[Special Report] Managing the China, India, and Pakistan Nuclear Trilemma
Special Reports

[Special Report] Managing the China, India, and Pakistan Nuclear Trilemma

Jointly published by APLN and the Toda Peace Institute, this report sheds much needed light on the risks of a nuclear weapons accident or an inadvertent nuclear exchange in Southern Asia, the geopolitical fulcrum of three nuclear-armed states: China, India and Pakistan.

The report synthesizes insights and conclusions reached by a special research project jointly launched in 2021, and from two days of closed policy discussions held among panels of experts earlier this year. The report summarizes the outcome of those discussions for the first time, including panelists’ policy recommendations for leaders in China, India, and Pakistan to review as they consider how best to navigate the evolving nuclear security picture in the region.

The author of the report, APLN Policy Fellow Dr Tanvi Kulkarni says ongoing efforts to increase nuclear weapons stockpiles and modernize nuclear weapons could see Southern Asia’s three nuclear weapons powers stumbling into a crisis. As Dr Kulkarni puts it, “The ‘nuclear trilemma’ involving China, India, and Pakistan in Southern Asia is a low-risk but high-impact, and still relatively understudied, geopolitical threat.”

Key findings of the report include:

  • Disagreement on the nature of the nuclear security situation in South Asia: Some see a situation of ‘two asymmetric dyads’ – China-India and India-Pakistan – dominating the countries’ security arrangements. Others see the three countries trapped in a “nuclear chain”— where China adopts a more aggressive nuclear weapons posture in response to moves by the United States, and India responds to China’s moves, further prompting Pakistan to respond to India’s moves. Other policy professionals argue that the three nations are locked in an ‘evolving nuclear trilemma,’ one that is rife with tensions and contradictions.
  • A less volatile Sino-Indian deterrence equation, as compared to the India-Pakistan equation. One view is that nuclear developments in India and China are tenuously related to each other even if there are linkages and reciprocal arming. The absence of a nuclear crisis between these two countries has denied them the mutual learning about deterring each other. These experts argue that coherence in the India-Pakistan nuclear dyad, on the other hand, comes from reciprocity, nuclear learning about deterrence, and negotiated CBMs that place nuclear weapons in a well understood context. Another view is that it is not the absence of nuclear dialogue or crises, but the low salience of nuclear weapons in their bilateral relations which characterises the Sino-Indian deterrence equation as less volatile as compared to the India-Pakistan equation.
  • Low risk of a deliberate nuclear incident in Southern Asia: New dynamics in the region are, however, poised to change the calculus. The ongoing efforts to increase nuclear weapons stockpiles and modernize nuclear weapons could see Southern Asia’s three nuclear weapons powers – China, India, and Pakistan – inadvertently stumbling into a crisis. The main drivers of conflict between India, Pakistan, and China in Southern Asia include unresolved territorial disputes, use of terrorism by one nuclear state against another, perception of the other’s relationship with third countries, and perception of the other’s intent.
  • Strategic risks exacerbated by new disruptive technologies: Technologies including drones, hypersonic systems, anti-satellite capabilities, and cyber and space-based capabilities, can drive misperceptions about others’ intentions and capabilities and increase the chances of accidental nuclear use, especially if they are used for risk manipulation. Improved military infrastructure in conflict zones is likely to accelerate mobilisation on Indian and Chinese sides and lead to greater misreading of the other’s strategic orientation.
  • Role of External actors: The United States and Russia – play an important role in the security dynamics of Southern Asia. The US is not geographically a part of Southern Asia but has relatively greater influence, orientation, and interests in the region. The rapidly changing international situation also impacts Southern Asia – specifically new geopolitical alignments like the QUAD, BRI and AUKUS carry military implications for the region as well as for bilateral relations in Southern Asia.

The report puts forth ten clear policy recommendations for leaders that, if adopted, would greatly reduce the likelihood of a nuclear exchange between India and China or India and Pakistan. Some of the key recommendations include:

  • Bilateral/multilateral dialogue: As it stands today, there is no mechanism for nuclear weapons diplomacy between China, India, and Pakistan. The report stresses that this deficit must be corrected urgently.
  • Strategic risk reduction measures: These would include multilateral steps aimed at avoiding nuclear war. The author points to the mutual security agreements been the US and USSR during the Cold War as an example.
  • Updating existing bilateral agreements: This includes updating the agreement that India and Pakistan have to inform one another of nuclear accidents or incidents. New bilateral pacts between China and India should also be considered.
  • Naval CBMs: The three nations’ bids to advance their naval capabilities in the Indian Ocean highlight the need for three-way confidence-building measures such as incidents-at-sea agreements.
  • No first use (NFU) agreement: China and India already have stated no nuclear first use policies. Pakistan should join them, and the three governments should align to formalize bilateral NFU policies.
  • Sharing best practices: This would involve trilateral meetings to discuss and share best practices on safety at both military and civilian nuclear facilities. Such talks could even be expanded to “other military and non-military strategic technologies like space-based systems and space debris, cyber-weapons, lethal autonomous weapons, hypersonic, and dual-use platforms,” Dr Kulkarni writes.

Click on the adjacent link to view the full report.

About the Author

Tanvi KULKARNI is a Policy Fellow at APLN. She has a PhD in Diplomacy and Disarmament studies from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Her PhD thesis examines why states in a nuclear dyad negotiate nuclear confidence-building measures (NCBMs). She has a postgraduate Master’s degree in defence and strategic studies and an undergraduate degree in political science. She is also a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi and visiting lecturer at the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies at the Savitribai Phule Pune University. Dr Kulkarni is a contributing author at the Washington-DC based Stimson Center’s South Asian Voices. She has previously worked with the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies and the India-Pakistan Chaophraya Track II Dialogue in New Delhi.

About the Project

Managing the China, India, and Pakistan Nuclear Trilemma is a collaborative project of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network and the Toda Peace Institute, mapping the contours of the China-India-Pakistan nuclear relationship; identifying the key drivers of conflict; and exploring practical nuclear risk reduction, crisis stability and confidence building measures that cover all three countries.

The project builds on previous APLN papers and the 2017 Brookings ‘Strategic Chain’ report, by including perspectives from all three nuclear powers of Southern Asia – China, India and Pakistan, as well as including participation from the United States, the Russian Federation, Japan and ASEAN. This project aims to offer a series of policy recommendations for the leadership of all three countries concerning practical nuclear risk reduction, crisis stability and confidence building measures and mechanisms and opportunities for tension reduction and conflict resolution to normalise interstate relations and promote people-people ties.

Image: Kirsten Margret Quinain & Design Quarry Studio LLP.