WASHINGTON — The generals called it Operation Smiling Buddha.
While the name suggests a peaceful initiative, the reality was exactly the opposite: Smiling Buddha was the code name for India’s first nuclear test. Supervised by top Indian military officials at a remote desert site in May 1974, the test was a huge national leap for India. It dramatically revived Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s popularity at home and forever changed the strategic environment of South Asia.
That India and Pakistan are fierce rivals is no secret. But the nuclear weapons programs that the two countries developed since Smiling Buddha have made their tensions more likely to become devastating confrontations. It’s a situation that completely defies common sense — especially since Pakistan, with a much smaller population than India and lesser missile capabilities,would be signing its own death warrant if it launched a nuclear weapon and invited India’s massive retaliation.
It’s time for India and Pakistan to look beyond their strategic rivalry and work to assure each other’s long-term security and prosperity through a grand bargain between the two: a regional economic partnership.
It only takes one look at a map to see how wildly outmatched Pakistan would be in a nuclear confrontation with India. India’s massive land area puts it at eighth largest in the world; Pakistan, nearly four times smaller, ranks 37th largest. India’s population of over a billion people also dwarfs Pakistan’s mere 207 million. What’s more, Pakistan and India have a similar number of nuclear warheads — but Pakistan’s missiles have a much shorter range. In a nuclear war, then, Pakistan would have to destroy a much larger, more populous country with less effective weaponry. India would be able to decimate Pakistan long before that happens. It’s a recipe for suicide.
That’s why Pakistan’s nuclear policy makes no sense whatsoever. Not only has it continued to develop its nuclear and missile programs, but it has created a situation where not much stands in the way of its nuclear weapons being used. “Pakistan has a strategic policy of delegating nuclear release approval down to lower level tactical units,” Griffith Asia Institute fellow Peter Layton tells CNN. “There is a real danger of ‘loose nukes,’ — that is lower-level bellicose commanders using tactical nuclear weapons if they see fit.” What’s more, there are serious questions about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and nuclear materials in a country that aids and abets terrorist groups as proxies against India.
Pakistan’s loose approach to its nuclear weapons points to an important fact: the responsibility for the escalation of the nuclear rivalry does not fall on both countries equally. As I wrote in October, while India has embraced a positive, global approach to its diplomacy that has strengthened its position and earned it many friends around the world, Pakistan’s narrow obsession with India has led it to take destabilizing steps to expand its nuclear and missile programs while enabling terrorists.
But while India takes a far more sensible approach, it is not immune to provocative actions, especially when domestic politics demand a tougher stance. Just as India’s 1974 nuclear test was designed in part to boost then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s popularity at home, India’s decision to shoot down one of its own satellites last month was motivated in part by a desire to stoke nationalist sentiment ahead of the critical April-May elections that began last week in India. These elections which will determine whether Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be re-elected to a second term. The successful test helped rally nationalist support for Modi, who was perceived as flexing India’s military muscle at Islamabad and Beijing while making clear that India, if it wants, can shoot down Pakistan’s Remote Sensing Satellite, which was launched to great fanfare with China’s help last year. That Indian leaders remain willing to escalate tensions and change the strategic balance in the region for domestic reasons is deeply concerning.
Ultimately, what is most tragic about this situation is how pointless this nuclear rivalry truly is. A nuclear confrontation would be devastating for India — but it would be the end of Pakistan. Nuclear weapons have no meaning when you’re facing more than a billion people, a fact that makes all of the economic sacrifice the Pakistani people have endured over the years for Pakistan’s nuclear program all the more senseless. If Pakistan truly wants to improve its security, it shouldn’t waste its resources on nuclear arms. It should strengthen its ties with India and focus on the things that will create a more prosperous future, like a stronger economy and better education.
Of course, with an estimated 900 million Indian voters — totaling close to one-eighth of all humans on the planet — headed to the polls between April 11 and May 19, the prospects for immediate progress between the two nuclear powers are slim. But once the election is over, the next president of India has a window of opportunity to take the high ground — and pursue a grand bargain that can begin to defuse the India-Pakistan nuclear powder keg.
The answer doesn’t lie in a nuclear arms control agreement or temporary confidence-building measures. A truly lasting solution must be based on only one principle: good economics makes good politics. A regional economic agreement between India and Pakistan would bring the two countries closer together over time, increasing their interdependence and creating more opportunities for cooperation.
The potential economic benefits to both countries are enormous. “Due to limited transport connectivity, onerous logistics and regulatory impediments, and lack of trust, it costs more to trade within South Asia than between South Asia and world’s other regions,” according to the World Bank. “It’s ~20% cheaper for India to trade with Brazil than with its neighbor Pakistan.” Lowering barriers could increase India-Pakistan trade nearly sevenfold.
What’s more, offering Pakistan the chance to improve its economy and gain from a more stable and prosperous region would also begin to change the root causes of why Pakistan has been such a destabilizing influence in the region: its weakness, isolation, and myopic rivalry with India. While Pakistan has spent heavily on building up its nuclear program, its overreliance on imports, massive debt to China, and high inflation have created an economic crisis in the country. That has put pressure on Islamabad to negotiate an IMF bailoutand find new economic opportunities for Pakistan. If Pakistan joined a regional economic partnership with India, it would become stronger, more connected to other countries in the region, and less inclined to pick futile fights with its much more powerful neighbor.
As a businessman, I’ve been involved in many negotiations over the years. Some negotiate through hate; there is always a winner and a loser, and they want to be the winner at any cost. But the best negotiators in business understand you get the best results when both sides win. A regional economic partnership would be a win-win scenario, making both India and Pakistan more prosperous and more secure. No nuclear arms control agreement would come close to the lasting positive impact of good economics.
The United States should use its economic clout to help make this grand bargain possible.
I have previously written about how the Trump administration’s tough approach to Pakistan and willingness to cut off U.S. aid has increased U.S. leverage over Pakistan — which, despite its strong ties to China, does not want to be isolated and solely dependent on Beijing. Washington should offer to increase aid to Pakistan, increase its investments in South Asia to facilitate greater regional economic integration that benefits Pakistan, and support an IMF bailout — but only if Pakistan agrees to sincerely participate in the regional economic initiative.
May 18th, the day before the final polls in India close, will mark forty-five years of a nuclear South Asia. When that election ends, Indian and Pakistani leaders have a chance to undo the damage of years of nuclear escalation through a grand economic bargain that aligns with each country’s interests.
It’s an operation that would make the Buddha smile.