ISLAMABAD — South Asia's nuclear neighbors, India and Pakistan, tentatively agreed Tuesday to renew an agreement that aims to reduce the risk of an accidental nuclear war.
After two days of confidence-building talks in the Pakistani capital — the first such talks in four years — diplomats from both nations said they'd recommend that their governments extend a pact that requires the countries to give prior notice of impending strategic weapon activity, such as ballistic missile tests, according to a statement by Pakistan's Foreign Affairs Ministry.
While there was no major agreement, the talks signaled an effort by the two neighbors and rivals to rebuild relations after a November 2008 attack by Pakistani terrorists on India's commercial capital of Mumbai. India had suspended peace talks with Pakistan after the three-day assault by the Lashkar-i-Taiba terrorist group, which left 164 people dead.
Talks resumed after the prime ministers of the two nations — which have fought each other in three wars — held several exploratory meetings on the sidelines of international events.
In fact, the usually tense India-Pakistan rivalry appears to have warmed slightly in recent months, with an agreement in November to lift most restrictions on bilateral trade and Pakistani entertainers making inroads into India's huge film industry.
That's coincided with the emergence of a new main threat in the eyes of the Pakistani public: the United States, whose forces killed 25 Pakistani soldiers in a "friendly fire" incident in November along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. Pakistanis are furious that the U.S. hasn't apologized for the incident, which a Pentagon investigation blamed last week on poor coordination between U.S. and Pakistani forces but concluded was initiated by Pakistani border troops.
India and Pakistan conducted tit-for-tat nuclear weapons tests in May 1998. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a leading global watchdog on arms proliferation, estimates that Pakistan possesses 90 to 100 warheads, while India is thought to have 60 to 80.
At the meeting in Islamabad, Indian and Pakistani officials also agreed to consider broadening the pact to add other measures, such as requiring advance notice of cruise missile tests, which are currently excluded. Both countries have conducted cruise missile tests this year.
Pakistan officially adopted a "first strike" posture in 2000, citing the overwhelming superiority of India's conventional forces. Islamabad is thought to have developed a number of "red lines" that, if tripped, would trigger the launch of Pakistan's largely ballistic missile-based nuclear arsenal at Indian strategic, military and economic targets.
Although never publicly declared, the red lines are thought to include an Indian attack on Pakistan's nuclear installations or the capture of a major Pakistani city.
India has adopted a no-first-strike posture based on its far stronger military and a wider potential field of nuclear conflict that focuses on China, Pakistan's key ally. China and India are strategic rivals, and they fought a brief border war in 1962.
India has made rapid advances this year in its ballistic missile program and is preparing to test in February the Agni-V, a missile with a range of about 3,400 miles that Indian defense analysts have dubbed the "China-killer."
Indian and Pakistani officials on Monday reviewed existing confidence-building measures between their armed forces, notably the five-year cease-fire along their disputed border in the Himalayan state of Kashmir.
Pakistan proposed that both sides withdraw their long-range artillery guns to positions at least 19 miles from the border to help reduce casualties in the case of a skirmish. The distance is equivalent to the approximate maximum firing range of artillery guns.
India will respond to that proposal at the next round of talks, whose date hasn't been set.
The talks were held against the backdrop of a conventional arms race between Pakistan and India, which over the last five years has become the world's largest weapons importer in a bid to reflect its emergence as a global economic power. India is expected in early 2012 to award a $10 billion contract for a new fleet of cutting-edge air force jets.
It's shortlisted the Rafale, made by France's Dassault Aviation, and the Typhoon, built by the Eurofighter consortium, for the order. Competing bids by two American firms, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, were rejected earlier this year.
Pakistan has responded by jointly developing the JF-17 Thunder warplane with China, which made the unusual concession of allowing the plane to be built exclusively in Pakistan.
(Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more coverage visit McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan page.