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.