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Military Modernization of ASEAN States: The New Agenda

Wardah Irum



The discourse about the international security and defense affairs have always been impregnated with the dynamics of security dilemma. Even today, when complex interdependence has connected states in multiple ways, the global politics still tends to favor Machiavellian norms. Therefore, it is forcefully propagated that the security of the state depends upon the strength of their armament. Apparently, it sounds perfectly reasonable, to have the recent generations of arms in abundant quantity to deter the ‘enemy. But what if a state has no enemy? Or at least does not have any immediate enemy in the general sense of the term. Should such a state focus its resources to build a mighty defense sector and take part in an arms race? The answer that might pop in our minds is No. Unfortunately, this is true in the case of South East Asian states. In the last few years, the ASEAN states’ military spending has nearly doubled. Most notably, Thailand and Indonesia’s military budget has been snowballing at the rate of 10% on a year by year basis. It is interesting to note that Vietnam arms import has spiked 700% over a decade, making it one of the top 10 purchaser of arms. Other ASEAN states have been increasingly importing fighter jets, frigates, helicopters, submarines and the like.

The emerging situation in the region could be analyzed from these three different perspectives. Firstly, South East Asian states have increased their military spending as a consequences of US withdrawal from the region and mounting concerns about China’s growing regional as well as global influence. As ASEAN states generally enjoy cordial relations among themselves and the spirit of regionalism is very much prevalent in both their bi and multi-lateral relations. Besides, these states have, by and large, remained peaceful in world affairs. Therefore, considering this first perspective has its own problems, it might be true to some extent, that the recent surge in spend spending is aimed at countering China, with which they share friendly ties, or filling some security void. Secondly, some experts argue that south East Asian states’ military spending is according to their GDP rate, and has remained stable over the period. Therefore, this ‘surge’ is normal. Lastly, according to some scholars, we need to look at what these states are actually buying to understand the whole situation. These scholars argue that, these states have been spending the money on ‘modernizing’ their armament that have, otherwise, been hardly functional for years. So, for this standpoint, this surge in military spending is nothing more than normal efforts to modernize state weaponry.

Nonetheless, this is where the actual problem lies. Why should states seek to modernize their weaponry when there is no such apparent reason and when this weaponry has been “barely functional for years”? Armaments, like other machineries, need constant maintenance, supervision and regulation. And all of this requires a lot of resources. Even if a state’s military spending is in accordance with its GDP, armament or its modernization, whether qualitatively or quantitatively, must not be ‘justified’.  Since cold war, international politics has seen many disarmament efforts, be it conventions on chemical or biological weapons, denuclearization zones, Arms trade treaty or Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty. It is a high time that instead of making it customary to have some modern armament, states must come together to break this norm. Particularly, South East Asian states, that have no deeply embedded antagonism, neither within the region nor outside it, could have reversed the norm of owing “modern military weaponry”, that would most likely again remain ‘barely functional for years’ on end.

Moreover, as previously mentioned, what these states have been importing is telling. However, how this modernization in armament has been reoriented is equally important, as many of the regions military strategies are shifting their focus away from countering insurgency to external defense and conventional warfare.  While domestic factors do play a key role here. For instance, Thailand doubled its military spending after the military coups of 2006 and 2014. And Myanmar has justified its arms buildup on the pretext of having to deal with various insurgent groups within the state.  Though particularly in Myanmar’s case, instead of spending heavily on military and committing gross atrocities against its very own Rohingya community, it should have provided shelter to them.

Although various studies refute that there is any instrumental link between armament and warfare. But given that, when such efforts are aimed at strengthening capabilities for external warfare, it is likely that it might spike some mutual distrust at some point in the future. But it’s not simply the matter of the conflict that ‘might emerge’, the problem here is, an undaunted prevalence of spending on weapons at international level that has quietly legitimized, justified and warranted the buying and selling of lethal weapons. So much so that, such a state of affair is usually vindicated and rationalized into a ‘broader context’ of necessities of owning vast weaponry to secure stability. Sadly, such broader context is rarely ‘broad enough’ to include human rights and humanitarian perspectives in the contours of world politics.  

The South East Asian States are engulfed in an unending arms race for their survival. To sum up, the discourse on international security and defense that focuses so much on arms buildup needs to be realigned with the new realities of the time. South East Asian states should come up as a norm changer by diverting their resources from extensive defense spending to the human resource development. Progress and development in economy, society, science and technology will pay off in much better ways than investment of precious resources in arms race.

