Michael KreponNuclear Competition, Asian Style

There has been no shortage of remembrances and lessons learned from the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. It’s easy to forget – unless your country codes are 86 and 91 – that this is also the 50th anniversary of the war between China and India. The United States and the Soviet Union managed to avoid direct combat. Instead, as Raymond Aron observed, crises became the substitute for direct clashes. Ditto for proxy wars. In Asia, nuclear competitors have fought wars, in addition to resorting to proxy wars and going eyeball to eyeball. The loser in these Asian wars has decided to acquire the Bomb and its means of delivery.

The lessons learned from the Cold War nuclear competition remain extremely relevant to Asia, but they have only partial application because the rules are somewhat different. For example:

  • The weight classes aren’t so obvious. The two heavyweights – China and India – have placed economic growth as their top national security objective. They are modernizing their deterrents, but at a much slower pace than the heavyweights during the Cold War. Pakistan and the DPRK, on the other hand, are fighting above their weight class with respect to nuclear weapons and their means of delivery.
  • In the Cold War competition, weapons that could destroy civilizations had a moderating effect, but not right away (queue up the “We will bury you” and “paper tiger” slides). While the Bomb’s moderating effects did not apply to internal affairs, which remained brutal in Communist states, the Bomb eventually helped to tone down belligerent foreign policies. This may also become true in Asia, but it’s too soon to tell. In the meantime, the DPRK continues to win awards for evocative expressions of paranoid endangerment and threat-mongering. The other regional outlier, Pakistan, cannot gain front-door entry into the club of responsible states that possess nuclear weapons because of the onward proliferation abetted by Pakistani nationals, and because wild men within national borders remain jokers in the deck of strategic stability. Joining the CTBT and the accepting FMCT negotiations could change Pakistan’s outlier status but, at present, these moves are not in the cards.
  • In the Cold War, hierarchy was clearly evident and structure could be reaffirmed by means of treaties. In Asia, hierarchy is not so clear (see point one), and the triangular competition among China, India and Pakistan does not lend itself to structural affirmation. If deterrence stability can be maintained in Asia, it is likely to occur through trade and economic interdependencies – something wholly lacking between the United States and the Soviet Union — as well as through norm building, tacit arrangements, and nuclear risk-reduction measures that have Western lineage, suitably adapted to Asia.
  • During the Cold War, extremists groups entered the picture minimally (think of the Baader-Meinhof gang and their escapade against a base in West Germany where tactical nuclear weapons were stored). The situation is starkly different in the subcontinent, where violent, extremist groups can spark confrontations and make the Baader-Meinhof gang look like unruly college students.
  • During the Cold War, spying was a critical source of nuclear know-how. In the Asian nuclear competition, spying has taken a back seat to buying, swapping, reverse engineering, and networking.
  • During the Cold War, the two most intense competitors agreed to collaborate in order to prevent proliferation. No tacit agreements of this kind exist or are reliable in Asia. China helped Pakistan compete with India, Pakistanis have helped others to acquire nuclear capabilities, and have been helped in turn, by the DPRK. The DPRK has little else to trade or sell.

The worst crises between the nuclear heavyweights during the Cold War occurred in the first ten to fifteen years of acquiring offsetting deterrent capabilities. India and Pakistan have also experienced intense crises over this timeline. In the U.S.-Soviet competition, arrangements to reduce nuclear dangers became possible after severe crises and mutual recognition of the status quo in each other’s backyards. In contrast, borders in southern Asia and on the Korean peninsula are far from settled.


  1. Peacemaker (History)

    In contrast, borders in southern Asia and on the Korean peninsula are far from settled….
    That’s why settling the border disputes according to UN resolutions can provide the basis for credible arms control measures and attainment of disarmament ideals.
    Probably the hugely impoverished people of the subcontinent may realise their true potentials.

  2. 3.1415 (History)

    I know that NFU is a dirty three letter word for many, but that is arguably the most valuable contribution that China and India brought to the table. Would the heavyweights stop drinking and talk about real responsibilties to mankind?

    • archjr (History)


      I agree entirely. Short of direct negotiations on numbers, not in the offing most everywhere, unilateral declarations make sense. After all, so far as we know, no-first-use is already policy, or heading in that direction, in most nuclear weapons states (DPRK? who knows?).

      I opposed no-first-use for the US in the early 80’s, for obvious reasons I will be happy to explain. Now, the ground has shifted for the better. One can only hope.

  3. Anjaan (History)

    1. India competing with Pakistan is already a thing of the past, although Pakistan is India-centric in its very ideology and existence

    2. India is not competing with China because (a) India realizes, it is not in a position to compete with China, nor is it prudent to have an adversarial relation with a neighbor with thousands years of history (b) India realizes that China is emerging as a viable and credible super power that can one day alter the current global order established by the Anglo-American powers to suit their needs.

    3. It is in India’s long term interest (a) not to hinder China’s rise (b) to support Russian Defence R&D to make sure an alternative to western Defence Tech is always available off the shelf.

