Plus Ça Change? Prospects of a Nuclear Deterrence Multipolarity in Southern Asia
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Plus Ça Change? Prospects of a Nuclear Deterrence Multipolarity in Southern Asia

Plus Ça Change? Prospects of a Nuclear Deterrence Multipolarity in Southern Asia

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Toby Dalton argues that, contrary to what some scholars assess to be a nuclear chain or a deterrence trilemma in Southern Asia, the region has only one clear nuclear deterrence dyad: India and Pakistan. India and Pakistan have explored the contours of nuclear deterrence in several past military crises, while nuclear weapons have been notably absent from Sino-Indian border tensions.

What factors or developments might push the region toward a nuclear deterrence multipolarity? The key variable is the India–China relationship and the extent to which nuclear weapons become more prominent in respective national security belief systems in New Delhi and Beijing. Notable trends already favour such a development, including changing geopolitics in the region, the rise of nationalist domestic politics, technology competition, and growing crisis escalation concerns. Two fulcrums that might tip the region from the status quo into a deterrence multipolarity are parallel nuclear posture changes in India and China that create nuclear coupling, and hardening of geopolitical alignments into more adversarial blocs. Preventing deterrence multipolarity through new nuclear confidence-building measures will be difficult owing to divergent interests, power and institutions in the region. Upgrades to existing nuclear CBMs may be more politically feasible.

Dalton writes that even in the absence of new nuclear CBMs, however, China, India, and Pakistan could build predictability in the region and mitigate potential sources of conflict through new measures to manage common-pool resource competition, dangerous behaviours in space, and a range of crises and emergencies.

This report was produced under the China-India-Pakistan Nuclear Trilemma project, a collaboration between the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network and the Toda Peace Institute. The initiative is an effort at mapping the contours of China, India, and Pakistan’s nuclear relationship, identifying the key drivers of conflict, and exploring practical measures for nuclear risk reduction, crisis stability, and confidence building amongst the three countries.

About the Author

Dr Toby Dalton is Senior Fellow and Co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC. An expert on nonproliferation and nuclear energy, his work addresses regional security challenges and the evolution of the global nuclear order. Dalton’s research and writing focuses in particular on South Asia and East Asia. He is author with George Perkovich of Not War, Not Peace? (Oxford University Press, 2016) which provides in-depth analysis of the conflict spectrum in South Asia. He also wrote (with Michael Krepon) A Normal Nuclear Pakistan and “Beyond Incrementalism: Rethinking Approaches to CBMs and Stability in South Asia.” Prior to joining the Carnegie Endowment, he served as Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Nonproliferation and International Security at the US Department of Energy and as Energy Attaché at the US Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Disclaimer: The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members. The APLN’s website is a source of authoritative research and analysis and serves as a platform for debate and discussion among our senior network members, experts and practitioners, as well as the next generation of policymakers, analysts and advocates. Comments and responses can be emailed to

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