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Pakistan's Eternal Quest for 'Strategic Balance'

Aparna Pande

Earlier this week, Pakistan’s Defense Minister Syed Naveed Qamar argued that “discriminatory” nuclear policies followed by the international community would lead to a “strategic imbalance” in the region. For those who are new to South Asia, “strategic imbalance” is Pakistan’s way of seeking parity with its much larger eastern neighbor, India. Mr Qamar is not the first Pakistani official and he will not be the last.

In July 2009, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani stated that any internal instability in Pakistan could prompt an Indian attack on Pakistan. “When seen with the widening force differential between ours and Indian armed forces, it explains to us New Delhi’s emboldened posture and its urge to find space for a conventional war.” Three months later India launched its first indigenously-built nuclear submarine INS Arihant. Pakistan’s reaction was to term the Indian move as “detrimental” to regional peace and need to take “appropriate steps” to maintain a “strategic balance.” Within a few days close ally China delivered the first of four state-of-the-art F-22 P frigates to Pakistan ostensibly to help repair the imbalance.

As I have argued in my book Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: Escaping India (Routledge, 2011) a key underlying driver of Pakistan’s foreign policy has been a desire for parity with India. The desire for parity dates back to the pre-Partition era when the Indian Muslim League sought parity with the Indian National Congress.

It was reflected after Independence in Pakistan’s desire for parity in all arenas with India and has had an impact on Pakistan’s external relations, especially its ties with the United States and Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s leaders have consistently argued that the only way for Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir dispute would be if Pakistan achieved some form of parity with India. As early as 1954 Pakistani Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Bogra stated: “When there is more equality of military strength, then I am sure that there will be a greater chance of settlement.” Most of the India-Pakistan conflicts on Kashmir have taken place at a time when the Pakistani military and often civilian establishment believed that if they did not act at that moment India would surpass Pakistan in military strength.

Pakistan’s military establishment has always sought parity with India. The military’s championing of the concept of “strategic depth” and close Afghan-Pakistan ties reflect the fear of a hypothetical two-front war if India and Afghanistan build close ties. At the core of Pakistan’s relationship with the US and the rationale behind the frequent tensions between the two countries lies Pakistan’s desire for parity with India. Right from 1947, Pakistan’s leaders looked to the US as a superpower who would help build Pakistan’s meager resources so that it could stand up to India. Hence, the oft-repeated refrain from Pakistan’s leaders that the US must be fair, must treat both countries equally and should not become too close to India. Pakistan preferred the offshore balancer role that the US played in South Asia during the Cold War to the post-Cold War closeness with India.

Soon after the 1971 war, Pakistan’s army chief argued for American aid in order to maintain his army “at pre-war size.” When asked by the Americans if this would be possible keeping in mind both the reduction in size of the Pakistani territory and elimination of the need to now maintain a force in East Pakistan Lt Gen Gul Hasan’s answer was that “a credible force would still be needed to serve as deterrent against any hostile intentions by India.” The civilian bureaucracy and politicians have generally preferred to adopt rather than contest this view.

The support for non-state actors as well as the move towards nuclear weapons especially after 1971 was undertaken because Pakistan’s leaders and strategists believed that conventional military parity with India was becoming difficult to achieve. Pakistani strategists like Aslam Siddiqui, author of Pakistan Seeks Security (Longman & Greens, 1960) had argued from the 1960s onwards that though Pakistan needed external aid to build up its military strength yet Pakistan should be ready for the day the “marriage with the West” dissolves. The argument ran that Pakistan had an ideology and manpower and that in parts of Pakistan (like Balochistan and the Frontier areas) there was a tradition of irregular warfare which could be harnessed by the state. Unlike a regular army, irregular forces (read jihadis) were not a burden on the treasury and since they were independent entities the state could disclaim responsibility from any action they undertook.

For Pakistanis, leaders as well as general public, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are seen as the panacea. It was thought that nuclear weapons would make Pakistan India’s equal, guarantee territorial integrity even without the support of allies and also give Pakistan respectability in the Muslim world as the first Muslim country with nuclear weapons.

That Pakistan’s leaders have sought nuclear parity and not simply nuclear deterrence is evident from the continuous build-up of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 2011 report Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is now the fourth largest in the world and ahead of countries like the United Kingdom. Pakistan has also consistently refused to sign the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) because of the notion that signing the treaty would result in Pakistan having a smaller arsenal than India.

Pakistan eternal search for military parity or “strategic balance” with a much larger neighbor has drained most of its resources without providing the security Pakistanis crave. Instead of this eternal quest, Pakistan and Pakistanis would benefit from a refocus on Pakistan’s core strategic interests: a stable polity, a growing economy and civil-military balance.

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