Michael KreponNuclear-Armed Rivalry in Southern Asia

Note to readers: A slightly different version of this essay appeared in the Stimson Center’s on-line magazine, South Asian Voices, the premier global platform for talented analysts to exchange views on this region’s pressing issues without invective or pat talking points.

Quotes of the week:

“The essence of a free government consists in an effectual control of rivalries.” – John Adams

“Emulation is not rivalry. Emulation is the child of ambition; rivalry is the unlovable daughter of envy.” – Honoré de Balzac

The state of nuclear danger in Southern Asia, as elsewhere, depends fundamentally on the state of political relations between rivals. Rivals can and do cooperate as well as compete with each other. When rivalry far outruns cooperation, trouble lies ahead.

In an oversimplified way, we can measure the degree of competition and cooperation along two axes. One axis measures the steps taken to strengthen nuclear deterrence. The very essence of nuclear deterrence is threatening because weapons that do not threaten do not deter. Deterrence is typically strengthened in ways that make threats of use more credible. The more credible threats become, the steeper this axis of nuclear danger rises.

The second axis measures steps taken to provide reassurance that leaders are not inclined to use their most threatening weapons. Reassurance requires effective diplomacy which, in turn, requires a willingness to either resolve differences or at least to hold them in abeyance. Leaders can signal reassurance by agreeing to guardrails and stabilization measures for their most threatening weapons. We call these steps confidence-building and nuclear risk-reduction measures. Arms racing ends when measures that signal diplomatic reassurance override growth in nuclear danger along the first axis.

Deterrence alone doesn’t make nuclear-armed rivals safer because nuclear deterrence is based on credible threats and because these threats generate counter-measures. Nonetheless, rivals continue to compete, either in search of advantage or to avoid disadvantage.

The threat of escalation is inherent in nuclear deterrence since threats that do not convey the potential for greater violence cease to deter. Herein lies an insoluble problem for nuclear deterrence strategists. How can escalation be controlled when it is premised on seeking advantage?

To resolve this conundrum, deterrence strategists must rely on truly heroic assumptions. One assumption is that nuclear-armed rivals can signal each other effectively because they have sufficient information and are on the same page. Another assumption is that command and control remains intact and that there will be no panic and unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. A third assumption, most heroic of all, is that the disadvantaged side will accept loss without resorting to spasm attacks that seek to destroy cities that are the repositories of world history.

These are the unspoken and mostly unexamined assumptions behind the deterrence constructs of escalation control and escalation dominance. These are the rationales behind the fielding of counterforce capabilities that target opposing nuclear capabilities.

These intellectual constructs can collapse like a house of cards after first use. After first use, nuclear-armed rivals may not be on the same page. Even if a rival chooses escalation control instead of escalation dominance, this targeting strategy has to be backed up by the threat of further escalation.  And then what?

This systemic problem applies to all nuclear-armed rivals, but is even more pronounced on the subcontinent because one of the rivals — India — has declared a policy of massive retaliation in the event of first use by Pakistan. This declaration is meant to deter, but if deterrence fails, this nuclear posture skews decisions toward a cataclysmic outcome whether or not this declaratory doctrine is a ruse. After first use, massive retaliation looses its deterrent value, becoming instead an existential threat to both rivals. India’s embrace of massive retaliation is as dangerous as Pakistan’s embrace of first use.

The intellectual constructs of escalation control, escalation dominance, and massive retaliation work on the printed page and in war plans but are likely to fail catastrophically once the nuclear threshold is crossed and retaliation begins. Once nuclear deterrence dies, escalation takes over.

Nuclear deterrence strategists can’t help themselves: they will continue to plan on the use of additional warheads on additional targets. They will continue to seek advantage and seek to avoid disadvantage. National leaders have a higher calling. They are obliged to protect their populations and their cultural and religious contributions to civilization.

With this in mind, let’s look at the first axis on our notional graph – the axis that tracks deterrence strengthening measures. China, India and Pakistan are building out force structure. Triads are taking shape. New types of ballistic and cruise missiles are being developed, flight tested, and fielded. India and Pakistan are growing their stocks of fissile material suitable for bomb making. All three states appear to be substantially increasing their inventories of nuclear weapons.

