Are India and Pakistan a bigger threat than North Korea?

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North Korea is dominating media coverage and capturing the attention of world leaders, but the greatest threat of a nuclear war may actually be on the other side of Asia. It's on the Indian-Pakistan border, according to Matthew Bunn, an expert in nuclear weapons and terrorism at Harvard University.

“India and Pakistan are in an ongoing nuclear arms race. Pakistan has the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenal and some of the world’s most capable terrorists. There are unclear tactical and strategic red lines… They could easily blunder into a nuclear war without wanting to,” he says.

India and Pakistan have a tumultuous history, having fought four wars since their independence in 1947. They also have a major unsettled dispute over the Himalayan region of Kashmir, which both countries claim in full, but control in part, leading to frequent military clashes.

Neither country has ever signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty – which entered into force in 1970 – but both are believed to have a nuclear weapons capability. India has about 130 nuclear warheads and Pakistan has about 140, according to the Arms Control Association.

That might pale in comparison to Russia and the United States’ estimated 7,000 and 6,800 nuclear warheads, respectively, but nuclear arsenals in both countries are growing more rapidly than anywhere else in the world, according to Bunn.

The clash of military doctrines on each side, the lack of ongoing dialogue between the two countries and Pakistan’s continued support of groups that occasionally carry out terrorist attacks in India create significant risks that a conflict would escalate to nuclear war, he says.

 

India’s current position is to strike back against any attack by a Pakistan-based terrorist group rapidly with conventional forces. Pakistan would be tempted to halt an assault by using the short-range tactical nuclear weapons it has developed, which India has threatened could lead to full-scale strategic nuclear strikes, he says.

However, how large an attack would need to be to provoke each of these responses is unclear, he adds.

There are also concerns that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of extremists, who have attacked military bases in both countries in the past. 

“A pro-Taliban commander inside the Pakistani intelligence… and an India-Pakistan conflict that goes nuclear is my biggest worry,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

Bunn has another warning about a full-scale nuclear war between India and Pakistan, saying current climate modeling suggests smoke from the burning cities would get into the upper atmosphere and cause global temperatures to plummet, “disrupting agriculture throughout the Northern Hemisphere and potentially putting hundreds of millions of people at risk of starvation.”

The world may be watching North Korea, but it would be wise for it to keep its eye on other parts of Asia, too.