Strategic Triangle

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The instability in South Asia can be best understood in triangular terms, with China at the apex and India and Pakistan at the end points of the base.
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Recently, Indian analysts have made troubling assertions about ongoing nuclear weapons collusion between China and Pakistan. Regardless of the veracity of these charges, they raise an interesting problem: how should South Asia watchers understand the implications of China’s role as part of a regional ‘strategic triangle’.

The classic approach, drawing on Cold War lessons, is to see the South Asia nuclear competition in terms of competitive dyads. Assessing deterrence dynamism in the region in triangular terms, however, brings analytical clarity to a vexing problem for India: if Chinese influence with Islamabad aids or abets Pakistani nuclear threats against India, then how might India motivate Beijing to change its policy toward Pakistan?

A Strategic Triangle

For many analysts there is comfort in thinking of the South Asia nuclear competition as a two-player game. Such comfort derives from a sense that the US-Soviet Cold War experience offers appropriate lessons that will help India and Pakistan avert an arms race or, far worse, use of nuclear weapons.

 Many analysts in Islamabad and Delhi go out of their way to stress the dissimilarities between the Cold War and modern eras, from disparity in resources and polarity of the international system, to geographic proximity. But the most important difference between the Cold War and modern security environment is that the strategic reality in South Asia is triangular, not bipolar or dyadic.

The recent dynamism in the Sino-India security competition, punctuated by a seeming surge in Chinese incursions in Ladakh and a quickening pace of Indian testing of ballistic missiles with intermediate range, points directly to the need to think through how China fits into the picture. To the extent Indian analysts have been more preoccupied with China for the last decade, if not longer, there is not yet a deep literature on the India-China dyad (compared to libraries on India-Pakistan). One recent edited volume with contributions from both Indian and Chinese analysts, The China-India Nuclear Crossroads (in the interest of full disclosure it was published by the Carnegie Endowment), usefully surveys the landscape, and raises innumerable issues deserving further analysis. In the analytical community there is now increasing interest in Sino- Indian CBMs and understanding deterrence dynamics. But the focus only on dyads (Pakistan-India; India-China) tends to obscure important drivers of competition.

Contemporary and historical Chinese actions within the subcontinent argue for considering the Southern Asia security dynamic in terms of a triad or — so as not to be confused with a nuclear triad — a strategic triangle. As the dominant competitor, China sits at the apex of the triangle. It has strategic relationships with India and Pakistan, who occupy the end points of the base. The Sino-Indian leg is competitive; the Sino-Pakistani leg is cooperative. Developments on one leg influence what happens in the others. For instance, India’s efforts to achieve some level of strategic parity with China motivate Pakistan’s nuclear developments in order to close perceived deterrence gaps, and to seek closer relations with China to balance perceived threats from India. This model better captures the directionality of deterrence objectives and the interrelationship between them than simple dyads.

China-Pakistan Nuclear Nexus

A key question brought out by this model centres on the nature of the China- Pakistan leg. Several Indian analysts have alleged ongoing nuclear weapons cooperation between Beijing and Islamabad. This charge was stated directly and given semi-official status by Shyam Saran, chairman of India’s National Security Advisory Board, in a 24 April 2013 address in which he charged that “Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s strategic programme continues apace.”

The claim of ongoing Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme is noteworthy and deserves deeper analysis. Certainly there is a history of such collusion, but the common narrative (at least in the United States) is that non-civilian Chinese foreign nuclear assistance largely ended when Beijing acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1992. There were several concerns raised in the late Nineties about Chinese supply to Pakistan’s uranium enrichment and reprocessing programmes, but there is no publicly available information about similar assistance since that time. The claims by Indian analysts, if true, would be tantamount to a Chinese violation of its NPT commitments.

Yet, many of the claims of Chinese nuclear assistance to Pakistan (aside from the supply of civil nuclear power reactors, which is well documented) lack specificity and evidence. Take for instance Rear Admiral Raja Menon’s (retd) assertion that “Pakistan’s unusual uranium arsenal is currently in the process of a massive makeover to a plutonium and a plutonium-uranium bomb line, with Chinese assistance.” He further stipulates that Pakistan is incapable of developing a miniaturised warhead for its new short-range NASR missile without conducting explosive testing, for which it would need assistance. “It is not difficult to guess where that will come from,” he insinuates. A more sweeping charge was leveled by Harsh Pant of King’s College London: “The Pakistani nuclear weapons programme is essentially an extension of the Chinese one.”

The main problem with these accusations is that they are inferential. They are based on an assessment that Pakistan cannot on its own develop plutonium production reactors, miniaturised nuclear weapons, and nuclear-capable ballistic and cruise missiles. Therefore, Pakistan must be receiving foreign assistance and that assistance must come from China. The logic is tidy, but without available evidence it does not seem to correspond to reality. This is not to deny the possibility that such Chinese assistance is happening, of course. Either way, the analytical result of this argument is to shift blame for Pakistan’s strategic capability development and ‘nuclear blackmail’ tactics onto China.

All Roads Lead to Beijing?

Blaming China for Pakistan’s nuclear peccadillos and denying Islamabad agency in the process means that India could only improve its security environment by focusing on the China leg of the triangle. This proposition is worth analysing for it seems to raise more questions than it answers. Can China restrain Pakistan’s nuclear activity? If so, under what conditions? And what actions could India undertake to motivate change in Pakistani behaviour toward India?

The first question turns on whether one assesses that China has such leverage on Pakistan’s nuclear policies. Pakistani leaders are fond of praising the “high as the mountains, deep as the ocean” character of the China-Pakistan relationship; such hyperbole tends not to be repeated as often by Chinese officialdom. As with other relationships, Beijing seems to view its ties with Islamabad in more instrumental terms. Chinese firms are active in a number of large commercial and industrial works projects, including several along potential energy and transit corridors. Currently, Pakistan is China’s only customer for nuclear power reactors, but here Beijing has had to extend incredibly favourable financing. The Pakistan military purchases a wide range of Chinese hardware. It is possible that this activity cumulates in Chinese strategic leverage over Pakistan’s nuclear decisionmaking, but such a conclusion seems speculative at best.

A more likely possibility is that China assesses Pakistan’s nuclear developments as strategically beneficial, regardless of whether it directly aids or abets them. By this logic, Pakistan’s ‘full-spectrum’ deterrence strategy forces India to keep an eye on its Western border, denying it the luxury of devoting all of its attention and resources against its larger competitor to the north. It is difficult to discern direct evidence that would support this contention; here, too, the case is at best circumstantial. But assuming that tacit approval of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons activities is Chinese policy today, what might cause Beijing to change course? The few instances when Chinese officials have expressed public displeasure with Pakistan centred on training of militants connected to the East Turkestan movement, not for any activity associated with nuclear weapons. Presumably, Beijing shares concerns about the internal stability and cohesion of the Pakistani state. It, along with others, would not want to border a broken state in which actors with mal intent might have access to nuclear materials, however unlikely that scenario is. Short of Pakistani state failure, it is difficult to imagine circumstances that would cause Beijing to break with Islamabad.

Even if Beijing could persuade or pressure Pakistan to reorient its nuclear policies in ways that would be less threatening to India, what could India do to cause Beijing to shift its approach in this direction? Admiral Menon suggests as one option, “The Indian system needs to first acknowledge that there is a Chinese-induced problem with Pakistani nuclear weapons instead of cowering under the Indian nuclear doctrine of a second strike. The power differential between India and China is alarming, but enough strategic options exist to confront the Chinese.” It is not clear how this approach would address Pakistan or, more specifically, trigger Beijing to pressure Pakistan to restrain its nuclear buildup.

