On 21 February, the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) about measures "aimed at the avoidance of conflict". The signing was greeted by a collective sigh of relief in the two countries as well as in the international community.

But for all that, one can never forget that there is a nuclear cloud inside this silver lining. If one believes that nuclear restraint is only one step towards the real goal – nuclear disarmament – and that life under a blazing nuclear shroud is not an acceptable state of affairs, it is important to place this MOU in the perspective of disarmament in South Asia. To understand the kind of lobbying and activism this MOU suggests, it is crucial to identify what the MOU really means.

The underlying theme of the MOU's operative paragraphs focuses on reducing the probability of conflict caused by misunderstanding. The agreements reached are simple. Each will notify the other of ballistic missile test flights and of any accidental or unauthorised nuclear incidents. Measures for preventing untoward incidents at sea will be taken. Both sides will abide by their respective moratoriums on further nuclear testing.

Existing confidence-building measures and communication links will be reviewed and improved. And discussions will be held on "security, disarmament and non-proliferation issues within the context of negotiations on these issues in multilateral fora".

These highlights vary widely in value. The agreement to share notifications of missile testing and nuclear accidents is the most significant measure, as is also the one on preventing dangerous incidents at sea. But the very fact th at each country intends to inform the other about these events indicates that both plan to continue their missile and nuclear weapons programmes. It is thus safety against misunderstandings that is paramount in this MOU – not safety against further development of weapons or against an arms race.

The mention of each country's respective unilateral moratorium is only an exercise in diplomatic rent-seeking. Each country declared its moratorium on nuclear testing unilaterally after its respective tests. And Vajpayee's visit to Lahore did nothing to change the status of either country's moratorium or to form any linkage between them. Pledging together to independently abide by a policy that each country has already chosen independently is not real progress. It is only an affirmation that each country stands where it stands.

The talk about existing and future confidence-building measures is also window-dressing, given the level of mistrust that exists between the two countries. The gains in mutual trust in this direction remain to be seen.

What is it then that the average South Asian interested in a life without the yoke of nuclear security can learn from the agreement? Four maxims spring forth to help chisel disarmament thought in South Asia.

First, this MOU has to be placed in the perspective of the international pressure that helped crystallise it. In eight meetings each with key interlocutors of India and Pakistan since the nuclear tests, US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott continuously recited the mantras of non-proliferation and arms control.

Since domestic voices line for disarmament in both countries have been politically feeble, and as there was progress in only the risk-reduction area, it is clear how important the international pressure spearheaded by the US was.

The first maxim therefore is : the South Asian citizen has to keep in mind the contours of international non-proliferation thinking and its power of persuasion.

Second is the fact that the various international arms control regimes that India and Pakistan are being pushed towards do not actually lead to complete disarmament. These international conventions cannot, and should not, be the final arbiter of the disarmament movement in South Asia. It is likely that domestic disarmament efforts may be enveloped by just such a cover not just due to the influence of powerful international forces, but also by the willingness of the two governments to discuss disarmament and non-proliferation "within the context of negotiations of these issues in multi-lateral fora".

The maxim is clear: disarmament thought and action in South Asia should certainly derive inspiration and strength but not its final roadmap from these international regimes.

Third, the path taken by the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War may appeal to South Asians struggling with the prospect of a nuclear arms race. The MOU signed by India and Pakistan seems to take this route as a default choice.

However, it would be a mistake for South Asians to see Cold War agreements between the two superpowers as easy models to learn from, because the dynamic of that relationship was quite different from the India-Pakistan relationship.

For most of the Cold War, the US and the USSR were engaged in a worldwide empire-building competition with a sense of parity about each other's potential to dominate. The situation is very different in South Asia. India sees itself as filling the 'great power' vacuum in its neighbourhood and hopes to hold its own against regional as well as global players in this strategic ambition.

India is also a much larger country than Pakistan on any count and perhaps has the economic potential to follow through with these ambitions in the long run. This is the strategic wellspring of India's nuclear doctrine. Pakistan, on the other hand, is economically fragile and sees India as the largest player in its nuclear and conventional strategic calculations.

Expecting transplanted agreements signed by equals to become a stable basis for restraint between such unequal players is naive.

Thus the third maxim: with the Cold War times is really a mirage.

The fourth is about the illusion of bilateral disarmament created by these agreements. With India and Pakistan headed along divergent strategic trajectories, particularly in the nuclear arena, the bilateralism implied by agreements on nuclear restraint stands on shaky ground.

Just the fact that India and Pakistan happen to have seen reason contemporaneously and clinched nuclear safety agreements at a given time does not imply that wider cooperation towards bilateral disarmament will follow. On the contrary–without meaning to belittle the milestone reached at Lahore–one has to recognise that the two countries have merely agreed on routine safety measures while they still move along their respective strategic paths at their own speeds.

The maxim is: the bulk of activism should concentrate on national level and even local level lobbying focused on specific nuclear installations.

Peace, the ultimate bilateral prize, is much taller an order than can be served at this point. It is difficult to make peace while the uranium glows.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian