With widespread uncertainty in the wake of increased military maneuvers in southern and eastern Asia, three experts on the region offered their perspectives on its strategic environment. Carnegie’s George Perkovich, Neil Joeck from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and Dan Blumenthal of the American Enterprise Institute joined the National Institute for Public Policy’s Bob Joseph for a discussion on the motivations of key actors in the region. 

India

  • Looking Outward: One panelist argued that India’s nuclear posture is driven by its perceptions of its two nuclear neighbors, China and Pakistan. Domestically, the panelist explained, India’s strategic community uses the threat posed by these countries to shape its own development of new technologies. 

  • Threat Environment: India’s threat environment was characterized by a panelist as unique, consisting of a seamless spectrum ranging from sub-conventional militant groups all the way up to nuclear weapons. This continuum presents enhanced risk of escalation if India were to respond conventionally to a sub-conventional attack, the panelist asserted—especially if Pakistan interpreted that conventional reaction as an escalation rather than as a tit-for-tat response.

  • Missile Defense: Though much has been made about India’s desire for limited ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities, one panelist held that these aspirations may be as much fantasy as fact given the extraordinary technical challenges to developing an operational BMD system. 

Pakistan

  • Confrontation: Pakistan’s origins as an insecure state in a defensive position still influence how its officials interpret their strategic position, claimed one panelist. As a result, Pakistan sees itself as locked in constant confrontation with India not just for regional influence but for its own survival. 

  • Competition: Due to this confrontation mentality, a panelist said, Pakistan continues to expand on its nuclear capabilities. The panelist warned that while Pakistan has made advances in terms of uranium and plutonium conversion and warhead delivery systems, its command and control protocol has not kept pace. This failure introduces greater uncertainty into the region’s strategic calculus. 

  • Conflict: Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine has steadily evolved from merely “Deter India” to “Deter India and Defeat India in the Event of Conflict,” claimed one panelist. This doctrine strongly affects decisionmaking when it comes to Pakistan’s nuclear posture.  

  • Cooperation: Even against this relatively grim backdrop, there is still a chance that current conditions can lead to a path of cooperation between the three nuclear powers, a panelist contended. The panelist suggested that Pakistan’s economic opening with India and its history of close-but-not-too-close relations with China offer some hope.  

China

  • Looking Farther: Understanding China’s posture requires understanding that China is looking farther than either Pakistan or India, according to one panelist. Chinese modernization is not driven primarily by regional relationships but by global ones and ties with the United States in particular.  

  • Stated Doctrine and Reality: A panelist cautioned against assuming that China’s nuclear actual doctrine corresponds directly with its articulated positions, especially with regard to its No First Use policy. The panelist said that there is some evidence that these doctrines are less fixed than the Chinese publically acknowledge. 

  • Responses: In response to China’s growing prominence, one panelist recommended that the United States and India work together through public diplomacy to hold China to its international commitments, including involving China in strategic arms reduction talks from now on and directly addressing the issue of monitoring from space.