It is worth recalling that China’s nuclear developments and doctrine are driven first by the United States and Russia; India remains a secondary concern. Thus, if India seeks to compete strategically and not just rely on development of a second strike capability, its attempts to pace China will be subject to dynamics external to Southern Asia. Thus, a policy of strategic offensive nuclear competition directed at China comes with considerable uncertainty about its effects in either Beijing or Islamabad. It could also prove incredibly costly, and that too at a time when India’s economy is forecast to cool off.

Are there alternative approaches India might consider that would lead China to pressure Pakistan to restrain its nuclear policies? It seems reasonable to assess that given the external drivers of Beijing’s strategic priorities, greater China-oriented military growth by India will not cause Chinese officials to decide to change their approach to Pakistan. Indeed, quite the opposite, it seems plausible that China might only be motivated to encourage nuclear restraint by Pakistan if it assesses that India and Pakistan are normalising relations, resolving old disputes, and generally curtailing threatening behaviour. In those circumstances, Pakistan would not need to increase its reliance on nuclear weapons, and Beijing would not be betraying Pakistan by pressing it to do so.

Analytically, the strategic triangle model is useful in considering the dynamic deterrence picture in Southern Asia. But to focus just on the China-Pakistan leg seems an unhelpful narrowing of strategic vision for India. There presumably are options other than increased strategic competition with China that would address the instability mounting in Delhi’s strategic outlook. It is not too naïve to believe, for instance, that addressing some issues directly with Pakistan is possible and worth the trouble. In this sense, the road to resolving India’s ‘Pakistan problem’ probably goes through Islamabad, not Beijing.

This article was originally published in Force magazine.

End of document

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Comments (19)