Wardah Irum is a post-graduate in International Relations from Quaid-e-Azam University Islambad, Pakistan. Her area of interests include gender and IR, peace and conflict studies and Foreign policy analysis.

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Evolution of Indian Nuclear Doctrine: From NFU to Preemption



India’s obscure nuclear doctrine of ‘No First Use’ (NFU) had evolved over the years since it was first declared in 1999 by NSAB’s (Nuclear Security Advisory Board) in the ‘Draft Nuclear Doctrine’(DND) that forms the very basis of the official Indian nuclear doctrine. Subsequently, in 2003after a review by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) the DND had emerged as India’s official nuclear doctrine. However, the later developments are quite evident that India has shifted its nuclear posture from NFU to preemption. In August 2019, a statement made by Mr. Rajnath Singh (Indian Defence Minister) made headlines amid rising tensions between India and Pakistan, the two arch-rivals in South Asia. This was an assertion of India’s likely shift from its long doubted NFU policy. This has further exposed the pretense of India‘s NFU policy, to which Pakistan has never given any credence. This shift in Indian nuclear doctrine seems to be purely Pakistan centric.  Such an Indian shift is further evidence of India’s focus towards nuclear war-fighting rather than maintaining deterrence. In the wake of the evolved tensions in the region, India’s offensive nuclear posture of preemption would have dire implications for the strategic stability of South Asia.

Over the period, various statements by the Indian government officials and prominent academicians have raised serious concerns over India’s adherence to the NFU policy. In 2010 Shivshankar Menon, the then National Security Advisor of India stated that according to Indian nuclear doctrine NFU policy is meant only for non-nuclear-weapon states. Hence, it implies that using a nuclear weapon could be a resort against nuclear-weapon states, particularly against Pakistan. Later on, in 2016 Manohar Prakar the then Indian Defence Minister questioned “Why do lots of people say that India is for no first use? Why should I blind myself?”  Moreover, in 2017 a prominent Indian scholar, Vipin Narang while speaking at the conference at Carnegie stated that India would not let Pakistan go first.  These assertions are quite evident that in a crisis, India might take a nuclear first strike against Pakistan. Such drifts in Indian policy have further enhanced Pakistan’s threat perception vis-à-vis India. Similarly, Pakistan would be further compelled to maintain a credible nuclear deterrence posture to overcome India’s offensive nuclear posturing.

India’s pursuit of offensive nuclear capabilities further reveals its aspirations of a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Pakistan. This, for instance, is further evident from the fact that India has been involved in developing ground-based and space-based surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence capabilities, and new precision weaponry for the last few years.  These would further embolden India to take any move toward pre-emption or first use. In the same vein, India’s adoption of Pakistan specific policy of first use would likely result in the lowering of the Indian nuclear threshold. This might bring serious implications for Pakistan’s existing nuclear deterrent posture which covers a broad spectrum of threats coming from India including its conventional advantage. It would further generate an unnecessary arms race in the region and might force Pakistan to further revisit its doctrinal and force posture vis-à-vis India’s notions of preemptions. The likelihood of India’s shift towards preemption would also mean that India’s nuclear weapons would be kept in the state of readiness. This would also increase the risk of unauthorized or accidental use of Indian nuclear weapons. Such a scenario would likely create a complex security dilemma for Pakistan, thus undermining the deterrence equilibrium in South Asia, primarily ensured by Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities.

In recent years, India’s massive naval buildup is also aimed at maintaining an offensive sea-based nuclear posture. In this regard, India’s acquisition of SSBNs (nuclear-powered submarines) is quite significant since along with the assurance of second-strike capability, they are also meant to be used to launch a multitude of nuclear weapons. Other than that, India has been maintaining an operational BMD (Ballistic Missile Defence) system; also, it would have the most advanced anti-missile systems like the Russian S-400 in its inventory very soon. Hence, having been assured that it would be protected against any counter-strike by Pakistan by its BMD systems; India might potentially launch a land, sea, or air-based pre-emptive strike against Pakistan. This would create a false sense of security among the Indian decision-makers and they might act aggressively in the time of crisis. Pakistan needs to keep a close eye on India’s shifting nuclear policy to counter the probability of a nuclear first strike initiated by India. Pakistan has already developed MIRV (Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicle) capable short and medium-range ballistic missiles. Apart from that Pakistan has also developed a sea-based delivery system such as Babur-3, a Submarine Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM) which is aimed at ensuring a credible second-strike capability. These would serve as a reliable and credible deterrent against Indian notions of preemption.

Hence, at the present, the assertions of Indian officials to abandon the long doubted NFU policy and a move towards pre-emption is mere irresponsible and belligerent behavior. India in its pursuit to become a regional hegemon would destabilize the already conflict-prone South Asian region by further provoking an arms race. Pakistan needs to further increase international pressure by highlighting India’s aggressive and irresponsible nuclear posturing. The world needs to know that India’s shift from NFU is merely reckless and dangerous. On the other hand, Pakistan also needs to ensure its safety by further enhancing its assured second-strike capability and acquiring advanced BMDs while staying within its existing posture of minimum credible deterrence.

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Afghan Peace Talks And Prospects For Pakistan



On 3 September 2020, the three brave sons of Pakistan, soldier Usman, Naek Imran and Lieutenant Nasir Khalid embraced shahadat during a patrolling in North Waziristan in a terrorist attack. Since US officials and representatives of the Taliban signed a peace agreement on 29 Feb 2020 in Doha to end the conflict, the various affiliated groups of TTP began launching attacks against the security forces of Pakistan. According to the report of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies in August 2020, 12 terrorist attacks were launched in Pakistan. In these terrorist attacks, 14 people lost their lives and 68 people were injured. The terrorist carried out 75 % terrorist attacks against the security forces. These terrorist attacks on the security forces of Pakistan are evident that TTP and its affiliated groups are confident after the peace deal of the Taliban and the USA. It illustrates the scenario of post-US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Following the deal, the US will withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months. Even though the Taliban are negotiating with the USA and Afghan government but fighting is continued in Afghanistan from both sides.

The US withdrawal will create a power vacuum not only in Afghanistan but also in the South Asian region that is likely to be filled by a stronger state or a group. The US withdrawal is creating the same challenges that are similar to the USSR withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1990. After the withdrawal of the USSR, civil war broke out in Afghanistan for the assumption of power. Taliban emerged as victorious after a deadly civil war. Afghanistan is the home of various terrorist groups and their presence is a threat to the South Asian Region once the USA leaves Afghanistan. The US withdrawal will also affect Pakistan.If the Taliban assumed power in Afghanistan then TTP will be strengthened in Pakistan. As soon as the USA making arrangements to leave Afghanistan, various militants groups of Pakistan are uniting. The two militant groups Hizb-ul-Ahrar (HuA) and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar have merged into one terrorist group on 17 August 2020. Both of the groups pledged its affiliation to Mufti Noor Wali as its chief. The leader of Punjabi Taliban Asmatullah Muawiya has joined the Taliban. Once the militant groups are on the same page, the impact will be disastrous for Pakistan as it did not chalk out a comprehensive policy following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Over a decade Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) wants to establish Sharia in Pakistan and for that, it is in confrontation with Islamabad. Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban is considered as the spiritual leader of TTP. Since its inception in 2007, TTP has proved to be the deadliest terrorist group in Pakistan. TTP was an ally of Al-Qaeda to operate from FATA. The group has its presence in Swat and Karachi. The TTP launched massive attacks in Pakistan like the terrorist attack on the General Headquarters of Army (2009) attack on PNS Mehran in Karachi (2011) and an attack on the Army Public School (20140in Peshawar. TTP also using different channels to radicalize youth like Sunnat-e-Khaula to radicalize and recruit females in Pakistan. The TTP and Afghan Taliban worked in partnership in the past and they are interconnected. In the past couple of months, TTP has increased its terrorist attacks against Pakistan.  The JuA took the responsibility of an improvised explosive device (IED) thatwas planted on a bike to hit a vehicle that has killed 7 members of the anti-narcotics force in Chamman, Baluchistan in August. 

The report of the Pak Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS) is evident that since 2019, TTP remained a major source of instability in Pakistan. It carried out 82 terrorist attacks in which 69 attacks were taken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 13 from the province of Baluchistan. It seems that TTP is becoming stronger after living in the shadows for years. According to the UN report approximately 65000 militants of TTP are stationed in Afghanistan. With a merger, it will become a force that cannot be neglected. The merger of various factions of TTP is a threat to CPEC. China has begun the number of development projects like infrastructure and hydroelectric in remote areas of KP.

Currently, Chinese companies are working on Karakoram Highway Phase II,SukiKinari Hydropower Station and the Havelian Dry Port. TTP have kidnapped and killed Chinese from Baluchistan and KP. In 2013, Pakistan banned 3 militant groups that were affiliated to Al-Qaeda namely the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Union and East Turkestan Islamic Movement on the request of China. TTP targets China as a retaliation of mistreating the Uyghur Muslim minority in the province of Xinjiang. In 2014,the leading Al-Qaeda ideologue Mufti Abu Zar al Burmi in a video message that was titled as let’s disturb China stated that the withdrawal of the USA from Afghanistan is a victory for the Taliban. In the video message, he also urged the militant groups to carry out attacks on Chinese companies and embassies and kidnap Chinese nationals. Foreign CPEC is hope for Pakistan to bring investment and embark on the road of peace and prosperity. The reunification of militants can’t be ignored as once they are strengthened they will carry out massive attacks against Pakistan. Therefore, Pakistan needs to chalk out a comprehensive policy to root out terrorism. It’s up to the policymakers to shake hands with militants like the US or take coercive military operations.

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The South Asian Dilemma

Rida Fatima



Setting the Context: Straying Away but Staying Along

The South Asian region holds a highly potent geostrategic quotient covering around a third of the world’s population. Initially, the region was considered an outlier in the international strategic equation. However, this argument does not hold any water after the shift of the pivot to Asia. The advent of the 21st century with its accompanying trends of globalization, IT revolution, and interdependency coupled with the rise of China and India as an economic powerhouse have shifted the center of gravity of international politics to the Indo-Pacific region and South Asia has gained renewed significance.

Despite this potential of geostrategic significance, South Asia has never been truly unified. To add fuel to fire, the internal animosities remain a glaring example and it is a bitter reality that states cannot change their neighbors. Initial efforts were made during the Cold war to chalk out a comprehensive plan of regional integration based on equality and equity among the states within the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).However, the dissent within the organization, the rising role of India, and the Indo-Pak imbroglio has exacerbated the enmities among the member nations.

However, alongside SAARC-led integration, there is a nuanced trend of Indian hegemony which is becoming apparent. The failure of the recent SAARC summit which was to be held in Pakistan indicates the increasing Indian influence on the littoral states of the South Asian region which form India’s periphery. The regional politics is a direct reflection of the extra-regional animosities as well. The Sino-Indian rift has generated new coercive mechanisms to attain political, economic and security ends. And within the region, forces are counterbalancing Indian rise, but the scene remains bleak.

Regional Security through SAARC: A Tri-Dimensional Reform Agenda

Three crucial features transform simple confrontations to open warfare: fear, interest, and honor. The prevailing regional environment suggests that any miscalculation o part of the regional actors can transform the region into a new shelterbelt. In this way, SAARC though apparently moribund can still play a crucial role to solve the conflicts and provide avenues of negotiation within the ambit of the regional organization. It requires robust and prudent revamping by shifting its policy priorities into three separate realms.

This set of compartmentalized reform based on three principles will firstly serve as a base to stop the practice by the larger nations who bypass the SAARC resolution mechanisms while stuck in a conflict with other states. Secondly, it will expand the avenues of interaction and negotiation on part of the member states. This method of internalizing dissent was used in the United Nations after the failure of the League of Nations. The power of veto was introduced in the UN so that the great powers would address their interests within the organization. Though, still flawed the process has halted the bypassing practices in the UN. Within SAARC, the veto cannot be introduced however, a compartmentalized mechanism of integrated decisions can be introduced through a phased change.

Regional Stability through a Hegemon: A Structural Analysis

The rise of India as a South Asian strong player has altered the regional dynamics and the balance of power. Its ambitions are not merely regional but extra regional as it seeks to counter the Chinese geopolitical, economic, and military rise through its ‘project of the century’. This India-led process of regionalism is based upon the idea of hegemonic stability. Where India can serve a leading road for the peace, stability, and security of the region whereas, the other states are considered of secondary significance.

To actualize this idea, the major hurdle is Pakistan, a nuclear power. This structural preponderance through which India seeks to deliver stability in the South Asian region is centered on hierarchy and inequality among the states of South Asia. This structure would work under a system of ‘distribution of goodies. Where India will deliver stability within like Afghanistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Maldives and the states in return pool their sovereign to the Indian state. This structure of stability though highly controversial but has been a predominant feature in international politics as the US till today has served as a hegemon serving international peace through various international monetary and fiscal regimes until the rise of China. This can be classified in two classes of states, on the top tier is the prospective regional hegemon and on the lower tier remain the peripherical underweights as indicated in the figure. 3.

Regional Policy Direction: A Comparative Analysis

To shape the future of the South Asian region, two models suggest the best explanation of the current scenario and provide a view of how, if applied, these models can create benefits to the regional security. However, both models hold substantial loopholes.

SAARC-led IntegrationIndia-led Hegemony
Collaboration leads to peaceEqualityPreponderance begets peaceHierarchy
Modelsof Stability
Horizontal mechanismSystem of low politics Economic, political, and socio-cultural associationVertical mechanismSystem of high politicsPolitico-economic band-wagoning  
Functional spillovers from economic activities to political integration as exemplified by the EU.A context for negotiation among membersHierarchical spillovers where economic benefits will trickle down in the peripheral states of IndiaThe negotiation table will always be tilted in favor of India. And the states might suffer a nuanced South-South divide
The clout of intangible identities Organizational and regulatory complexitiesUnequal rise of power of India The nuclear capacity of two giant neighbors, India, and PakistanUndermines the sovereignty of the other South Asian states Might financially burden India and if it falters, the vacuum might lead to more turbulence, i.e. rise of non-state actors, populist leaders, etc. Pakistan’s challenging role based on nuclear deterrence China’s increasing collaboration with the South Asian players through BRI

These models in the contemporary security situation of South Asia are not acting in isolation or preponderance of one over the other. Rather, these two are working hand in glove in a state of transitive turbulence. India is pulling the strings of SAARC from behind as suggested by the hegemonic theory and SAARC as internalized India’s expansive and hegemonic role, even if in a passive manner. This calls for an alternate reform model to ensure regional peace and harmony. This is possible by revamping SAARC substantially to inculcate a system of interactive governance. 

Rethinking South Asia: A Multi-Faceted Approach

In SAARC, the state-based rifts between India and Pakistan have retarded the integration process. The political rivalry has hindered the inter-regional trade and obstructs the interdependence which can lead to a customs union or a security community. Of the total trade based in South Asia, only 5% of it is intra-regional. Although the percentage is much higher in the EU at around 50% and the ASEAN+3 at 38-45%.In addition to that, the populist rise in the region provides a leadership role in mobilizing bias. Hence, the Pareto-optimal bargaining or agenda-setting is directed away from integration due to the security dilemma. To set aside this prevailing dilemma, there are three prospective ways to revamp the SAARC-led model of integration to substantially increase collaboration, communication, and integration.

Multi-level Governance: It signifies the tangled structure of authority at multiple levels, both horizontally and vertically. It will bring input from the localities and communities within SAARC member states. It will increase the legitimacy and the implementation mechanism of the organization.

Donor-Driven Governance: This approach to SAARC needs investors as in the case of AIIB for CAREC-2030.This will increase the incentive-based working of SAARC. The donor-driven interest will lead to renewed investment and a shift of focus on the benefits offered by SAARC.

Interactive Governance: This mechanism will focus on diagonal dialogue about the various sectors with the member states of SAARC. It will increase the avenues of connection and investment thus revamping interdependency among the member states.

These three mechanisms to revamp SAARC in this phase of transitive turbulence with the rise of Sino-India rivalry on the extra-regional level and the hegemonic rise of India with Pakistan’s rebuttal in the intra-regional dynamics. This is a comprehensive strategy to make sure that the SAARC-member states do not bypass the SAARC platform in their decision making. For that purpose, incentivizing SAARC membership will attract and align the states. This can be aptly done through regional or international donors as this pivot holds the greatest market and the deepest pitfalls if not handled right.


The South Asian region is known for being the hub diversity, but that question is the effective management of that diversity through pluralism and inclusivity. This paper analyzed two modes which can ensure stability in this hotbox. But the challenges of hegemonic stability are too gruesome that the only option is to collectively reform, reshape and strategize SAARC and its functioning. This can do through donor-led investment incentivizing the new modes of governance within the structure of SARRC.

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