Two of the three – China and India – are moving smartly forward to employ their own assets in space that can be employed for nuclear as well as conventional warfare. Pakistan is likely to rely on commercial observation satellites and China for these purposes. Missile defense capabilities face a host of problems, and yet India is deploying them, much to Pakistan’s discomfort. New technologies in the form of stealthy cruise missiles and hypervelocity glide vehicles will challenge missile defenses even more, making vulnerabilities even greater.

More could be said, but there is no need for further elaboration. There is ample evidence that the trend line of deterrence strengthening measures is growing steadily in Southern Asia. As capabilities grow, war-fighting aspects of nuclear deterrence become more pronounced, even though two of the three states – China and India — have publicly stated doctrines of no first use.

Now let’s turn to the second axis – that of reassurance measures. One form of reassurance is unilateral restraint. This works for Great Britain and France, but unilateral restraint is a very rare commodity for nuclear-armed rivals. Other forms of reassurance can be implied or formal, tacit or explicit, modest or ambitious. The most formal and ambitious elements of reassurance are embodied in treaties.

Washington and Moscow have accomplished much by way of treaties in part because they accepted roughly equivalent capabilities. Essential equivalence is harder to imagine or to accept in bilateral accords between India and Pakistan or between India and China. A numbers-based, bilateral India-Pakistan or India-China treaty requires not only rough equality or an acceptable hierarchy but also acceptable and effective monitoring arrangements. These are significant hurdles. Trilateral China-India-Pakistan accords also seem very unlikely, since India would be outnumbered and since triangular nuclear competitions are prone to instability.

Other treaty-based avenues to stabilize the triangular competition in Southern Asia also face long odds. Multilateral diplomacy on a fissile material cut-off treaty is moribund. India and Pakistan have not signed or ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; China has signed but not ratified. The United States could prompt a cascade of stabilizing ratifications, but this seems a tall order in the Biden administration, given the partisan divide on Capitol Hill.

As formal compacts remain in limbo, diplomatic reassurance could still be pursued in the form of tacit agreements as well as confidence-building and nuclear risk-reduction measures. Here, too, the situation is troubling. Meaningful exchanges on these means of reassurance between India and Pakistan effectively ended over a decade ago. They never got started between China and India on nuclear-related issues.

To make matters worse, there is no evident effort to employ diplomacy to turn down the heat along contested borders. To the contrary, risk taking is more evident along both the Line of Control dividing Kashmir and the Line of Actual Control between India and China.

Lines of communication to discuss national concepts of security and deterrence are not as strong as they used to be in Track II forums as well as between governmental experts. Insular thinking on these matters is always a danger and never a strength.

Strongmen rule in New Delhi and Beijing. They have the standing to lessen tensions along their contested border in lasting ways, but Beijing seems to be disinterested in doing so at present. There is every expectation that lulls in border clashes will be temporary, to be resumed in warmer weather as infrastructure improvements proceed on both sides.

Pakistan has a weak government and is unlikely to make overtures to improve relations with India as long as Kashmir remains in lockdown. Pakistan’s attempts to call attention to human rights abuses there are clearly warranted, but are weakened by its awkward silence over the fate of the Uighurs in China.

As Pakistan’s ties with China and India’s ties with the United States deepen, so, too, does the standoff along the Line of Control. This situation, like that within Muslim majority Kashmir, is inherently unstable and prone to flare ups. New Delhi seems disinterested to improve ties with Pakistan and remains intent on doing better in the next border clash than in the previous one.

The two axes that measure nuclear danger in Southern Asia paint a troubling picture. Diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan and between China and India are in bad shape. Danger is rising along with deterrence capabilities with little apparent prospect for new measures of diplomatic reassurance. In all likelihood, there will be new clashes along both contested borders.

The outcome of past crises, border clashes, and limited wars between nuclear-armed rivals has depended primarily on conventional forces in being and that can be brought to bear quickly as tensions mount. Nuclear use doctrines and plans offer no help to improve outcomes when these crises arise; they point instead to a great abyss.

There have been signs that Pakistan’s military has internalized this truth, despite its public fealty to a nuclear doctrine of first use. Much is riding on this supposition. The leaders of India and China appear to have internalized the non-utility of first use, even as they increase their options for retaliatory use.

The absence of guardrails and stabilization measures between India and Pakistan and between China and India is a matter of legitimate and pressing concern. Nuclear rivals — not just in Southern Asia, but elsewhere, as well – have lost sight of the requirements for responsible possession of nuclear weapons. They have focused on measures to strengthen deterrence while neglecting diplomacy and placing a low priority on negotiating essential guardrails and stabilization measures.

