The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

First, India got the bomb. In response, Pakistan, with China’s help, got the bomb. We now have a game of nuclear chicken but neither side has gone to war with one another.

On May 28, 1998, Pakistan marked a historic milestone by testing five nuclear devices in response to India’s nuclear tests earlier that month. Celebrated annually as Youm-e-Takbir, or the “day of greatness,” this event signifies Pakistan’s scientific achievements and strategic resilience. It underscores the critical role of nuclear weapons in maintaining a regional balance of power with India, its archrival. Incidentally, that is the same rationale India has for being a nuclear-armed state.

To appreciate Youm-e-Takbir, one must understand the historical context that compelled Pakistan to develop a nuclear weapons program. The origins of this decision can be traced back to geopolitical tensions and conflicts with India, particularly over Kashmir.

The seeds of discord were sown during the 1946 general elections in Kashmir, where the Muslim Conference, favoring an independent Muslim state, came to power. Despite the British plan in 1947, which envisioned Kashmir as part of the new Muslim-majority nation of Pakistan, India, and Pakistan soon engaged in their first war over the region. This conflict ended with a United Nations resolution calling for a plebiscite in Kashmir—a resolution India has refused to implement.

The situation escalated in 1965 when Indian troops crossed the international border into Pakistan, attempting to capture Lahore. Despite superior numbers, India suffered defeat, leading to a stalemate. This war, coupled with the loss of East Pakistan in 1971’s Bangladesh Liberation War, exacerbated Pakistan’s sense of insecurity.

In the face of such existential threats, Pakistan’s leadership saw the need for a robust deterrent. In 1964, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto famously declared at the UN that Pakistan would develop a nuclear bomb if India did. This resolve was tested in 1974 when India conducted its first nuclear test, code-named “Smiling Buddha.” Bhutto’s response was unequivocal: “We will make the bomb even if we have to eat grass.”

Whatever domestic capabilities Pakistan had regarding a nuclear weapons program; China was instrumental in helping Pakistan build the bomb. The Heritage Foundation writes, “Since the 1970s, China has been instrumental in Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs. China provided Pakistan with highly enriched uranium, ring magnets necessary for processing the uranium, and education for nuclear engineers. Pakistan’s nuclear bomb is widely believed to be based on Chinese blueprints.”

The realization of this goal became imperative in the wake of India’s Pokhran-II tests on May 11, 1998. With tensions escalating, Pakistan had little choice but to respond decisively. On May 28, 1998, despite immense international pressure, Pakistan conducted its nuclear tests in the Chagai district of Balochistan. Those tests established Pakistan as a nuclear power, joining the elite nuclear club of the United States, Russia, France, China, the United Kingdom, India, and Israel.

The nuclear programs of both Pakistan and India play significant roles in the regional security dynamics of South Asia. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) 2018 report, India is the world’s largest arms importer, with a sophisticated arsenal that includes tactical weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and an anti-ballistic missile system.

India’s pursuit of regional power status and its military advancements have contributed to a complex security environment. This situation has prompted Pakistan to maintain and develop its nuclear capabilities as a countermeasure. Despite efforts by Pakistan to promote arms control—such as proposals for a nuclear-weapon-free zone in South Asia and a strategic restraint regime—these initiatives have not been universally adopted.

Pakistan has taken significant steps to establish itself as a responsible nuclear state. The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) 2020 report highlights Pakistan’s comprehensive national nuclear security regime, which adheres to international standards and safety protocols. These measures underscore Pakistan’s commitment to maintaining stringent control over its nuclear arsenal.

Conversely, India has faced several challenges in its nuclear security landscape. Incidents such as the unauthorized seizure of over 7 kg of natural uranium raise concerns about nuclear material safety. Additionally, accidents involving military equipment, like the explosion aboard the INS Sindhurakshak, a Russian-made diesel-powered submarine in 2013, underscore the risks associated with India’s nuclear capabilities.

As Pakistan marks the anniversary of its nuclear tests, it reaffirms its commitment to peace, stability, and the responsible management of its nuclear arsenal. Continuous advancements in nuclear technology further highlight Pakistan’s role in maintaining strategic balance in South Asia.

Sehr Rushmeen, an Islamabad based freelance researcher, completed her MPhil from National Defence University (NDU) in Strategic Studies and her BSc from University of London (UOL) in International Relations. Her areas of interest include nuclear security, artificial intelligence in warfare, South China Sea and South Asian Politics.