Evaluating the Intersection of Technology and Nuclear Escalation in South Asia

Author: Chen Kaimin1

Published in National Security Journal, 01 March 2022

DOI: 10.36878/nsj20220301.10

Download full PDF version – Evaluating the Intersection of Technology and Nuclear Escalation in South Asia (391 KB)


There are range of factors that are shaping nuclear issues in South Asia. Among these, India and Pakistan remain outside the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Further, their religious conflicts, ethnic disputes, military confrontations and territorial disputes remain fierce and acute. The confluence of these factors means that when a crisis occurs, India and Pakistan are more likely to misjudge the situation due to poor communication, or to even face the use of tactical nuclear weapons. This essay examines the convergence of technology and nuclear escalation. It concludes by offering some conclusions about external powers that are often involved in the technological procurement and their both stabilising and destabilising impacts on South Asia.

Keywords: Nuclear Escalation, Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, South Asia


There are range of factors that are shaping nuclear issues in South Asia. At present, India and Pakistan have neither acceded to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), nor signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). As a result, the possibility of future nuclear tests cannot be ruled out. Further, both countries are beset by an antagonistic security structure that has led to symmetrical nuclear proliferation, with nuclear tests carried out in succession by both countries in 1998. As of 2021 India is estimated to have produced enough military plutonium for 160 nuclear warheads, while the estimates for Pakistan are roughly at 165 nuclear warheads with the potential to grow to around 200 by 2025.2 Pakistan is forced to spend a disproportionately larger share of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense to achieve strategic parity with India.3

In determining some of the factors contributing to this security dilemma, Pakistan’s decades-long conflict and rivalry with India continues amid international concerns about a possible war between the two nuclear-armed powers.4 Both countries have fought four wars since 1948 and three of them were over Kashmir.5 These decades of conflict over not just territory, but also ideology, religion and power, have further fuelled the nuclear race between the two countries.6 As this nuclear dynamic has evolved, Pakistan has come to predicate its nuclear forces on ambiguity, uncertainty, risk and flexibility to maintain a posture of first use against India.7 Faced with India’s larger scale conventional arsenal and the threat of an overwhelming conventional attack, Pakistan may be forced to use nuclear weapons.8 Thus, while Pakistan may have adopted credible minimum deterrence as its nuclear doctrine, due to the limitations of its resource base and the costs of an arms race, it maintains a strong reliance upon nuclear weapons for its security and survival.9

By contrast, India pledged not to be the first to use nuclear weapons in 2003 under its no-first-use (NFU) posture. Despite this pledge, in 2019 India’s defense minister Rajnath Singh stated in 2019 that India’s long-standing NFU principle may change ‘depending on the situation’, illustrating its own form of ambiguity.10 Such shifts are not defined solely by India’s deterrent relationship with Pakistan, even if it is the primary dynamic. Instead, India’s development of nuclear weapons also has aims that include its international status as a great power, as well as its future strategic relationship with China. In both cases, the range of all new Agni missiles shows that their main target lies well beyond Pakistan.11 Nevertheless, the lack of a consistent dialogue between India and Pakistan on nuclear weapons remains a major impediment, despite the efforts of countries like the United States to ease the nuclear tension between the two countries.12 Facing this range of factors, this essay will evaluate how technology and nuclear escalation are intersecting in South Asia under these conditions.

1 Dr Chen Kaimin is a professor at Tongren University in China. Dr Lora Saalman, Associate Senior Fellow, SIPRI, provided the initial translation of the Chinese-language questionnaire upon which Dr Chen built this essay.