Flashpoints | Security | East Asia | South Asia

Triangles of Instability: Nuclear Dilemmas and How They Feed into Each Other

Two overlapping triangular nuclear relationships could compound risks and complicate deterrence calculi for all the parties involved.

Abhijnan Rej
Triangles of Instability: Nuclear Dilemmas and How They Feed into Each Other

India’s nuclear-capable Agni III missile in the Republic Day Parade, New Delhi, on January 26, 2008.

Credit: Flickr/Public.Resource.Org

The Pentagon’s recently published report on China’s military capabilities highlights American concerns about the country’s growing nuclear arsenal and delivery systems, at a time when key nuclear dyads are adopting increasingly competitive postures. That there has been considerable churn in the India-China relationship over the past few months is evident. The Trump Administration has also insisted that Beijing participate in a three-way New START arms control talks along with Moscow — the U.S.-Russia New START Treaty is set to expire early next year — though it appears to have eased back on that demand more recently. Along with growing speculation about India’s nuclear capabilities and strategic intent vis-à-vis Pakistan, these independent developments highlight the complex interlocking problems linking five out of the nine (de jure or de facto) nuclear powers.

At hand is what is emerging to be two overlapping triangular relationships, with China as the common node: India-Pakistan-China and China-U.S.-Russia. To be sure, Robert Einhorn and W.P.S. Sidhu have argued in the past that when it came to nuclear risks, India, Pakistan, China, and the United States formed a single “strategic chain,” with the posture of each affecting the others and with few restraint measures between them in place. But the recent spike in strategic competition within the two triangular relationships — including at the levels of conventional weapons and emerging technologies — add an additional layer of complications.

The India-Pakistan-China nuclear dynamics are old, so much so that scholars speak of a “Southern Asia” strategic space involving all three powers’ geopolitical preferences, nuclear postures and capabilities. China’s support for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program has a long history. Some have claimed that China tested a nuclear weapon on Pakistan’s behalf in 1990, a full eight years before Pakistan (and India) openly declared themselves nuclear powers by carrying out tests in 1998. But at the very least, China has consistently provided technical help for Pakistan’s nuclear program.

For its own part, India’s nuclear-weapons capabilities increasingly emphasize contingencies with regard to both. The country’s Agni V ICBM is reported to be capable of holding all of China’s eastern coast at risk. As Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda noted in their most recent update on India’s nuclear forces, “[w]hile India’s primary deterrence relationship is with Pakistan, its nuclear modernization indicates that it is putting increased emphasis on its future strategic relationship with China.” India’s dogged though somewhat haphazard pursuit of a sea-based nuclear deterrent shows a keen awareness in ensuring a credible second-strike option when it comes to China.

But as Yogesh Joshi has argued, India’s quest for deterrence stability with China — the ability to have a secure second-strike option against that country — has created crisis instability with Pakistan, where Islamabad/Rawalpindi worries that the INS Arihant, India’s sole nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), will be used for a first strike against Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in a crisis. Such a belief is likely to generate a “use it or lose it” pressure for Pakistan in a contingency involving India. Repeated Indian statements chipping away at India’s official No First Use (NFU) policy haven’t helped matters.

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Add to this already complex three-way dynamic the possibility that India may face a two-front conventional military threat from China and Pakistan — either with both colluding, or with one taking advantage of the other’s military action to open a new front against India. The question here is the extent to which either nuclear threats from India or an Indian tactical nuclear-weapons capability can forestall that possibility or, in the event of a conventional deterrence failure, generate favorable outcomes. Analysts have argued that the India-China conventional balance across the Line of Actual Control between the two countries is not unfavorable to India and therefore, the country should take a lead in promoting nuclear restraint globally.

India is unlikely to take part in any such initiative as long as China seeks to augment its nuclear capabilities, if not in the number of warheads per se, then through pursuit of technologies such as Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs) or even conventional Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGV). China is currently pursuing both as countermeasures for Washington’s ballistic missile defense (BMD) plans. (While not originally intended as such, MIRVs are considered “effective countermeasures” for BMD systems.) But China’s pursuit of such technologies also stands to complicate India’s belief in the survivability of its own second-strike ability — especially if it fails to increase the size of its SSBN fleet in the near future.

One recurring theme in the debate around the future of India’s nuclear weapons has been the extent to which it may move — or already has — from the official NFU posture to one in which it decides to use nuclear (or even conventional) missiles to attack the adversary’s nuclear weapons first. Some analysts have argued — though not all are convinced — that India is already contemplating such a shift, and that, as part of a “counterforce” strategy, India might use the Russian defensive S-400 system to pick off “residual” incoming Pakistani nuclear missiles following a first Indian strike that takes out most (though not all) of them. India has decided to go ahead with the purchase of the S-400 system despite repeated U.S. statements noting that the purchase could attract sanctions or, at the very least, limit further U.S.-India defense cooperation. Notably, Russia has also sold the S-400 system to China, though it reportedly halted important related deliveries and installation last month, which would render the system inoperable for China.

But it is the Russian deployment of a ground-launched cruise missile that sealed the fate of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The Trump administration formally announced its withdrawal from the INF in August last year. That, in turn, paves the way for the American deployment of ground-launched intermediate range missiles in Asia. This is a worry for Beijing notwithstanding the fact that South Korea and Japan — the farthest the missiles can be stationed by the U.S. to target China — are both likely to be unwilling to host these systems. But Beijing’s reaction to this development may lead it to consider countermeasures to enhance the survivability of its nuclear assets. This in turn could lead India to push for new capabilities of its own. (On September 7, India tested a “Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle,” the fourth country to successfully do so.) At the very least, China may think India’s pursuit of certain nuclear capabilities is action taken in tandem with the U.S.

You get the picture.