For South Asia’s three nuclear-armed powers, each with its own strategic objectives and nuclear philosophies, defining and practicing deterrence can be a tall order. Georgetown University’s Christine Fair, Carnegie’s Lora Saalman, Keith Payne of the National Institute for Public Policy, and Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution explored the principles of deterrence in South Asia and what futures Pakistan, China, and India might see for their strategic arsenals. Carnegie’s Ashley J. Tellis moderated.

Conceptualizing Deterrence

  • An Exercise in Perceptions: The panel emphasized that deterrence isn’t just a numbers game,. Deterrence depends on each actor’s perceptions of itself and of its adversaries. This is especially relevant in South Asia, where nuclear-armed states can differ tremendously in their understanding of each other’s redlines and the potential sanctions that crossing them might incur.

  • Internal Destabilizers: One analyst pointed out that some of the greatest threats to stability stem from internal structural factors within a given state. For instance, the lack of honest self-assessment might increase an actor’s tolerance for risk, or an underdeveloped command and control infrastructure could create uncertainty about the potential use of nuclear weapons.

  • Absolute Goals, Immediate Action: A refusal to compromise or engage with adversaries can create regional instability. Several participants expressed concern that if a state refuses to concede defeat or believes it faces an immediate threat, it may be more likely to move towards deploying nuclear weapons—especially if that state believes it lacks a credible second-strike capability.

  • A Unique Environment: One analyst held that South Asia may be particularly vulnerable to misperceptions and miscalculations. Unlike the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Asia suffers a wide disparity in nuclear doctrines and is home to three nuclear powers that can interact in any number of unforeseeable ways.

Pakistan, Nuclear Weapons, and Limited Conflict

  • A Defensive Patrimony: Since its inception in 1947, Pakistan has taken a defensive posture against what it views as an aggressive and threatening India, one participant explained. As a result, Pakistan has been a consistently revisionist state, and it has not hesitated to use non-state militant proxies to try to coerce India to abandon the disputed region of Kashmir.

  • Steady Escalation: Pakistan has seen jihad as a viable political tool since at least the mid-1970s, the analyst continued. The Pakistani government has grown increasingly ambitious in its support of militant groups over the years, the analyst argued—especially after Pakistan’s successful nuclear tests in 1998, which Islamabad views as insurance against a conventional Indian reprisal.

  • Historical Blinders: One participant asserted that Pakistan does not acknowledge any of its past military conflicts as a failure. In Islamabad’s eyes, only the acceptance of Indian regional hegemony would mean defeat, which creates a potentially perilous tolerance for risk.

China’s Nuclear Conversation

  • Looking Toward India: Beijing’s nuclear arsenal is increasingly oriented around its India policy, one participant pointed out. The Chinese may believe that New Delhi aspires to “comprehensive national power” and regional hegemony, and that nuclear weapons may prove a useful tool for containing India. 

  • A Struggle for Definition: China thinks of nuclear weapons as a broad, traditional deterrent, one panelist argued, but Beijing has concerns about falling victim to the kinds of low-intensity conflicts that India and Pakistan have fought under their nuclear umbrella. China worries that India’s nuclear arsenal could embolden it to act against limited Chinese interests without fear of retaliation, the analyst asserted. 

  • Mirrored Perceptions: One participant explored the interplaybetween Indian and Chinese nuclear commentary, raising the question that Chinese policymakers could be both projecting their own views onto India and adopting certain Indian perceptions in their analyses.