Avoiding a Nuclear Chain Reaction in Asia
The new multi-axis nuclear landscape and global strategic restraint are under stress.
The Pentagon's recent report on China's expanding nuclear arsenal highlights growing American concerns about the changing global nuclear landscape. Against the backdrop of increasing Chinese aggression against India, worsening U.S.-China ties, and a longstanding India-Pakistan rivalry, a series of interlocking contests involving multiple nuclear actors has emerged—presenting the United States with a much more challenging nuclear equation than it faced during the Cold War.
Given their interlocking and overlapping character, each of these competitions playing out has strategic significance and a bearing on stability in the Indo-Pacific. China, propelled by U.S. nuclear advancements and ballistic missile defense measures, is on track to field more than 1,000 operational nuclear warheads by 2030, much faster than previously projected. (By way of comparison, the New START Treaty limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed warheads.) India, in turn, is looking at China's modernization efforts and investing in its own nuclear forces, reportedly building pre-emptive systems to target the nuclear arsenals of its rivals, diversifying its missile arsenal, and increasing the survivability of its nuclear forces through a triad of sea, air, and land-based platforms. Meanwhile, Pakistan remains determined to maintain nuclear parity with India, adopting a strategy of “full spectrum deterrence” in line with a first-use nuclear doctrine that calls for the use of nuclear weapons even in small-scale or localized conventional conflicts with its long-time rival.
This multi-axis nuclear chain militates against strategic restraint. In the absence of self-imposed Chinese restraint, India will be reluctant to independently restrict its nuclear programs or participate in bilateral arms control arrangements with China or Pakistan. It’s equally improbable that Islamabad will curtail its own nuclear initiatives given the significant strategic asymmetry and history of conflict between it and New Delhi.
Furthermore, unless the United States limits capabilities that concern China (like the alleged militarization of its China strategy), Beijing will resist attempts to constrain its own effort to seek nuclear parity with the United States. What’s more, India, China, Pakistan, and the United States all maintain different policies regarding the first use of nuclear weapons, meaning each country maintains its arsenals at different alert levels, force postures, and force levels. Nor does the nuclear chain end with these four players. It also links to Russia and North Korea, both of whom have elevated the emphasis on nuclear forces in their strategic outlooks. In fact, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine demonstrates the possibilities of escalation and a reversal of disarmament commitments. Then there’s the heightened risk of non-proliferation by threshold non-nuclear weapons states such as Iran, as well as the dangerous precedent set by Russia capturing and attacking civilian nuclear power plants during its war against Ukraine.
A Tense Strategic Environment
Based on fieldwork carried out in India and Pakistan in 2014, I argued that small but significant shifts in Indian and Pakistani strategic thinking pointed to the possibility of a limited conventional war under a nuclear threshold. This argument went against the grain of Cold War logic, but the strategic calculations and choices facing both India and Pakistan remain fundamentally distinct from those of the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. My research allowed me to see firsthand that some strategic thinkers in New Delhi and Islamabad believed there was space for a short and sharp but ultimately limited conflict below the nuclear threshold.
Pakistani terrorist attacks against India led New Delhi to discard its defensive military approach and adopt a new doctrine known as “Proactive Military Operations” or “Cold Start.” The failure of India’s coercive diplomacy following the attack on its parliament in December 2001 and its lack of military response after the Mumbai attacks in November 2008 have haunted Indian policymakers for two main reasons. First, India's failure to respond to such overt aggression made the government appear weak in the eyes of its people. Second, India's inaction bolstered Pakistan's confidence that its nuclear deterrent prevented India from taking military action and reinforced Islamabad’s belief that it could take aggressive actions without punishment.
As a result, the Indian political leadership believed it had to demonstrate that it would act when violence is committed against its people, either covertly or overtly. The Cold Start concept sought to enable the Indian military to mobilize rapidly, conduct multiple shallow operations into Pakistan, and seize Pakistani territory as leverage. These offensives would aim to attain specific objectives without provoking Pakistani nuclear retaliation and before international pressure halted India's military actions. This approach would explicitly demonstrate India's political resolve to engage in military actions against Pakistan despite Pakistan's nuclear threats. New Delhi would no longer remain passive in the face of egregious acts of violence, even at the potential cost of escalation.
For its part, the Pakistani military establishment observed the strategic environment tilting in India’s favor and aimed to close the space for limited conflict. The architect of Pakistan's nuclear strategy, General Khalid Kidwai of the Strategic Plans Division, subsequently introduced short-range tactical nuclear weapons and argued that they were essential to neutralize India's capacity to conduct limited wars. Kidwai emphasized this imperative within Pakistan's military circles, attributing it to India's increasing conventional military dominance and ongoing efforts to modernize its military in line with its new doctrine. Furthermore, a former Pakistani foreign secretary revealed that Islamabad has plans to use tactical nuclear weapons to forestall Indian military operations under New Delhi’s Cold Start doctrine.