  • Anjaan
    The likes of Kissinger and Brzezinski, who are primarily responble for shaping American foreign policy in the past four decades, and by extension, responsible for where America is today, and heading to where it would be fifty or hundred years from today, now advocate a sane and pragmatic foreign policy towards China, no belligerance, and no war under any circumstances. In doing so, they tend to acknowledge the blowback that America would eventually receive as a direct consequence of their short sighted foreign policy that failed completely to see the unfolding of a different world, led by Asia.
    Can anyone in the US think tank community visualize a world where :
    1. The great devastating war in Asian mainland, involving either India or Japan against China, as so dearly wished by the likes of Brzezinski, never take place in next fifty years.
    2. American influence dwindle to such extent that the Americans are driven out of Asia.
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  • alexander loius
    1 Recommend
    Bilateral relationship between Pakistan and china has been well established since 1950s. Both the states have mutual cooperation different sectors. But Indian blame of nuclear assistance by china to Pakistan is based on fake assumptions which writer has also pointed out. Nuclear capabilities of Pakistan are indigenous. NASR and other tactical weapons have made by Pakistani scientists and there is no any support from other states and world has recognized NASAR as completely Pakistan made. But Indian whole nuclear program is sponsored by Russia and Israel. Massive equipment has given to India by Russia. In case of Pakistan china has certain limitations hence cannot assist Pakistan in nuclear weapons.
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  • Xi Yun
    2 Recommends
    India has always accused Pakistan and China for things, which do not have any proof or exists. Recent example you can see is for a whole year Indian army accused China that they are flying drones over LOC but after analysis, it was clear that these are planets not drones.. lol..
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  • Liza
    3 Recommends 5 Conversation Recommends
    It’s a very partial article. Author very shrewdly skipped the important information which could be necessary for this opinion piece. If writer is of the view that China should not help Pakistan in nuclear field then USA also has no right to support India in nuclear energy and space programme. In my opinion India is the most dangerous nuclear country and was the first proliferator than Pakistan. Pakistan is always provoked by India to take harsh steps in security paradigm. There are 114 Separatist movements persistent in India and any time a civil war will break out. In this situation the nukes in India will be on high risk. However gloomy aspect is none of mainstream electronic media giving coverage to these realities. Therefore priority should be to get rid of Indian nuclear weapons which are constantly threating its neighbouring countries.
    On the other hand author deliberately linked China cooperation with Pakistan in the context of strategic ties. But reality is China has more economic benefits in Pakistan then strategic advantages, for instance Gawadar port. So we should not vision Sino-Pak cooperation only through strategic paradigm.
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    • Anjaan replies...
      1 Recommend
      1. China has the worst history of proliferation of nuclear weapons technology, in total contempt of all international norms.
      2. Pakistan, which is not comparable to India in terms of geography, population or economy. Pakistan's role as a tool in the hands of its masters to be played against India, is well known.
      3. And finally, India's relations with Vietnam is important from economic and strategic point of view. Therefore India having nuclear and defense cooperation with Vietnam, should not cause heart-burn amongst the Chinese people.
    • Akshay replies...
      1 Recommend
      Excuse me? You've got MOST of your facts wrong! Pakistan is probably the worst country in terms of proliferation. The rogue network setup by Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q Khan is a prime example. And if you know your history you would know that the Chinese crossed the McMohan line in 1962 and crossed into Indian sovereign territory. India has NEVER invaded nor started a fight with Pakistan. It has always fought back (and emerged victorious!). The Chinese have helped with Pakistan's missile program (Especially the Shaheen!). Pakistan and China are developing a joint fighter , Chinese literally built the deep water port at Gwadar from scratch. I could go on and on but I'm sure you get my drift.
  • Ahmad
    1 Recommend 2 Conversation Recommends
    The writer has been very neutral while giving his arguments but the thing that nuisance me is Pakistan and China are not just only having partnership on nuclear ends but they are strong economical partners as well and NASR is purely creation of Pakistani scientists not by Chinese. Yes, we did get assertion from Chinese scientists recently in civil nuclear deals and that is just to end the energy crisis which we accepted at every forum that yes we are getting on it because that purely energy driven, but not like US-India diplomatic relation like 123 agreement which still lingers. Also Pakistan has been at the forefront every time for normalizing relations with India and example is MFN status to India, Samjhota express and Bus service which clearly advocates that the fault is at the Indian ends not Pakistan. Pakistani wants peace not race in the region and our nuclear is not hegemonic but security driven.
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    • remo replies...
      1 Recommend
      MFN status to India? What are you smoking? India has given Pakistan MFN status since 1996, Pakistan is yet to reciprocate.
  • Ali Mustafa
    I think the last line sums up everything albeit partially. Problems in South Asia are not and never has been "the Pakistani problem of India" but rather the mutual problems these are to each other. But what the author does get right is that the road towards solving them lies from New Delhi to Islamabad and vice versa... No where does Beijing come in between. If India wants to change Pakistan's nuclear posture and wants to solve other issues then it has to come down to solve bilaterally. No amount of foreign pressure from any Super Power would change that. Pakistan is rightly unapologetic about its nuclear program which serves an effective defence against India. I agree with the author that without evidence to the contrary Pakistan's nuclear program is indigenous.   Statements without clear proof can't change that. India needs to agree on a nuclear restraint regime, else the problem in South Asia will continue
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  • mahesh
    1 Recommend
    People who have not done their research should not write articles. Pakistan's nuclear programme is based on 60, 10-20kiloton fission bombs based on CHIC4 chinese designs and 30-40 tactical bombs again designs supplied by china during 2002 parliament crisis. In addition pakistan's major missiles are based on chinese M9 and M11. Nobody doubts pakistan's capability but financial and technical barriers to sppedy development have always led pakistan to adopt short-circuit route and only china has helped them out- more specifically the criminal CCP PLA combine. In future when India eventually explodes the thermonuclear bomb, no doubt china will provide pakistan with the same.
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  • Chandrashekar
    There is no doubt in the Indian thought about the Chinese support to Pakistan's nuclear program. While Pakistan may have developed some internal capability in developing nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them, without Chinese support it may find if quite difficult to sustain the program. For the Chinese, the investment would be worth every Yuan spent as it offers Beijing a way to keep India bogged down on its western borders. In this strategy Pakistan dutifully plays its role in keeping Indian attention focused by encouraging militant activity across the LoC. Consequently Indian military planners have to factor in a scenario where they would have to handle both China and Pakistan on their western and northern borders simultaneously. The threat from the west seems to have been addressed to a certain extent, albeit aided by Pakistan's own internal problems and the uncertainty unfolding in Afghanistan. However for India the threat from China is not just from the north, but plays over a larger geography spread across the Asia Pacific regions. Hence Indian response to the Chinese challenge has been on a much larger scale and multi-dimensional. Just as China partners with Pakistan to contain India, the Indians are also reaching out to countries which feel threatened by China, notably Japan, Vietnam and the US to develop a coordinated approach. However, the best way for both China and India to rise peacefully is to work together on resolving long pending issues in a time bound manner. This will ensure Asia's rise more peacefully.
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    • Ayaz replies...
      My Indian friends are continuously repeating "Pakistan made nuclear bomb through Chinese support" I would like to ask if they have alone made their own bombs and aircrafts. As far as I know, it's all Russian and American technology. Isn't it?
  • Knowledge is power.
    The author seems unfamiliar with State Dept, declassified national security archieves, Congressional Research Service reports and volumes of reports and books published in the 1980s and 1990s by American officials and analysts on Chinese nuclear and missile assistance to Pakistan since the late 1970s. A Google search will help.
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  • Manoj Joshi
    1 Recommend
    The writer is unfamiliar with the book, Nuclear Express written by Danny Stillman and Thomas C Reed which have cited Chinese experts telling them that they had supplied not just a bomb design, but also fissile material for a weapon and, to top it all, tested a Pakistani weapon of Chinese design in 1990. With such a breathtaking breach of non-proliferation norms, why shouldn't India be suspicious of Chinese and Pakistani designs.
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  • Remo
    Nothing new in the article. Firstly, the writer needs to go through the extremely exhaustive documenting of Pakistan's Nuclear programme in "Nuclear Deception' by Scott and Levy. Centrality of Chinese assistance in the nuclear and missile programme would be apparent. Secondly, if China views India as a regional competitor, improvement in India-Pakistan relations is unlikely to be in its interests. The only probability of China restricting support to Pakistan's nuclear and missile programme would be if the Pakistan based radical Islamist support to the unrest in its Xinjiang province snowballs. This will upset the equation of convenience between the two countries.
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  • Javed Mir
    1 Recommend
    --the road to resolving India’s ‘Pakistan problem’ probably goes through Islamabad, not Beijing--

