What Would Brinkmanship Look Like in the Indo-Pacific?

A recent publication shows how nuclear competition in Asia has evolved—with far-reaching effects for deterrence.

Ganguly-Sumit-foreign-policy-columnist8
Ganguly-Sumit-foreign-policy-columnist8
Sumit Ganguly
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
China's DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles are seen during a military parade in Beijing on Oct. 1, 2019.
China's DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles are seen during a military parade in Beijing on Oct. 1, 2019.
China's DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles are seen during a military parade in Beijing on Oct. 1, 2019. GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

In recent weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly raised the specter of nuclear weapons use as his military faces significant battlefield setbacks during its war in Ukraine. Russia’s resort to this sort of brinkmanship is certainly not lost on other nuclear powers, including those in Asia. There, China, India, and Pakistan have long been entangled in a three-way nuclear competition, which has evolved in critical ways amid shifts in geopolitics—the most important being China’s rise and increasing assertiveness.

China, India, and Pakistan may have started measuring their nuclear programs against one another as early as the 1970s, but New Delhi’s and Islamabad’s landmark nuclear tests in 1998 brought their nascent competition to the fore. A recent publication by Ashley J. Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, masterfully details the developments in nuclear policy among the three countries in the decades since. Tellis shows how the region’s nuclear competition has intensified in the past decade, as each nuclear power has modernized its arsenal to acquire new capabilities, including tactical nuclear weapons.

These developments have important ripple effects for the international system. Unlike India and Pakistan, whose nuclear programs are mostly regionally focused, China’s seeks to target regional adversaries as well as those farther afield—namely the United States. Furthermore, Moscow’s current approach to nuclear brinkmanship may embolden Beijing or Islamabad—both revisionist states—to resort to similar threats in future crises in the quest for strategic advantage.

In recent weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly raised the specter of nuclear weapons use as his military faces significant battlefield setbacks during its war in Ukraine. Russia’s resort to this sort of brinkmanship is certainly not lost on other nuclear powers, including those in Asia. There, China, India, and Pakistan have long been entangled in a three-way nuclear competition, which has evolved in critical ways amid shifts in geopolitics—the most important being China’s rise and increasing assertiveness.

China, India, and Pakistan may have started measuring their nuclear programs against one another as early as the 1970s, but New Delhi’s and Islamabad’s landmark nuclear tests in 1998 brought their nascent competition to the fore. A recent publication by Ashley J. Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, masterfully details the developments in nuclear policy among the three countries in the decades since. Tellis shows how the region’s nuclear competition has intensified in the past decade, as each nuclear power has modernized its arsenal to acquire new capabilities, including tactical nuclear weapons.

These developments have important ripple effects for the international system. Unlike India and Pakistan, whose nuclear programs are mostly regionally focused, China’s seeks to target regional adversaries as well as those farther afield—namely the United States. Furthermore, Moscow’s current approach to nuclear brinkmanship may embolden Beijing or Islamabad—both revisionist states—to resort to similar threats in future crises in the quest for strategic advantage.

China, India, and Pakistan each launched their nuclear weapons programs at different points during the Cold War. Although policy-oriented literature doesn’t widely acknowledge it, India’s nuclear weapons program began after the first Chinese nuclear test at Lop Nor, Xinjiang, in 1964. Two years earlier, India fought a disastrous monthlong war against China over their shared border. Beijing’s successful nuclear test heightened New Delhi’s growing security concerns, and a decade later it carried out its own test. The global reaction was harsh and punitive. The United States condemned the test and found support from most of its allies. India effectively shelved its program until the late 1980s, largely because it could not sustain additional sanctions.

However, growing strategic cooperation between China and Pakistan—coupled with an emerging ballistic missile threat from the latter—led India to carry out five more nuclear tests in May 1998. Shortly afterward, Pakistan carried out six nuclear tests of its own. The United States once again spearheaded global efforts to contain both India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear programs, but neither country showed much wiliness to cooperate; in the end, Washington grudgingly reconciled itself to their de facto nuclear status. In 2008, the United States and India forged a civilian nuclear accord that placed certain safeguards on its nuclear program.

Contrary to popular belief, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program had not started after India’s 1974 nuclear test but rather followed the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Pakistan’s political leadership concluded after the war that only a nuclear option could counter India’s overwhelming superiority in conventional weapons. India’s nuclear test then boosted Islamabad’s efforts to acquire its own nuclear weapons, through means both fair and foul—including setting up dummy companies to acquire nuclear components under false pretenses and even clandestinely acquiring enrichment technology.

