Strategic Space

Nuclear Deterrence and Stability in South Asia: The Inadequacies of a Regional Lens

12 Jul, 2021    ·   5775

Dr Manpreet Sethi argues that nuclear deterrence and stability in South Asia cannot be perceived through a sub-regional lens alone, given that lack of dialogue, risks of misperceptions, and unregulated technological advancements afflict all nuclear dyads

Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Distinguished Fellow at CAPS

A recent report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London, on how to stabilise the nuclear situation in South Asia, adds to a long list of offerings by well-meaning strategic analysts and think-tanks from around the world. Nuclear Deterrence and Stability in South Asia: Perceptions and Realities assesses the extent to which India and Pakistan may be “at risk from imprudent or mistaken use of nuclear weapons.” It finds “grave deficiencies and asymmetries in India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear doctrines, which are compounded by mutual disbelief, existing and emerging military capabilities, and the prolonged absence of related dialogue mechanisms.” This, it cautions, could heighten risks of miscalculation, misperception, and misjudgement in crisis.

This conclusion evokes a sense of prognostication for region-watchers. Dubbed ‘the most dangerous flashpoint on Earth’ many moons ago, the fear that India and Pakistan could end up ‘nuking’ each other, owing to their unresolved territorial disputes and a history of wars, has often been expressed.

Pakistan fuels the sense of nuclear fragility by playing up the imminence of nuclear conflagration. The risk of nuclear escalation is meant to stymie India’s conventional superiority. The assumption is that the international community would ‘counsel’ India against escalating a ‘situation’ created by Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism. Deterrence instability, thus, is used by Pakistan as a shield for its use of terror.

Is the situation as unstable as Pakistan likes to project and others take at face value? The IISS publication that claims to sift reality from perception was expected to dig deep. However, while it has well-assessed reality by collating facts on military assets, bilateral nuclear confidence-building measures (CBMs), and major statements on nuclear issues, on perceptions, it falls prey to the hackneyed narrative on instability in the region.

The authors of the report, all of whom have considerable experience as South Asia watchers, identify emerging technologies, doctrinal asymmetries, and political developments as drivers exacerbating Indo-Pak instability. These factors, however, are neither new, nor unique to this relationship. All adversarial nuclear dyads experience them. India and Pakistan are not oblivious to the attendant risks either, having carefully observed US-USSR/Russia nuclear dynamics over seven decades, possessed own nuclear weapons for 23 years now, and survived many crises.

The report expresses concern—naturally so—on the escalatory potential of every Indo-Pak crisis. However, the worries seem to reflect the immediate nuclear cacophony that Pakistan creates around such events to deter an Indian response. Unfortunately, the report does not take into account the unspoken comprehension of the role and risks of nuclear weapons which has been evident in both countries’ crisis behaviour. Therefore, to conclude that de-escalation of the February 2019 crisis was only a matter of “chance” may be premature, since the inside story, including of back channels or external players, is not known in the public domain. Nor would it be fair to the leadership of both sides to believe that they were unmindful of escalation risks, despite the crisis rhetoric.

Those worried about deterrence instability in South Asia could help by focussing not just on a particular crisis and its possible escalation, but its causes and their mitigation. It is no secret that Pakistan-sponsored terrorism poses risks to the region and beyond. Western states and international institutions like the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) have demanded action and imposed punitive measures. Think-tanks like IISS, too, could help the cause of deterrence stability through analysis that underscores the differences in levels of responsibility shown by India and Pakistan in their nuclear behaviour, doctrines, and capability choices.

Also, by opting for a purist India-Pakistan focus, the authors choose to omit other issues. In fact, they themselves identify some such issues: “trends and crises involving nuclear weapons in other regions; past and present proliferation crises and their effects on the region; the details of crisis-escalation dynamics before nuclear use occurs; China’s role in shaping the India-Pakistan nuclear relationship; global nuclear diplo­macy….” However, they don’t examine them, which leaves the picture incomplete.

Two examples illustrate this. One, the report mentions China, but only in the context of India’s security concerns with its growing capabilities. It ignores the six-decade old China-Pakistan strategic nexus. The authors acknowledge that India has a two-front challenge, but they perceive India’s capability build-up imperative only from the prism of Pakistan, thereby divorcing India-China nuclear dynamics from India-Pakistan. By looking at these relations as separate compartments rather than as a chain, many of their recommendations for bilateral India-Pakistan CBMs and arms control appear untenable. However well-intentioned, they are unfortunately undoable without fresh ideas on how to count China in, since it cannot be counted out.

Second, the report disregards the impact of global nuclear developments on the region. For instance, doctrinal drifts towards ‘limited nuclear war’ in Washington and ‘escalate to de-escalate strategies’ in Moscow tend to popularise tactical nuclear weapons. Such trends encourage Pakistan to flaunt similar capability despite its risks, particularly so in a country that houses scores of terrorist organisations. The report worries about the high “odds of deterrence failure in South Asia,” but it overlooks global developments that are adding to this risk.

Interestingly, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which maintains time on a doomsday clock to depict the state of global stability, uses a more wide-angle lens. In 2021, it put the world at 100 seconds to midnight, or the apocalypse. Factors considered for this assessment include the prevailing permissive nuclear environment created by great power competition, strategies encouraging usability of nuclear weapons, a shaky arms control architecture, and increased risk of proliferation.

Deterrence instability is today a global concern. Lack of dialogue, risks of misperceptions, and unregulated technological advancements afflict all nuclear dyads. In fact, many of the 15 thoughtful recommendations offered by the report can be used by any of these. Some can even be picked up for the Strategic Stability Dialogue that has just been announced after the summit between Presidents Biden and Putin. A resultant change in the global nuclear mood would be good for deterrence stability everywhere.

Dr Manpreet Sethi is Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi.