Balancing Power in the Region: Options for Pakistan

Written By: Dr. Rasul Bakhsh Rais

Given the hard cash India has at its disposal and the Indian religious, nationalist right defining the Indian regional ambitions, Delhi has become a favourite defence customer in many capitals for advanced weaponry in every department of the armed forces. What options Pakistan has to balance the Indian military power?

In an anarchic world, power is the major currency for a state to prevent war by deterring the designs of an aggressive adversary. This is as old a principle as the emergence of the nation state, first in Europe and then in every part of the world after the demise of colonialism. How relevant is this old principle in the world that is fast integrating economically and generating webs of interdependencies? What is the balance of power today between Pakistan and India and why the power structure and the underlying issues that define it, are different from other regions? What are the options for Pakistan for dealing with the issues of power asymmetry? These are the questions that I attempt to address.

First, the idea of balancing power with power has not lost relevance to the modern world. It will remain valid and the primary principle of national security as long as the world system continues to be dominated by the sovereign states that often unilaterally define national objectives and select the means to achieve them. However, the power structure at the global level has changed several times with rise, fall and emergence of new powers and new centers of power. How many great powers and what the relationship between them from one end of hostility to the other end of amity, and their global policies and choice of allies, friends and strategic partners had left a deep mark on the policies of many regional players. Second, the issues that dominate the global politics have kept changing and will keep changing, leaving good impact on the choices that many nations make. For instance, we see great change from ideological issues dominating the cold war era to economic cooperation issues and new threats – terrorism, subnational conflicts and interventions by proxies. Finally, the relative value of the elements of national power has also changed. These changes have taken place within the structural context of the world system that continues to be shaped by power dynamics. The change is only the objectives, means, template of major players and issues that define our age.

While India allocated U.S. dollars 46 billion for its defence, Pakistan could not squeeze out more than 6 billion. In recent years, just increase in Indian defence spending in a single year has been more than total defence budget of Pakistan.

The positive changes that have taken place in other regions – Europe and East Asia – have yet to take place in South Asia. Contrary to economic integration and cooperation these regions which have entirely transformed old-fashioned nationalism and historical rivalries, the troubled legacies of the partition of the British Indian Empire, suspicion, distrust and latent hostility – a kind of cold war – remains the defining feature of power relations in South Asia. Another difference is more obvious and important. While the great powers of yesterdays have trimmed their ambitions regarding dominating the neighbours and have given up geopolitical designs on others, India that occupies the central position in the South Asian geopolitical order, lives by those ambitions. That makes the geopolitical system of the region increasingly shaped by fears, insecurity and nuclear arms race between Pakistan and India. The history of relationship – wars, intervention and destabilizing strategy – have never assured Pakistan of India’s intentions, often conveyed through peace rhetorics.

No amount of good intentions, no matter how best they are articulated and by whom, can assure any pragmatic leader and those possessed with the responsibility of national defence. It is old wisdom to say, intentions can change overnight, as we have seen they have throughout the history. States don’t take such risks of believing in words. Rather they look at the military power of the other – if and when the relationship happens to be adversarial – and think of their own appropriate responses. Never has Pakistan’s national security planners been oblivious to this fact. Balancing India that is manifold stronger than Pakistan, has not been either an easy choice or without tremendous difficulties or costs. In doing so, Pakistan has pursued several strategies beginning with the defence alliances with the Western world, notably with the United States to development of nuclear weapons.

In asymmetrical equations like with one between Pakistan and India or between Israel and the vast Arab lands, nuclear self-sufficiency and reliance on more advanced technological means provide some of the answers to the security dilemma. Since the East Pakistan tragedy in 1971, Pakistan pursued the nuclear option as the best guarantee to its national security. The idea is not to wage wars but to deter probable Indian aggression, somewhat compensate for the conventional gap and psychologically reassure the population of peace and security against the more powerful neighbour. Pakistan’s approach has been eclectic towards national security against the Indian threat, as the country has continuously rethought and recalibrated its responses to India’s growing military might – both conventional as well as nuclear. But that has not been without serious challenges, deficiencies and some serious questions about sustainability. This brings us to the major issue of imbalance in material resources, economies, numbers and the weapons systems at both ends. The question that has occupied the defence planners in Pakistan is how to counterbalance the Indian threat, and which means in a given situation will appropriate to do so. This also prompts some of the national and foreign defence analysts to raise the question of Pakistan’s capacity to sustain its strategy of countering the Indian threat. The gap in defence outlays, size of the economies, rate of growth and other elements of national endowment are quite obvious, and quite distressing for Pakistan. While India allocated U.S. dollars 46 billion for its defence, Pakistan could not squeeze out more than 6 billion. In recent years, just increase in Indian defence spending in a single year has been more than total defence budget of Pakistan. Second, Indian economy in recent decades has increased at much higher rate than that of Pakistan and continues to do better. Finally, the volume of the Indian economy is at least six times greater than that of Pakistan. Given the hard cash India has at its disposal and the Indian religious, nationalist right defining the Indian regional ambitions, Delhi has become a favourite defence customer in many capitals for advanced weaponry in every department of the armed forces. What options Pakistan has to balance the Indian military power? While maintaining a robust, full-spectrum nuclear deterrence, Pakistan must pursue a flexible response strategy. What would that mean in the sub-continental balance of power? An equally robust conventional, war-fighting capability is necessary to control the escalatory ladder in a hot-conflict situation. The choice of technologies, defence hardware, and forces structure are very important consideration for getting more out of less defence budget. The integration of tactical nuclear weapons doesn’t give me a comfortable feeling for obvious reasons of these being destabilizing and surely inviting similar use of weapons from India. There will always be a question of uncertainty of outcome – a stalemate, escalation, and mutually assured destruction? The real alternative is in conventional defence, if the nuclear deterrence fails to prevent a major war.

A broader national security framework needs to be formulated with essential components of national integration, political stability, amenable civil-military relations and a national framework for economic growth. Economic modernization through Chinese investments and successes in defeating extremism and ethnic militancy will create the right conditions for a solid base for national security.

Second, Pakistan is facing internal national security threats that India appears to have aided – some, at least in Balochistan and FATA, if not all. For national security and prosperity, Pakistan will have to defeat the internal enemy – the radical Islamists, sectarian and ethnic terrorists. National solidary, peace and stability will create the right conditions for the economy to grow. General Raheel Sharif is right in emphasizing that only “secure Pakistan can be a prosperous Pakistan”.

Third, Pakistan has rightly changed the course of policy toward Afghanistan, and Iran as well in the last couple of years. By not aligning with any power in the Middle East conflicts and by reassuring Afghanistan that “enemies of Afghanistan cannot be friends of Pakistan”, we have made a paradigm shift in our regional policy. Best of relationship with these two neighbours, often problematic, must provide the fresh security underlay for Pakistan. That will surely deny India opportunity to create and use bases from these countries to ignite troubles inside the country. Finally, a broader national security framework needs to be formulated with essential components of national integration, political stability, amenable civil-military relations and a national framework for economic growth. Economic modernization through Chinese investments and successes in defeating extremism and ethnic militancy will create the right conditions for a solid base for national security.

The writer is an eminent defence/political analyst who regularly contributes for print and electronic media. Presently he is on the faculty of LUMS. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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