Southern Asia: A unique nuclear triangle

Brahma Chellaney

Politics and Strategy: The Survival Editors’ Blog

In the two decades since I published an essay in Survival on South Asian nuclearization, one of my conclusions has been proven right, but another wrong. The South Asian nuclear genie remains uncontrolled, as I anticipated. But contrary to my doubt then, India and Pakistan have completed the transition from covert to overt capabilities by conducting nuclear-explosive tests, adopting a nuclear doctrine and deploying nuclear weapons. More strangely, Pakistan now boasts the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal. Indeed, according to several international estimates, its arsenal of nuclear warheads is larger than that of India, which, with China to its north, faces two closely aligned nuclear-armed neighbours.

India’s recent test launch of the Agni V ballistic missile, which can reach Beijing, served as a fresh reminder that the Indian nuclear-deterrence programme is primarily focused on China, with Pakistan remaining subordinate in nuclear planning. To be sure, it was the Sino-Pakistani nuclear nexus — cemented by transfers of Chinese nuclear and missile technology to Islamabad — that propelled India to shed its posture of nuclear ambiguity and go overtly nuclear in 1998. Since then, China’s rapidly accumulating military and economic power, and its increasing assertiveness on territorial disputes, have increased the importance of the nuclear deterrent for India. Given its retaliation-only posture, India has focused its attention in the past decade on erecting a triad of land-based, air-deliverable and submarine-based nuclear capabilities that can survive an enemy first strike.

Strikingly, neither India’s economic rise nor its graduated action to put in place a ‘small but credible’ nuclear force is seen internationally as a threat, unlike the deep concerns that China’s ascent continues to generate. A 2008 civilian nuclear deal between the United States and India, in fact, has come to symbolise their new strategic partnership. International proliferation-related concern instead has focused on Pakistan’s rapid expansion of its nuclear arsenal that has put it on a path to overtake Britain as the world’s fifth-largest nuclear-weapons power. Unstable Pakistan is heavily dependent on foreign aid, yet it has ramped up production of bomb-grade materials.

Nuclear weapons have not prevented Pakistan’s slide into a jihadist dungeon. Given its military’s sponsorship of jihad under the nuclear umbrella and the jihadist infiltration of the armed forces, the biggest international concern relates to the safety of Pakistani nuclear warheads and fissile materials. Compounding this concern is the fact that Pakistan’s military, intelligence and nuclear establishments remain outside civilian oversight. Such concern, along with major gaps in American intelligence about Pakistan’s weapons of mass destruction, has made that country a principal target of US ‘black budget’ surveillance, according to recent revelations. Yet the only plausible scenario of Pakistani nukes falling into Islamist hands is an intra-military struggle in which the jihadists within the armed forces gain ascendancy.

Southern Asia remains the only region in the world where three contiguous neighbours, sharing disputed land frontiers, form a nuclear triangle that pits two of them against the third party. The regional intersection of nuclear issues, terrorism, territorial disputes, competition over natural resources and nationalism creates complex and dangerous challenges. This region will continue to serve as a reminder that any progress in an inter-state context on nuclear issues, including nuclear confidence-building measures, cannot happen independently of the broader geopolitics.

Brahma Chellaney is a Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. His article,‘The Challenge of Nuclear Arms Control in South Asia’, appeared in Survival, 35:3 (1993).