    In case so that would mean that sanity has started prevailing and that should cause resolution of India Occupied Kashmir according the resolutions of UNO.
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    • Anjaan replies...
      Dream on ..... the nation in denial ........ !!!
  • Toby Dalton
    Several commenters have suggested that the article missed the long history of Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear program. In fact I explicitly acknowledge it: “Certainly there is a history of such collusion, but the common narrative (at least in the United States) is that non-civilian Chinese foreign nuclear assistance largely ended when Beijing acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1992.” As several commenters point out, this history is covered amply in numerous accounts, including most recently by Feroz Hassan Khan, a retired Army Brigadier assigned to Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, in Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb. I saw no reason to recount it in any great detail. Rather, I wanted to focus on Indian claims that such Chinese assistance continues today. That is a much more interesting point for analysis and debate.
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    • Anjaan replies...
      @ Toby Dalton,
      Just consider, how can a country field a technologically extremenly challenging piece of equipment like a Cruise missile without ever having to flight test it ..... ? .... just an example of the transfers that continues to take place from China even today ....... and do you think the intelligence agencies of the western powers do not know that ....... ? ..... the great " Enrichment tech" robbery by Dr AQ Khan from the Dutch lab URENCO ..... passing on the tech to China, in exchange of the missiles and the bomb blue print ....... are all a part of legend now .....

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