Nuclear weapons are an essential part of the strategic framework of South Asia, and any attempts to create and maintain strategic stability between India and Pakistan must take their nuclear arsenals into account. Carnegie’s Petr Topychkanov discussed the current strategic environment and the potential for enhancing stability in the region. Carnegie’s George Perkovich moderated.

Key Elements of Strategic Stability

Topychkanov identified three crucial aspects of strategic stability in South Asia: an acceptance of mutually assured destruction, an agreement to control the number of overtly offensive nuclear weapons by maintaining a credible minimum deterrence, and a system of confidence building measures (CBMs) to prevent escalation should conflict occur.

  • Credible Minimum Deterrence: Both countries accept the main tenets of mutually assured destruction, and have stated their intention to maintain a credible minimum deterrence, Topychkanov stated. However, each country treats the credible minimum deterrence differently:

    • India: While India has adopted a structured and formalized approach to minimum nuclear deterrence, Topychkanov questioned whether its adherence masks a different intention. He noted that India might be seeking a maximum nuclear deterrent, to increase its credibility and effectiveness. He also said it remains unclear if India would adhere strictly to its no-first-use obligation, given that it does not possess effective second-strike capabilities.
    • Pakistan: Pakistan’s approach to minimum deterrence is more flexible, and its deployment can change based on perceived risks of pre-emption and interception, Topychkanov said.
  • Optimists and Pessimists: Topychkanov identified the key arguments of both nuclear optimists and pessimists in South Asia. Pessimists believe a nuclear exchange is far too likely, citing repeated confrontations and underdeveloped systems of nuclear control. Optimists counter that a nuclear disaster remains unlikely, especially given lower combat preparedness during peacetime, which would delay a retaliation by hours or weeks and might allow for cooler heads to prevail.

Arms Control in South Asia

  • A Mutual Understanding: No structure of formal arms control agreements currently exists in South Asia. This is chiefly due to the fact that Pakistan and India’s capabilities are more or less clear to one another, and neither country has an interest in a nuclear arms race.
  • The China Conundrum: Arms control in South Asia is further complicated by the presence of China. India is more interested in controlling and verifying the nuclear arsenals of China than it is in entering into an arms agreement with Pakistan, but China shows no interest in any arms control deal in South Asia, Topychkanov explained. Pakistan, similarly, would like to enter into an agreement with India, but India is unlikely to comply without an agreement with China.
  • Verification: India and Pakistan have signed a number of small arms control agreements. None of them, however, includes significant verification measures to ensure compliance or to build confidence in the bilateral relationship. Topychkanov recommended taking steps toward implementing verification to help improve the security dynamic.
  • Composite Dialogue: India and Pakistan must work toward addressing a number of controversial issues by resuming the Composite Dialogue, which includes issues of nuclear security, high-level talks on Kashmir, and, for Pakistan, ceasing support for militants who attack India.

Cold Start

In the wake of the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, India is reportedly considering adopting a Cold Start doctrine, which would call for aggressive but limited retaliation to another such attack. Perkovich noted that such a policy could have a potentially destabilizing effect in the region. Pakistan, fearing Indian conventional superiority, might decide to rely on its nuclear arsenal in the event of an Indian conventional retaliation. By using, or even articulating, such a strategy, India is defining the problem in terms of strategic stability, Perkovich argued, but rather to compel Pakistan to actively eradicate groups that would attack India.

Nuclear Cooperation Agreements

Topychkanov noted that while he did not support civilian nuclear cooperation agreements with non-NPT states such as the ones between India and the United States, France, and Russia, it may be possible to use those agreements to engage with India and find common ground between India and Pakistan in limited areas. Perkovich noted the Indian nuclear deal made a situation like the prospective China-Pakistan nuclear cooperation much more difficult to prevent, as China searched for a way to get even with the United States. As the United States works to bring India into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, it risks pushing China out and harming the very non-proliferation regime that Washington has been trying to build.