Nuclear triangle

Published March 3, 2015
The writer is co-founder of the Stimson Centre in Washington.
The writer is co-founder of the Stimson Centre in Washington.

A SERIOUS nuclear competition between two nuclear-armed rivals is very hard to stabilise. When one rival increases its nuclear capability, the other does, too. Then both rivals feel less secure — even when they possess secure retaliatory capabilities. It’s even harder to stabilise a triangular nuclear competition, as is the case with China, India and Pakistan. A two- or three-sided competition can only be stabilised when disputes are resolved or set aside, trade increases, and rivals tacitly agree to restrain their nuclear capabilities.

Stabilisation requires roughly balanced strategic modernisation programmes, conventional capabilities and national trajectories. These conditions are absent. Pakistan measures its strategic requirements against India, while India measures against both its nuclear-armed neighbours. India will compete with China whatever Pakistan does. This triangle is imbalanced and unstable.

The Cold War triangle of the US, the Soviet Union and China was also unstable. Moscow and Beijing colluded at first, and then became bitter rivals. Once Beijing acquired a minimal deterrent, it dropped out of the nuclear competition, focusing instead on domestic and economic priorities. Today’s triangular competition among the US, China and Russia is also unstable. Russia is helping China to compete, even though Moscow understands that Beijing will pose as much of a strategic concern in the future as the US.

Triangular competitions are never static. China and Pakistan are becoming closer, while Washington gravitates towards New Delhi. The Chinese and Indian legs of the triangle are growing taller, but unevenly. Pakistan’s leg is shrinking despite the growth of its nuclear arsenal, because of weak social and economic indicators. Border disputes, ongoing nuclear modernisation programmes, disparate conventional military capabilities, and violent extremist groups make this triangle particularly unstable. Stabilisation, if it occurs, will result from tending to domestic and economic concerns, increasing direct trade, avoiding crises, and resolving or shelving territorial disputes.


Deterrence stability may prove elusive in Asia.


If domestic political compulsions do not permit the resolution of border disputes, the most promising way to stabilise a triangular competition is through direct trade and tacit agreements. The most important tacit agreement available to China and India would be to end aggressive patrolling along their disputed border. For India and Pakistan it would be to refrain from inserting or supporting violent extremists in Kashmir and Balochistan.

Tacit agreements not to play with fire in these disaffected regions would still not reduce the risk of conflict if violent extremists based in Pakistan attack iconic Indian targets outside Kashmir. To guard against this possibility, the intel cooperation between India and Pakistan — agreed in principle but poorly implemented in practice — could help defuse nuclear-tinged crises and military clashes.

Tacit agreements are also possible with respect to nuclear weapon-related programmes. All three states are on course to increase their nuclear arsenals. Over the next decade, China and India could decide to place more than one warhead atop a single missile and to field ballistic missile defences.

These capabilities will be hard and expensive for Pakistan to acquire. Increases in det­errence instability will grow proportionately with the extent to which Beijing and New Delhi decide to embrace multiple warhead missiles and missile defences. Improved missile accuracies and multiple warheads could lead to increased targeting lists that take on a war-fighting character.

A tacit agreement between Beijing and New Delhi not to field missile defences, or to deploy them only for narrow purposes, could serve useful purposes. Tacit agreements to forego nuclear war-fighting cap­­abilities and to adhere to well-established, non-offensive nuclear postures could also dampen deterrence instability amidst strategic modernisation programmes.

China and India have ample resources for the growth of their nuclear capabilities. Pakis­tan does not. The wisest choice of the weakest competitor, as the Soviet Union and China demonstrated during the Cold War, is not to engage in a nuclear competition. Still, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal will continue to grow because of prior investment decisions. Even so, Pakistan will fall further and further behind in a nuclear competition with an India that is more inclined to compete.

However many nuclear weapons Pakistan has, deterrence stability will be elusive unless Pakistan and India improve relations. China and India have a modicum of deterrence stability, despite their growing arsenals, improved conventional capabilities and economic dynamism because they have set aside their territorial dispute while increasing direct trade and investment. With two strong, risk-taking leaders, they might even be able to address their border dispute.

In contrast, there is little evidence that India and Pakistan will try to resolve the Kashmir dispute, or that spoilers would accept the result. Absent a Pakistani strategy to adopt Beijing’s approach towards New Delhi, India and Pakistan will face conditions of significant deterrence instability.

The writer is co-founder of the Stimson Centre in Washington.

Published in Dawn March 3rd , 2015

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