October of last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Many Asian policymakers will read the lessons of that harrowing episode with some self-satisfaction.
When India and Pakistan conducted their nuclear weapon tests in 1998, foreign analysts repeatedly told them that, as poor countries with weak institutions, they could not be entrusted with such awesome weaponry. Nascent nuclear powers were simply less reliable stewards than their Cold War counterparts. Over a decade on, and multiple crises later — Kargil in 1999, a military standoff in 2001-2, and the Mumbai attacks of 2008 — India and Pakistan have experienced nothing quite as perilous as the Cuban scare.
U.S. officials claim that Pakistan readied nuclear weapons during the Kargil conflict without the knowledge of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But, even at the height of their crises neither India nor Pakistan have attempted, as the U.S. did in 1962, anything quite as foolish as depth-charging nuclear-armed submarines or scrambling aircraft equipped with nuclear air-to-air missiles towards hostile airspace. The dawn of Asia’s nuclear age has been calmer than that of Europe, and far calmer than the nuclear alarmists predicted.
But, as Paul Bracken and others have warned, we should not get complacent. When India tested its Agni-V missile in April, I and others raised a number of potential issues: Indian scientists were making cavalier statements of nuclear posture best left to political leaders, and the development of multiple warheads for each missile (known as MIRVs) and missile defense technology could all be destabilizing if not handled extremely carefully. India has legitimate deterrence requirements vis-a-vis China, but it would be counterproductive for this to become an open-ended expansion.
Pakistan’s nuclear trajectory is, however, altogether more worrying.