The strategic triangular dilemma in South Asia

Published: May 5, 2017
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The writer is assistant professor at the Department of Strategic Studies, National Defence University, Islamabad where he teaches nuclear strategy and strategic studies

The writer is assistant professor at the Department of Strategic Studies, National Defence University, Islamabad where he teaches nuclear strategy and strategic studies

For many in South Asia, only India and Pakistan appear to be each other’s rivals given their past conflicts and a number of crises involving the two states. But those who closely read and understand nuclear strategy tend to include China as a factor in the South Asian strategic dilemma even though Beijing is not inclusively or even technically a part of the South Asian region. This is often termed a strategic triangular dilemma or trilemma involving three Asian nuclear weapons states: China, India and Pakistan.

Strategic dilemma exists between India and Pakistan as Islamabad specifies that its nuclear weapons are only India-centric while for many in India, Indian centricity even gets larger and at times more ambiguous as it includes China as well into its strategic calculus because of its short border clash in 1962 two years before China tested its nuclear weapons capability.

A decade later, India acquired and tested the same capability all the while claiming it to be a peaceful nuclear explosion. For many in New Delhi, if not in Beijing, China’s acquisition of nuclear weapons becomes a security threat factor — a predominant explanatory security paradigm for a state going nuclear.

Since the 1962 border clash between India and China until today, the two most populous nations on earth continue to engage in strategic rivalry over their seemingly minor border row. Such strategic rivalry is often exploited by both New Delhi and major powers like the United States to help India enlarge its conflict against China beyond the South Asian region. Containment and competition outweigh the need for cooperation between the two. Arguably, it is because of this factor that the strategic partnership between the US and India grows at all levels. This in turn puts a great amount of pressure on Pakistan and intensifies the strategic rivalry between India and Pakistan.

Therefore, for India, if not exclusively and entirely for China and Pakistan, the strategic trilemma exists where India would factor into many of its deterrent forces against both China and Pakistan. India would make sure to outreach its warheads bolstered with sophisticated delivery systems to the assigned targets both in Pakistan and China it strategises for. It could increase its warheads and a number of delivery systems to suffice its threat perception level outreaching both China and Pakistan. Therefore, it is not wrong to mention that India continues to develop many more nuclear submarines after it has recently acquired an assured second-strike capability in the form of a nuclear submarine.

In addition to this, it is developing the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM), both short and intermediate ballistic missiles, Multiple Independently Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs) for both of its land- and sea- based deterrent forces, Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system and advanced conventional force capability. Apparently, all these force developments justify what India perceives a strategic triangular dilemma/trilemma. Also, India judiciously makes China as a factor for its deterrence force development in order to secure a strategic partnership with the US and a number of its potential allies because China becomes a natural potential threat for the US and its Asian allies.

India sets up well to play its nuclear politics under the conceptual framework of a strategic trilemma whether or not China really views India as a potential strategic threat to its existence.

Nevertheless, India falls within yet another strategic dilemma when it comes to its nuclear policy of credible minimum deterrence — that is, what is credible against China may not be minimum against Pakistan and what is minimum for Pakistan may not be what India perceives to be credible against China. It is this unresolved strategic dilemma within the perceived trilemma that further intensifies the prospects of arms buildup in South Asia.

South Asian leadership will need to define the parameters to this increasing strategic confusion in order to offset more dilemmas between India and Pakistan.

More conceptually, Indian deterrent forces may not matter much for Beijing as China potentially sustains its deterrence stability vis-à-vis what the US perceives as China’s rise both at the economic and strategic levels. Majority of the Chinese deterrence forces are designed to prevent and deter the US from directly attacking and/or preempting China. Apparently, we do not hear a stronger reply from the Chinese security establishment of what India develops or tests fire. This may be a clear message to the Indian leadership that the Chinese are least bothered about what India develops as China’s response and countermeasures are mostly designed to answer to what the US develops. For example, the US advanced conventional forces capability and its predominance in the Asian-Pacific region including that of its deployment of the sophisticated BMD system in the form of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) becomes a greater source of its security concern that could at some point undermine the credibility of the Chinese deterrent forces for which Beijing strategizes as developing countermeasures in order to deter and defeat the forces deployed by the US in Asia.

Perhaps, as India strategically and economically rises up, it could compete with China making China realise that most of its advanced conventional and nuclear forces are against China as well. This is to bring China into its strategic pressure build-up strategy. This could be India’s grand nuclear strategy to strategically compete China on a number of deterrent force level which in turn could put pressure on Pakistan as Pakistan is gradually dragged into a vicious cycle of arms race. Until India resolves this strategic dilemma, Pakistan needs to understand the strategic trap emitting out of India’s grand nuclear strategy. It needs not to get involved into a bigger arms race. Pakistan will need to have selective deterrence force posture to plug the deterrence gaps where absolutely necessary in order to sustain deterrence stability in South Asia.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 5th, 2017.

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Reader Comments (3)

  • Hmm
    May 5, 2017 - 11:24AM

    That doesn’t sound like a dilemma to me. Sounds more like a plan.Recommend

  • Feroz
    May 5, 2017 - 3:48PM

    Every country has the right to acquire weaponry to defend itself, both conventional or nuclear. The real question is at what cost to the people of those countries. When the economy cannot support such heavy expenditure we can get a collapse of the type seen with the Soviet Union.Recommend

  • Sajid Ansari
    May 5, 2017 - 5:46PM

    Well, in order to bring economic stability in the country first we need our borders to be safe and secured and for that, we must equip our army with either at par or better ammo than of our enemies.

    Thanks to Bhutto and our scientists that we have far better nukes than the Indians have, that is why we are surviving otherwise India and the US would have torn us apart. Recommend

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