Table of Contents


The competitive and often antagonistic relationships among China, India, and Pakistan have roots that predate their possession of nuclear weaponry. Yet the significant transformation of the nuclear capabilities that is now underway in all three countries—which includes both an expansion and a diversification of their respective nuclear arsenals—simultaneously complicates and mitigates their geopolitical rivalries.

This continuing modernization derives its impetus from multiple sources. China’s rapid nuclear modernization and force diversification is now driven primarily by competition with the United States as its principal great-power rival, but without forgetting other regional opponents closer to home. India’s slow nuclear expansion is driven entirely by the need to deter Chinese and Pakistani nuclear threats and use, but because New Delhi enjoys significant conventional military capabilities against both adversaries, it still hews to a remarkably conservative nuclear posture. Pakistan’s much faster nuclear expansion and its quest for “usable” nuclear weapons are driven principally by its fears of India, though concerns about the United States have more recently begun to have an appearance in Islamabad’s political calculus.

Ashley J. Tellis
Ashley J. Tellis is the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in international security and U.S. foreign and defense policy with a special focus on Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
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This report examines the transitions in the nuclear weapons programs in China, India, and Pakistan over the last two decades, using the May 1998 Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests as a point of reference. Although India and Pakistan began to openly develop their deterrents since then, the transformations in the Chinese nuclear weapons program began much earlier. To understand the character and extent of these evolutions, this study combines published data with information garnered from conversations with policymakers, strategic planners, and military officials in all three countries as well as with U.S. and European government officials who follow strategic issues in Southern Asia.

It reviews in some detail their nuclear doctrines at both the declaratory and operational levels, the material components that constitute the backbone of the three national deterrents—fissile material stockpiles, nuclear weapons designs and inventories, delivery systems, command-and-control arrangements, and strategic defenses—and their operational postures, force employment options, and, if relevant, the extent of integration between their nuclear and conventional forces. Based on this analysis, it assesses the impact of the evolving nuclear transitions on arms race, deterrence, and crisis stability in the Sino-Indian and Sino-Pakistani dyads and flags the challenges still to come and their possible impact on strategic stability.

It assesses that although Sino-Indian nuclear stability is relatively high, the growing accuracy of China’s substrategic systems could threaten the survivability of India’s nuclear deterrent depending on both the number of counterforce-capable missiles Beijing ultimately deploys and the robustness of India’s efforts at obscuring the location of its strategic reserves. Where India and Pakistan are concerned, the report finds high degrees of nuclear deterrence and crisis stability despite the persistent possibilities of Indian conventional military action provoked by Pakistan’s nuclear-shadowed campaign of terrorism against India.

The report concludes that the United States has important choices to make primarily in regard to China and India. China’s dramatic nuclear expansion will constrain Washington’s desire for further nuclear reductions with Russia and will complicate the current U.S. nuclear strategy of deterrence by denial. The survivability of India’s nuclear forces and its lack of reliable, high-yield thermonuclear weapons could create future instabilities in Sino-Indian nuclear deterrence if their political competition intensifies. Consequently, Washington’s choices—today and in the future—will make a difference to whether India can develop the kind of nuclear deterrent that durably balances Chinese power in ways that ultimately benefit the United States in Asia and globally. This will require the United States to entertain some innovative policy options that enable New Delhi to blunt Beijing’s nuclear superiority in ways that advance both India’s own national security and American geopolitical aims.