile test launches, and at meetings at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, the Ottawa Dialogue participants produced a much more extensive list of nuclear and strategic confidence building measures.

Both countries, either unilaterally or together, are called on to give assurances that missiles will not be tested during periods of tension, that “bolt from the blue” surprise
nuclear attacks are not part of either side’s doctrine and planning, and that measures
will be taken to prevent un-authorized and unintended launches of nuclear weapons, including a mutual commitment to maintain the current practice of separating warheads from delivery systems. (The latter is an example of the kind of thorough de-alerting that all nuclear weapon states would be well-advised to emulate.)

India and Pakistan are also encouraged to commit to informing each other well in advance of tests of any new systems. They have already agreed not to attack each other’s nuclear
facilities, and they are now asked to also give assurances that sensitive targets will be avoided in the case of conventional conflict.

Proposed strategic restraint measures include the development of common terminology on strategic issues, regular discussions on doctrinal issues and strategic stability, and regular dialogue on the impact of the introduction of new technologies on strategic stability.

To restrain the current competition in missile technologies and deployments, the two sides are urged to include cruise missiles in the Agreement on Pre-Notification of Flight Testing
of Ballistic Missiles. The Ottawa Dialogue statement on confidence building measures calls for an agreement that each side will notify the other as early as possible of missile flight tests, and that missiles will be tested only on the ranges and in the directions as notified. There is a call for the two countries to start a dialogue on ballistic missile defence and its potential strategic impact in the region.

The Ottawa Dialogue process also proposes a set of communications measures, especially important in times of heightened tension and crisis. The participants, many of whom occupied key positions in earlier moments of crisis, call for the early creation of nuclear
risk reduction centres, an upgrading of existing hotlines and the protection of all communications lines down the chain of command, together with a commitment
to daily communications when sought by either party.

The dialogue participants expressed particular concern about the growing emphasis on
short-range weapons, calling for the elimination of short range nuclear weapons and for assurances that new short-range missiles will be designated as conventional-only systems. They also called on both sides to forego the development of missiles with multiple nuclear warheads.

The South Asian nuclear arms race is real. In response to India’s overwhelming conventional military capacity, Pakistan is building up its arsenal as quickly as it can. India is in the meantime developing ballistic missile defences, and to counter that,
Pakistan is developing shorter-range or battlefield missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons to challenge such defences.

Thus the confidence building measures developed and proposed by the Ottawa Dialogue are critically important, not only to reduce tensions and to foster greater stability in the dangerous nuclear stand-off in the South Asia region., but also because South Asian instability (read nuclear arms race) is now a major obstacle to efforts at the global level to
return the nuclear sword of Damocles to a more secure scabbard.

The South Asian nuclear stand-off seriously complicates international efforts in the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva (CD) to move forward on a well-established disarmament agenda. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty cannot enter into force without both India and Pakistan signing on (a few other states also still need to sign and/or ratify the Treaty, notably the US, China, the DPRK, and Israel).

In the consensus decision-making arrangements of the CD, a single state like Pakistan can prevent the start of negotiations on a fissile materials cut-off treaty (FMCT). Pakistan fears India’s growing fissile materials stockpile, the build-up of which could accelerate as a result of the preferential treatment granted India over Pakistan by the Nuclear Suppliers Group in response to the US-India civilian nuclear cooperation deal, and thus Pakistan
is holding up FMCT negotiations.

The stakes are high, for the people of India and Pakistan in particular, but also for the international pursuit of “global zero.” While it is the two major nuclear powers, the US and Russia, that have a primary obligation to make substantial cuts and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their security arrangements, neither will muster the political will
for bold action if India and Pakistan are viewed to be on a trajectory toward increased arsenals and increased nuclear confrontation.

It is a reality that infuses the work of the Ottawa Dialogue with urgency and promise for the South Asian region and well beyond.

Ernie Regehr was part of an international group of observers that joined the Indian
and Pakistani participants in the recent Stanford meetings of the Ottawa Dialogue.


[i] Shubhajit Roy, “India, Pakistan Aim to Reduce Nuke Worries,” Indian Express, 27
June 2o11.

[ii] Paul Koring, “Enraged Indians blame Pakistan for lethal Mumbai bombings,” The Globe and Mail, 13, 2011.

[iii] Ben Doherty, “India reels, but resists pointing finger at Pakistan,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 July 2011.

[iv] “Nuclear Confidence-Building in South Asia,” Statement adopted by the members
of the Ottawa Dialogue at their meeting at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, 6-8 July 2011 (the full statement, including the names of the Indian and Pakistani participants, and press release are available from Prof. Peter Jones, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa –

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