Because deterrence dies with first use, the most essential responsibility for those who possess nuclear weapons is not to use them in warfare. The stigma attached to nuclear testing reaffirms the norm of non-use. Diplomacy can be resurrected atop these norms, which are the fundamental building blocks for other measures of reassurance.

As numbers grow, norms become even more important. At a time when political relations are sour and diplomacy is dormant in Southern Asia, extending the 75-year-long norm of non-battlefield use and the norm against testing, now over two decades long, are absolutely central.


  1. Adil (History)

    Michael, Agree that extending the norm of non-battlefield use of NWs is important, but due to conventional asymmetry between India and Pakistan where one side is trying to explore space for a limited conventional war under a nuclear overhang, extending this norm could provide incentive to start a military conflict, which could lead to breakdown of deterrence, and if deterrence breaks down escalation will take over.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Always good to hear from you, Adil.Hope you and family are well.
      I totally understand why Pakistan has a first use nuclear posture. But it doesn’t do you any good if you have to exercise it.

  2. John Hallam (History)

    In the event that ‘first use’ takes place in S. Asia, it will inevitably be followed by a massive response from India. Given that Pakistan has in fact significantly more warheads than India, there will be a yet more massive counter-response from Pakistan – even as it ceases to exist as a coherent society. By that time both countries will cease to exist as coherent entities, and all my many Indian friends will perish.

  3. Michael Krepon (History)

    Nothing is inevitable when it comes to nuclear weapons.
    Your parents might well have expected nuclear war in their lifetimes.

    • John Hallam (History)

      Indeed they did. Alas! Now, so do I, or I wouldn’t bother being convenor of the Abolition 2000 working group on nuclear risk, getting a general assembly resolution on operational readiness, or generally, spending my life thinking about and talking about the potential end of the world.

      Ypu are of course quite right – nothing is inevitable. If I thought it was inevitable I’d either retreat to a zen monastery or throw myself from the harbour bridge.

      However for some reason, the contemplation of an India-Pak nuclear war is especially distressing, though not at all inevitable.

  4. Manpreet Sethi (History)

    Thanks Michael for a well written piece that draws attentions to the dangers of the region and the challenges that offer no easy solutions. Am surprised that you consider India’s doctrine of massive retaliation as problematic as first use! MR, i thought, is a deterrence doctrine that deters first use by promising worst case results. Would u rather that India has flexible response or proportionate response doctrine? Would that not increase chances of breakdown of deterrence?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Thank you for all your fine writing.
      I understand why India has adopted a declaratory policy of massive retaliation, but I find it equally as problematic — and unhelpful — as Pakistan’s adoption of a declaratory policy of first use.
      Massive retaliation is either not credible or a recipe for making the subcontinent a smoking, radioactive ruin in the event of first use by Pakistan. Would an Indian leader really respond with massive retaliation to a five kiloton “demonstration shot” — a singular warning when a Pakistani red line appears threatened?
      As you know, the US briefly declared a posture of massive retaliation in the Eisenhower administration and quickly thought better of it. For Washington facing a well-armed Soviet Union, the threat of massive retaliation failed the test of credibility. Pakistan is now well-armed, hence the credibility issue.
      In search of greater credibility, the United States then embraced flexible response and counterforce compulsions, as you say. I doubt that India would come close to emulating the United States in this regard, but I acknowledge it’s a potential problem if New Delhi moves away from massive retaliation. And Rawalpindi would most probably find further reason to add more weapons and delivery vehicles to its arsenal. This compulsion will continue in any event until the Army’s leadership concludes that effective deterrence rests on conventional capabilities and not weapons that haven’t been used on battlefields for 75 years.
      What matters above all is no use. On this we are in complete agreement. No use overrides declaratory policy. No use means no escalation, massive or otherwise.
      Nuclear doctrines of first use and massive retaliation are both unhelpful, in my view, to the objective of no use. Thy both have, in quite different ways, credibility issues, and they both point in the direction of severe escalation if the nuclear threshold is crossed.
      Pakistan will continue to embrace first use even though first use would be ruinous for Pakistan. India has more options than Pakistan. India can move away from massive retaliation to something more credible and less spring-loaded. But doing so would further accelerate negative trend lines on the subcontinent unless accompanied by stabilization measures.
      Like you, I don’t see first use as an issue between India and China.
      Best wishes,

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