Meanwhile, China had begun its own program with what international relations scholars call finite deterrence—reliance on a small arsenal of nuclear weapons—but since the 1990s it has increasingly moved toward the acquisition of a larger and more complex arsenal. A variety of factors have contributed to this shift, including fears of a possible U.S. counterforce strike designed to decapitate China’s nuclear capacity. During the Cold War, China relied on the mutual deterrence relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union for cover, but Beijing now finds itself in direct competition with Washington.

Even as China expands its nuclear arsenal, India has undertaken only modest efforts to advance its own capabilities. This reluctance in part stems from India’s conviction that nuclear weapons are not warfighting instruments and that their sole purpose lies in deterrence. In his research, Tellis outlines the three key components of India’s current nuclear doctrine: a credible nuclear deterrent, a carefully hedged commitment to a no-first-use policy, and a reliance on massive retaliation when confronted with a nuclear threat.

This doctrine has important operational implications. First, India has kept its nuclear warheads separate from its missiles and under firm civilian control, in part because it doesn’t fear a bolt-from-the-blue strike. Second, India would delay retaliation depending on the scope and magnitude of the attack on Indian soil. The final element of its doctrine emphasizes punishment, but whether India could accomplish massive retaliation without expanding its present arsenal remains an open question.

Tellis shows that India’s nuclear arsenal has evolved far more slowly than China’s. This stems in part from the limited number of nuclear tests that India has conducted, although it has sought to pursue thermonuclear weapons on the basis of computer simulations—essentially carrying out laboratory experiments. Tellis remains skeptical about the reliability of these designs without a more rigorous testing regime. Nearly five decades since its first nuclear test, the command of India’s nuclear forces and its nuclear hardware remains firmly in civilian hands, and its political leadership has refrained from pre-delegating the authority for launching nuclear weapons to the military. Finally, India has not integrated nuclear weapons into its conventional warfighting strategy—a marked contrast with others in the region.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has pursued a very different approach to its nuclear weapons program, having invested in both long-range and tactical nuclear weapons. Unlike China or India, Pakistan’s nuclear operational doctrine is geared toward the imperative of state survival, which stems from Pakistan’s conventional military weakness relative to its major rival India. Islamabad sees nuclear weapons as a way to ward off a fundamental threat to its national security from New Delhi. Currently, Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine is designed to inflict “unacceptable damage” on the enemy and also involves targeting India’s population centers while calling for the rapid termination of any nuclear conflict by inflicting maximum damage.

Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine is shifting as it increasingly integrates its conventional and nuclear forces. It is also acquiring capabilities that would enable it to deal with India at every step of the escalation ladder in the event of a crisis. To that end, Pakistan will eventually deploy tactical nuclear weapons that could be used to blunt a conventional Indian offensive that reaches into Pakistani territory. Islamabad’s doctrinal shift basically means that it could be the first to initiate a nuclear conflict in the region—that it is willing to strike first.

Ultimately, China’s nuclear arsenal far exceeds those of India and Pakistan—which is to be expected, given its superpower status. After all, its scope, range, and diversity are designed to focus on China’s principal adversary: the United States. Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities and doctrine are primarily focused on thwarting an Indian conventional attack. India—faced with two nuclear-armed adversaries—hopes to deter Pakistani adventurism while seeking a nuclear force that could withstand and retaliate against a possible Chinese first strike.

For his part, Tellis makes an intriguing policy recommendation. He argues that the United States, which helped legitimize India’s nuclear weapons through the U.S.-India civilian nuclear accord, should see New Delhi’s arsenal as supporting Washington’s security interests in Asia. Both India and the United States face the threat of an increasingly assertive China. Given their strategic partnership, India’s nuclear arsenal could be likened to France’s during the Cold War: Although not capable of tackling the Soviet threat on its own, France still contributed to nuclear deterrence in Europe in conjunction with U.S. and NATO nuclear capabilities.

India’s limited nuclear deterrent can serve as a useful supplement to U.S. capabilities deployed against China. This takes on added significance in light of the growing competition between China and India in the Indo-Pacific region. India has frequently argued against the militarization of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States for fear of provoking an already antagonistic China—but there is little question that U.S.-India security cooperation has been enhanced under its aegis. Given the long-term security challenge from China facing both countries, India’s nuclear arsenal could tacitly serve to augment U.S. deterrent capabilities in the region, too.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University Bloomington.

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