Strategic Space

US, China and the South Asian Nuclear Construct

17 Feb, 2014    ·   4311

Dr Manpreet Sethi suggests that attempts to understand the Indo-Pak nuclear deterrence equation through the narrow geographical confines of South Asia are meaningless

Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Senior Fellow at CAPS
Most Western writings/conferences on India-Pakistan nuclear deterrence tend to try and understand this dyad in a narrow regional box of South Asia. This is not only stifling and restricting but also not a useful formulation. Rather, the India-Pakistan nuclear entanglement has roots beyond this geographical construct since no consideration of this relationship is meaningful without bringing China into the picture. China, however, brings along its own set of strategic equations with Russia and the US, thereby making the nuclear issue global.

The reason that the Indo-Pak nuclear entanglement cannot be divorced from China is because Beijing impinges on the region in two ways. The first one pertains to the close relationship that China has had with its all-weather friend, Pakistan. It was with generous Chinese help that Pakistan built its nuclear weapons. The transfer of 50 kg highly enriched uranium, weapon designs, providing delivery vectors, including the setting up of a missile factory, are well known facts today. To quote Gary Milhollin, an American non-proliferation expert, “If you subtract China’s help from Pakistan’s nuclear programme, there is no nuclear programme.” Having created a nuclear weapons state, China uses it effectively as a proxy to complicate India’s security.

The second shadow is cast by China’s ongoing nuclear modernization. While China is doing so with its eyes on US capabilities and their impact on its own nuclear deterrence, India suffers the downstream effect of these developments. Indian responses, in turn, have an impact across its western border. Therefore, strategic deterrence and stability in the 21st century has to be considered in a more global construct. No current dyadic nuclear relationship has the luxury of bipolar equation of the Cold War. Rather, regional deterrence is complicated by the inevitability of each nation’s response to its threat perceptions in a sort of a chain reaction, oblivious to, or perhaps unable to address the fact that its own responses have further implications.

One good illustration of this is the ongoing march of ballistic missile defence (BMD). The US set the tone for this by abandoning the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in 1972 and expressing a resolve to pursue defence along with deterrence to deal with a range of new threats that could not be deterred and hence had to be defended against. As the US has steadily gone about developing and deploying requisite capabilities over the last decade or so, it has repeatedly tried to reassure Russia and China that its BMD is not meant to upset strategic stability with them. But, that is not how Moscow and Beijing read American intentions. Fearing the worst, both are engaged in developing their own hedging strategies, which include building their own BMD, as well as counter-measures, to address their threat perceptions as emerging from the US BMD.

Chinese efforts in this direction, in turn, raise threat perceptions in India. Even though India harbours a sense of nuclear stability with China owing to a consonance in their nuclear doctrines and the fact that neither brandishes the weapon as a war-fighting tool for easy or early use, and also because neither country is interested in digressing from the trajectory of economic growth and development, there is no denying the existence of a long-term threat perception. This is exacerbated by China’s conventional and nuclear build-up, given that territorial disputes persist between India and China. The possibility of a BMD-protected China subjecting India to nuclear coercion compels India to develop necessary responses of its own. India has demonstrated a limited BMD capability, which, in turn, has raised concerns in Pakistan, who has responded with increasing its own nuclear arsenal and demonstrating a desire to develop tactical nuclear weapons.

So, what started in Washington as the pursuit of the BMD to meet changed American threat perceptions has ended up providing the logic and justification for Pakistan to increase its arsenal. Pakistan’s fast growing stockpile, however, has implications not just for regional but international security. Existential risks from nuclear weapons – that of unauthorised launch, miscalculation, accident – are dangers that accompany nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, the US and USSR, and by extension, the rest of the world, lived with these dangers. But these risks are exacerbated when a country that has nuclear weapons also cohabits with non-state actors – some that it nurtures to meet its foreign policy objectives and others that have slipped beyond its control. In either case, the possibility of a meeting between terrorism and nuclear weapons/material is not a sanguine development. 

Unfortunately, as Pakistan moves further down the road towards tactical nuclear weapons and delegates command and control to maintain a credible first use nuclear doctrine, the existential risks can only increase. This is a matter of global, not just South Asian concern. Therefore, attempts to understand/constrain/resolve the Indo-Pak nuclear deterrence equation through the narrow geographical confines of South Asia are meaningless.