As New Delhi took steps to shift its military doctrine, it simultaneously implemented changes to give political leaders options for targeted retaliatory strikes. New Delhi’s decision to launch limited special forces operations and targeted air strikes aimed at terrorist camps inside Pakistan in 2016 and 2019 demonstrated its determination to change the rules of the game and undermine the Pakistani nuclear deterrent that has served as a shield for its state sponsorship of terrorism. Despite the risk of escalation, New Delhi’s strategic calculus now seeks to raise the cost to Pakistan when it employs terrorism against India, in effect calling Islamabad’s nuclear bluff. From New Delhi’s perspective, moreover, any use of nuclear weapons would face massive retaliation in line with India’s nuclear doctrine—labelling nuclear weapons as “tactical” or “strategic” makes no difference.
India’s targeted military strikes against terrorist targets in Pakistan also had one main secondary objective: to deter a potential dual conventional military threat from China and Pakistan. This wider strategic context became evident when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attacked Indian forces in June 2020; the Galwan Valley clash saw 20 Indian soldiers killed. Seeking to bolster deterrence against Beijing, New Delhi deployed nearly 70,000 soldiers along with heavy weaponry and air assets, including drones, to maintain the status quo along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. Nonetheless, the situation on the LAC remains far from settled. Despite multiple rounds of de-escalation talks, the PLA continues to encroach into Indian-controlled territory, resulting in violent confrontations.
Fragile Stability and Escalation Risks
These armed clashes are not exceptions to an otherwise tranquil strategic environment but signal one characterized by increasingly fragile stability and significant potential for escalation amidst greater space for limited conflict. Unlike the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, China, Pakistan, and India are more likely to resort to force to protect or advance their strategic interests despite the possibility of a nuclear exchange. For New Delhi, protecting the status quo is paramount, and as India’s economic and military power has grown so has its political willingness to challenge the aggression of its nuclear-armed neighbors. Similarly, China’s increasing assertiveness is a function of its political boldness, national prestige, the development of a more capable military to field a spectrum of missions, and the competition for primacy in East and Southeast Asia. Pakistan’s declining political influence and geostrategic significance mean little to India, which must live with a nuclear-armed revisionist neighbor that has made terrorism a principal instrument of statecraft.
Against the backdrop of such a charged environment, restraint is an elusive prospect for these nuclear-armed states. It is not surprising that the costs of deterrence will keep rising along the multi-axis nuclear chain.
Implications for U.S. Policy
America’s own nuclear modernization program is not taking place in a political or strategic vacuum. There’s no guarantee that U.S. self-restraint would convince China, India, Pakistan, or other nations to do the same either in the nuclear or conventional realms. Similarly, there’s no assurance that self-imposed restrictions by Beijing or New Delhi will not be exploited by Washington or Islamabad. Given the interlocking connections, there is no real way to tame the multilateral nuclear competition as long as broader strategic considerations remain unaddressed. This is troubling for nuclear non-proliferation efforts, but it is entirely predictable.
Still, some options can lower the temperature by moving strategic competition away from the military and nuclear arenas. The economist and strategist Thomas C. Schelling coined the term “the diplomacy of violence” to emphasize that the power to harm serves as a form of bargaining power and exploiting it serves as a form of diplomacy. Today, it’s important to ensure that America’s China policy does not rely too heavily on military strategies. This does not mean the U.S. should restrain its military modernization or change its general Indo-Pacific strategy, but it does mean that an exclusive focus on defense could come at the cost of other options.
While India recognizes China as a strategic challenge and bolsters its conventional and nuclear deterrent capabilities, New Delhi aims to manage its competition with Beijing as they are permanent neighbors. The reality of geography compels them to co-exist, compete, and advance their strategic interests in each other’s spheres of influence beyond the military realm. Due to Islamabad's enduring perception of India as a permanent enemy, this sort of managed competition remains missing from the India-Pakistan relationship. Pakistan’s image of India as an enemy and its revisionist agenda privileges military competition and makes it difficult to improve relations.
Rather than fall into the trap of prioritizing military competition, the U.S. should adopt a multifaceted strategy that combines economic, military, and diplomatic elements to counter China effectively. In many ways, the U.S. is already pursuing this broader strategy, as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken outlined in the phrase “invest, align, compete” to manage the complex U.S.-China relationship. To that end, the United States should work more vigorously to navigate tensions with Beijing and avoid unnecessary escalation, proactively raise concerns regarding Chinese lending to developing countries while participating in Chinese-created institutions like Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and harness America’s own technological advantage to challenge Chinese censorship.
This approach integrates economic, diplomatic, and asymmetric measures with military ones to produce a strategy that decreases the risk of a nuclear chain reaction without sacrificing American interests.
Nishank Motwani is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute and an Edward B. Mason Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School. He holds a PhD in strategic and security studies from the Australian Defence Force Academy, University of New South Wales.