The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Nuke hotline to clear cross-currents

New Delhi, June 19: India and Pakistan are likely to revive the hotline between their foreign secretaries for “fail-safe and secure communications” to avoid misuse or accidental deployment of nuclear weapons by either side.

The proposal came today when the neighbours began their first talks on nuclear confidence-building measures (CBMs). After the talks end tomorrow, a joint statement is likely to be issued.

A move is also on to formalise the agreement on prior notification to each other before test-firing ballistic missiles. A memorandum of understanding already exists on this but attempts are now being made to formalise this arrangement along with some other measures.

Both sides felt that the MoU, which was part of the Lahore Declaration of February 1999, was a “good document” to build on. They also tried to identify areas of commonality, which would help them co-ordinate their positions at multilateral fora.

At present, there is a hotline between the directors-general of military operation of the two countries. It is activated once a week. But both sides felt the need to upgrade the communication links — at least to the foreign-secretary level — to ensure that a wrong perception does not start a nuclear war between the neighbours.

A hotline between the foreign secretaries did exist earlier, but the system installed nearly a decade ago was discontinued after a brief period. So was the hotline between the two Prime Ministers that existed during the time of I.K. Gujral and Nawaz Sharif.

Today’s meeting was the second official engagement between the two sides since the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance came to power in Delhi. The discussions on combating drug smuggling in Islamabad early this week was the first meeting between the two since the change of regime in India.

The nuclear talks are significant not only because they are part of the overall dialogue to normalise relations but also because they signal that the neighbours are trying to evolve a mechanism to reduce the risk of accidental nuclear conflict between them.

“The talks were held in a cordial and constructive atmosphere. Both sides approached the talks in a positive framework, aimed at taking the process forward and making them result-oriented,” an “agreed” statement issued by the two sides said.

It pointed out that the two sides identified areas of convergence, including in the context of multilateral fora, and exchanged views on security concepts and nuclear doctrines and “agreed to elaborate and work towards CBMs”.

The Pakistani delegation was led by additional secretary in the foreign ministry Tariq Osman Hyder. Sheel Kant Sharma, additional secretary in the external affairs ministry here, headed the Indian team. Both sides had a number of senior officials from the foreign ministry and their defence establishments.

Later in the day, the Pakistani delegation called on foreign minister Natwar Singh and national security adviser J.. Dixit to brief them on the progress of the talks. They also held a brief meeting with foreign secretary Shashank.

The approach of the Indian side to the talks was without any preconceived notions. South Block officials had made it clear that the Indian delegation’s main aim was to dispel any misconception that the visitors might have about Delhi’s intentions.

The Indian team explained its nuclear doctrine and spoke in support of its no-first-use stand. The visitors, on their part, argued that Pakistan, which is clearly behind India in terms of firepower for conventional warfare, gained confidence after the May 1998 tit-for-tat nuclear tests.

A proposal for a no-war pact between the neighbours was also put forward by the Pakistani side. But it was not pushed with any seriousness and only mentioned in support of Islamabad’s argument to have some security in the face of a possible attack by India.

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