Developing a Framework for Evaluating Nuclear Risks in South Asia

Author: Jingdong Yuan1

Published in National Security Journal, 09 December 2021

DOI: 10.36878/nsj20211209.03  

Download full PDF version – Developing a Framework for Evaluating Nuclear Risks in South Asia (279 KB)


A new framework is essential for evaluating nuclear risks in South Asia. This region is marked by perennial disputes, emerging rivalries and long-standing extra-regional interferences, suggesting that it must be considered as a complex geostrategic frame of reference, rather than as a mere geographic construct. As key variables, postures such as no first use and escalate to de-escalate, as well as technological advances may either mitigate or exacerbate nuclear risks. Due to this complexity, causes of instability, risks of conflict, escalation to nuclear use and prospects of restraints and risk reduction will need to engage key players. This must occur not simply in dyadic, but also in multilateral contexts, due to the cascading effects of interactions among them. Within this framework, this essay will explore the erosion of no first use, the potential pitfalls of escalate to de-escalate and technological advances pose significant and worrying challenges for nuclear risk reduction.

Keywords: no first use, nuclear risks, South Asia, technologies, nuclear escalation,
nuclear doctrine


When discussing nuclear challenges, South Asia is no longer just a geographic construct and has broadened to become a geopolitical frame of reference. Most critically, causes of instability, risks of conflicts and escalation to nuclear use, as well as prospects of restraints and risk reduction will need to engage the key players, not simply in dyadic, but also in multilateral contexts.

Ever since, or even prior to, the 1998 nuclear tests whereby both India and Pakistan became de factor nuclear weapons states, the United States, China and, to a lesser extent, Russia, have been a part of the evolving nuclear landscape in South Asia.1 One of this nuclear landscape’s unique characteristics has been the cascading effect, by which actions by one actor can trigger reactions from a second actor that in turn affect a third actor.2

While primarily a direct response to perceived and real US threats to its national interests, Chinese nuclear and non-nuclear military developments affect India’s calculations. This is due to the fact that it has to take into account both China and Pakistan in its strategic planning. As India seeks to maintain credible minimum deterrence vis-à-vis China, it accrues nuclear capabilities that in turn threaten Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent, prompting the latter to expand both the quantity and quality of its nuclear arsenal. The strategic chain has yet to be broken.3

Nuclear risks in South Asia are affected by nuclear posture, technological developments and geopolitical considerations. The last factor reflects decisionmakers’ threat perceptions and assessments, decisions on resource allocation for defence and willingness to engage in either diplomacy, or the threat or use of force—including nuclear use—in inter-state relations.4 Nuclear posture and technologies affect how military force is deployed and used, under what specific circumstances and the extent to which it can be executed to achieve set objectives.

In the South Asian context, unresolved territorial disputes, asymmetric capabilities, changing security alignments and emerging strategic rivalries define inter-state relations present a complex geostrategic lens through which to understand and analyse nuclear challenges. This essay will provide a brief overview of some of the key variables impacting nuclear deterrence and strategic stability in South Asia, namely no first use (NFU), escalate to de-escalate and technological advances.

1 Dr Jingdong Yuan is an Associate Professor of International Security at the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney and an Associate Senior Fellow at SIPRI.