  4. George William Herbert (History)

    I believe the India / China competition wound down because both evolved to the point that a tiny territorial spat over glaciers is irrelevant to their paths forwards.

    That said – the Chinese / Japanese relationship is wound up right now because of a tiny territorial spat over a square km of island, though the seabottom mineral rights that go with the island are the most likely actual point of pain in the issue.

    • HL (History)

      The “spat over glaciers” is not the only point of territorial contention between India and China, however. Both countries have had longstanding claims over the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh (in India’s northeast).

      More importantly, any discussion of India and China cannot occur without mentioning the significance of Pakistan. Beijing has provided significant economic and military assistance (including advanced missile technology) to Islamabad/Rawalpindi. This nexus remains a thorn in the side for the India-China relationship and is one that is not going away anytime soon.

      That said, this relationship is not a tinderbox. The prospect of one developing depends on China’s and India’s future courses of action. What will happen? I do not know.

  5. William deB. Mills (History)

    Continuing this valuable line of argument about how the lessons of superpower nuclear competition apply to current nuclear proliferation issues, even without going beyond Asia, Iranian-Saudi nuclear nervousness and Iranian-Israeli nuclear threats complicate the analysis. One distinction between the two cases is that arguably neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia is actually trying to build a bomb, so it (arguably) remains a case of “Don’t make me do it, because I can if you do.” The blatant Israeli effort to use its reportedly massive nuclear arsenal to intimidate non-nuclear Iran constitutes a different class of deterrence: nuclear deterrence is normally thought of as deterrence against another nuclear power. When a nuclear power attempts to use nuclear weapons to deter a weaker, non-nuclear adversary, the message is ambiguous: the weaker party is likely to be stimulated to gain security rather than deterred from attacking. The permutations of how nuclear arms and ambiguity can be used both for deterrence and intimidation are becoming dangerously numerous, which is exactly why the line of thinking in your essay is so important to pursue.

    On this anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, the cold black and white TV images of which still haunt me from my childhood, we might advise not only our own officials but the policy-makers of India, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, and North Korea to consider the near misses of that crisis. Nuclear deterrence as a long-term tool may have some justification, but playing nuclear games for tactical advantage is bad tactics: it is not quite rational to risk so much for so little. Under the cognitive pressures of a crisis, nuclear threats are likely to provoke bad decision-making. If the edge of the nuclear abyss is not sufficiently visible when examining the Cuban missile crisis, one only need look at the near-nuclear-war between India and Pakistan…or, for that matter, the anti-Iranian nuclear rhetoric (“red lines,” “all options”) that pours from the mouths of certain (with some extremely important exceptions like Mossad’s Moshe Dagan) Israeli and U.S. politicians.

    Perhaps a better use of red lines would be to define a new set of restraints under international law for all policy-makers. Examples might include prohibitions against nuclear (or WMD) threats vs. non-nuclear states (to give states some incentive to forego the bomb), against cruising a nuclear-capable submarine under water off the coast of a non-nuclear state, and against preventive war in the absence of a clear and present danger. Hmmm, I wonder how one might define “clear and present”?

    • Moe_DeLaun (History)

      Serious response:
      Beginning some kind of diplomatic discussion on what common set of behaviors are tolerable and what are not, would be an excellent start. I think the intersection in the middle of the Venn diagram that represents the sum of all nations’ nuclear fears is small but real.

      Sunday-morning response: Ah, the Great Convention!

  6. anon2 (History)

    I like the Gangnam style pun!

    Note, that I would hope ignorant people would stop making fun of Kim Jong Un, as before the spoof Kim Gangnam video I would imagine that an ex-Swiss prep student and his new wife would find it pretty engaging — more so than Disney characters. Reaching out to Kim Jong Un is the “last best chance for peace” with the South, to paraphrase Babylon 5. Why antagonize him?

  7. Peter (History)

    I find the complete absence of a discussion of Japan’s nuclear weapon proto-capability…interesting.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Japan’s technical base corresponds with a threshold capability (the first world nations are all mostly there…). No attempt to hide that by anyone who pays attention.

      Like the rest of the first world, IAEA cooperation and confidence building has been good and there are no signs around the edges of attempts to weaponize.

      They could weaponize in low years to perhalps months from a standing start if they had to, but that’s just technical reality.

      We could also add Australia, South Korea, Myanmar to the Asia discussion, but again no clear sign they are currently doing anything active.

    • rwendland (History)

      Though Japan’s decision to develop a solid-fuel rocket with initial 2-stage launches of “500 kilograms or less” is unfortunate. Now called the Epsilon, first launch slated for 2013. Simple launch control using two laptops is fairly unsubtle.

      In a diagram in the paper below they even show the first stage arriving at the pad on a TEL like vehicle (called “Generic wheels”) – somewhat unfortunate. To be fair, an external crane lifts it into position, and the 2nd stage has to be craned on top.


      “A minimized facility concept of the Advanced Solid Rocket launch operation”

      More recent info: