The South Asia Nuclear Equation
Image Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

The South Asia Nuclear Equation


For 15 years, since its inception in February 2000, General Khalid Kidwai served as Director General of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division. Now an adviser to Pakistan’s National Command Authority, Kidwai was a speaker at the recent biennial Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference. Offering a glimpse into Pakistan’s strategic thinking, he explained Pakistan’s shift from a strategy of “minimum credible deterrence” to “full spectrum deterrence.” During his talk, Kidwai justified Pakistan’s induction of battlefield nuclear weapons with operational ranges as low as 60 kilometers on the pretext of a non-existent “Cold Start” doctrine.

Kidwai’s remarks have re-opened the debate over South Asia’s nuclear stability. A Stimson Center essay by Jeffrey McCausland has expanded on the dangers of Pakistan incorporating tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). For instance, Pakistan’s Army would have to use this weapon early in any battle, lest the conventionally superior Indian forces intrude deep into Pakistani territory and foreclose on the option of deploying TNWs. Moreover, Pakistan’s forces would have to ensure a concentration of Indian troops in the target area so that the damage inflicted can justify the use of a nuclear weapon. In general, command and control of tactical nuclear weapons can also be tricky in the heat of conventional battle.

Meanwhile, India’s doctrine allows it to retaliate with a massive nuclear strike to inflict unacceptable damage even in response to a “small” nuclear attack. Whether India would elect to exercise this option or not is another matter.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Overall, the deployment of TNWs should aim to save Pakistan from a conventional defeat and prevent further escalation to the level of strategic nuclear weapons. The ability of Pakistan’s TNWs to do either is dubious.

While the TNWs do not tilt, in this writer’s opinion, the scales one way or the other from what was set in 1998, there are other changes afoot in the region that call for greater examination. The re-emergence of the debate, courtesy of Kidwai, offers an occasion to look at these changes. With its growing leverage over Pakistan and Afghanistan, Beijing is likely to displace Washington from the region. Before that, however, let us recapitulate the old debates on nuclear stability in South Asia and the role played by the United States.

Old Debates

The nuclear stability debate after the 1998 tests was divided into two camps: nuclear optimists and nuclear pessimists. The optimists argued that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by both states would stabilize the region simply because any war between the two nations would have catastrophic possibilities. The pessimists, on the other hand, pointed to the organizational problems that might lead to deterrence failure, and concluded that proliferation would have destabilizing effects.

Sumit Ganguly and S. Paul Kapur, though on opposite sides of the divide, extricated this debate from the vague theoretical premonitions and placed it in the more realistic contemporary regional framework of South Asia. Ganguly, an optimist, believes that post nuclearization conflicts between India and Pakistan erupted because of regional tiffs and not as a consequence of nuclearization. Further, he believes that these conflicts did not escalate, thanks to the potential deterrence effects of nuclear war.

Kapur meanwhile chastises the earlier nuclear pessimists for conceding the deterrence effects of nuclear weapons to the optimists and restricting their arguments to organizational problems. He reformulates his position as one of “strategic pessimism.” While accommodating the realities of South Asia, Kapur further nuances the debate by introducing a distinction between revisionist and status-quo powers. A territorially dissatisfied power, if conventionally weaker than its adversary, will employ destabilizing tactics under the nuclear umbrella. The threat of nuclear weapons deters the conventionally stronger adversary from using its full might and thus will protect the revisionist power from large-scale conventional defeat. Moreover, the introduction of nuclear weapons internationalizes any minor dispute between the two countries, thus guaranteeing a settlement better than that which the weaker power could have negotiated on its own.

The U.S. Role

The role played by the U.S. to contain the possibilities of nuclear exchange in South Asia has been glorified or belittled, depending on which account you read. The nuclear optimists, as believers in the deterrence capabilities of nuclear arsenal, do not credit the U.S. for dousing all flames in nuclearized South Asia. The pessimists credit everything but nuclear weapons for de-escalation.

Nawaz Sharif’s meeting with Bill Clinton on July 4, 1999 is often cited as the reason for Pakistan’s withdrawal from the Kargil War. Ganguly disagrees. He points out that the Tiger Hill – one of the strategic points captured by the invaders – was evacuated by India “a good ten hours before” the meeting between Sharif and Clinton. The pessimists hit back with a narrative of the roles played by Robert Gates, then America’s deputy national security advisor, during the 1990 crisis;  and later by Colin Powell, the U.S. secretary of State, and Richard Armitage, his deputy, during the 2002 standoff.

According to an interview Robert Gates gave to Seymour M. Hersh (one of the world’s best-known investigative journalists), Gates told Pakistan’s Army Chief General Mirza Aslam Beg that the U.S. had war-gamed every conceivable scenario between Pakistan and India, and there wasn’t a single way Pakistan could win. The American Ambassador Robert B. Oakley recalled Gates warning Beg to not expect any help from the U.S. in the event of war. Gates’ “mission” apparently cooled temperatures on both sides. The American also offered satellite reconnaissance data to reassure leaders about the withdrawal happening on both sides.

Following the launch of Operation Parakram by India in the aftermath of the terror attack on Indian parliament in December 2001, one million troops were facing each other across the the Line of Control and the international border. Colin Powell visited New Delhi after a stopover in Islamabad and assured India of Musharraf’s intention to crack down on terrorism. The fragility of the gains was exposed by a terrorist attack that killed 32 at the Indian army camp at Kaluchak in Jammu. Before the outraged Indians could initiate an assault, Richard Armitage extracted a promise from Musharraf to end infiltration “permanently.”

Christine C. Fair, an astute scholar who specializes in South Asia, has tabulated the Correlates of War (COW) Militarized Interstate Disputes (MID) data, concluding that the rate of conflict between India and Pakistan increased as the nuclear level of Pakistan proceeded from “Nonnuclear period” through “Incipient nuclear period” to “De facto nuclear period” and full-fledged post-test “Nuclear period.”

For two of those four periods – incipient nuclear period and nuclear period – the U.S. provided considerable military and economic aid to Pakistan, leading Fair to conclude that U.S. support may have emboldened Pakistan further to pursue its revisionist agenda.

China’s Role: Past, Present and Future

Pakistan’s route to nuclear weapons could have been much more onerous if not for Chinese support. China sought to tie India into perennial conflict with its western neighbor thus stymieing India’s ability and desire to pursue a greater role in Asia.

The recent visit of Xi Jinping to Pakistan opened the floodgates, with China pledging $46 billion dollars to Pakistan’s infrastructure and energy development. The deal envisions a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that runs from Gwadar Port in Baluchistan to Kashgar in Xinjiang. Gwadar is crucial to China’s “One Belt, One Road” program, as it is the point where the belt and the road meet. The CPEC will greatly shorten the route for energy imports into China. Gwadar provides China with an alternative to the Strait of Malacca, which can be choked by India.

Pakistan has since its birth steadfastly defined winning in terms of Kashmir and Afghanistan, legacies of “Two-Nation theory” and British colonialism. Thanks to China’s accommodation of Pakistan in the former’s One Belt, One Road initiative, the latter is realizing the benefits of regional connectivity. CPEC is expected to link East Asia to South Asia, Central Asia and Middle East, facilitating trade and investment across the continent. Chinese investment will diversify Pakistan’s economic options and create constituencies that will a) not remain fixated on the eastern border and b) seek peace that will enable them to harness the dividends of new opportunities. This development is likely to reduce the probability of nuclear belligerence from Rawalpindi.

As China supplants U.S. as Pakistan’s primary ally and gradually increases its profile in Afghanistan, it understands its responsibility to monitor the potential for a nuclear exchange in South Asia. As a seeker of global leadership, China is prepared to demonstrate its regional leadership credentials. Beijing, as a result, is likely to adopt a more neutral stance between India and Pakistan. It has been increasingly wary of taking Pakistan’s side in the dispute over Kashmir and the India-Pakistan wars. In a sign of changing realities, Chinese officials have shown interest in civil nuclear cooperation with India.

While the incipient factors seem encouraging, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The next time, whenever it is, India and Pakistan come close to a conflict with nuclear clouds overhead, the role of China will be much more important than it has been in the past. And that role will be studied by scholars in great detail.

Kunal Singh is an Editor at He is also a Research Associate at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi. He tweets at @kunaldrajput.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief