As new peace talks approach, Nawaz Sharif's government eyes a "very comprehensive proposal" with India on easing atomic-arms tensions, says a senior Pakistani official.
A fresh bid by Islamabad to reduce bilateral nuclear stockpiles or the risk of their use could add an unexpected dimension to the high-level diplomacy slated to begin Aug. 25, when the Indian foreign secretary meets with her counterpart in the Pakistani capital.
"We have [a] very comprehensive proposal that we have given to India, to establish an understanding on the strategic -- meaning the non-conventional -- as well as on the conventional weapons," the senior Pakistani figure told reporters late last week while in Washington for talks with U.S. officials. "We are very proactive on this."
Yet, prospects for the idea -- if it emerges formally from the heightened engagement -- already are being met with considerable skepticism among issue experts.
Pakistan has been rapidly expanding its ability to produce nuclear warheads and delivery systems in an effort to offset Delhi's superior conventional capabilities, particularly since the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks that killed 166 people and deeply embittered relations between the neighboring rivals.
Beginning a decade ago, Pakistan at times has suggested that the two sides engage in a "strategic restraint regime," aimed at capping their nuclear and missile race. It would depend, though, on Islamabad convincing Delhi to agree to cutbacks in its conventional forces.
As things stand, India is seen as uninterested in conventional military reductions. Its concerns are mounting about China's military modernization and emergence as Asia's dominant security player, amid Delhi's own broader aspirations as a regional and global power.
"No one expects that to happen," Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center, said regarding the possibility of Delhi trimming its conventional combat capabilities in any deal with Islamabad.
"Pakistan's diplomacy tries to place the onus on India as it ramps up its [own] fissile material production and [plutonium] reprocessing capabilities," he said in a Wednesday phone interview.
Sharif, who took office in June 2013, agreed to deepen bilateral ties during a meeting with Narendra Modi, a day after the Indian prime minister's May inauguration.
The upcoming talks between the two foreign secretaries, Pakistan's Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry and India's Sujatha Singh, are expected to focus mainly on opening trade relations.
Still, the senior Pakistani official visiting Washington -- who spoke on condition of anonymity to address security and diplomatic issues -- insisted that the initiative could include a nuclear-arms dimension, as well.
During a prior term as prime minister, Sharif in May 1998 floated the idea of bilateral nuclear disarmament, the senior official noted. At the time, India had just conducted two underground nuclear tests; Islamabad test-fired its own nuclear device later that month.
Today Pakistan is estimated to maintain roughly 100 to 120 atomic warheads, and India's nuclear arsenal is believed to number between 90 and 110, according to Hans Kristensen, who directs the Federation of American Scientists' Nuclear Information Project.
Concerns are that any renewal of conventional conflict between India and Pakistan might quickly spiral out of control with an exchange of nuclear weapons.
The Pakistani official last week said initial diplomatic steps in an effort to help quell ongoing border tensions could be to "resurrect the composite dialogue process that had been there for many years till it was suspended, or we could think of another mechanism."
"A discussion of tactical weapons and replenishment of stocks of older missiles will probably come up," Shuja Nawaz, director of the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center, said in response to emailed questions. "A potential source of progress might be retirement of older missiles by both sides. That may help reduce overall numbers."
However, he said, he does "not expect any breakthrough proposals."
Sumit Ganguly, an Indiana University political science professor and Indian cultures scholar, said he doubts that any new confidence-building initiatives "in the nuclear arena will be put forward."
"These discussions represent an attempt to renew past talks that had stalled" following the Mumbai attacks, he said. "At best they will reaffirm existing accords and may agree on such measures on pre-launch warnings of missile tests and the like."
The senior Pakistani official acknowledged that any progress on the nuclear-arms front -- though desired by Sharif -- likely could not proceed quickly.
"You don't want to rush it," the official told reporters last Thursday. "That the foreign secretary is coming to Islamabad, that's a good sign. We have to move slowly, gradually."
"Managing the bilateral nuclear rivalry is of low priority to both sides -- since both Islamabad and New Delhi have their hands full with other domestic problems," said Ashley Tellis, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace expert on Asian strategic issues. "To the degree that any particular issues have priority, trade, terrorism, visa relaxation, and ensuring tranquility along the Line of Control are likely to dominate the discussion."
Sharif and Modi each "face a huge challenge from entrenched interests at home: the military in Pakistan and the bureaucracy in India," Nawaz said. But, he added, "they both have an opportunity to show their leadership by being bold and bringing along civil society and businesses to bolster their efforts at creating détente, followed by entente."
Whether there is room in that effort for boldness in nuclear-arms cuts or risk reduction, as well, has yet to be seen.
"This is a covering device," Krepon said of the senior Pakistani official's remarks. "It suggests extraordinarily open-minded diplomacy as the nuclear capabilities grow steadily.
"So it's a solemn dance," he said. "I don't see any evidence as yet that Pakistan is dialing back on its nuclear weapon-related programs."