The South Asia Stability-Instability Paradox Under the Nuclear Shadow

Author: Brewster, David1

Published in National Security Journal, 09 December 2021

DOI: 10.36878/nsj20211209.02  

Download full PDF version – The South Asia Stability-Instability Paradox Under the Nuclear Shadow (307 KB)


Cross-border clashes between India and Pakistan in 2019, and between India and China in 2020, have placed a spotlight on theories about the stabilising and destabilising effects of nuclear weapons. The experience of the India-Pakistan dyad, and now that within the India-China dyad, is that despite the apparent risks of nuclear escalation, nuclear-armed adversaries may still be prepared to engage in limited, but deadly conventional or sub-conventional conflicts under the nuclear shadow. This paper uses stability-instability paradox theory to explain the mechanics of this apparent paradox and to discuss how these relationships may evolve in future.

Keywords: nuclear deterrence, South Asia, stability-instability paradox


Recent conflicts between nuclear powers in South Asia, including cross-border clashes between India and Pakistan in 2019 and between India and China in 2020, have placed a spotlight on theories about the stabilising and destabilising effects of nuclear weapons. These theories reflect popular assumptions about the stabilising effects of nuclear weapons drawn from the Cold War dynamics between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States. During this period, many policymakers and scholars grew accustomed to the view that nuclear-armed adversaries would go to great lengths to avoid direct conventional military provocation for fear of escalation to a nuclear exchange. Questions remain, however, as to whether this remains the case and to what extent such assumptions may be applied to the nuclear dyads in South Asia, namely India-Pakistan and China-India.

In answering these questions, the stability-instability paradox theory is a useful framework. In broad terms, the theory posits that when two countries possess nuclear weapons, the probability of a direct war between them greatly decreases, but the probability of minor or indirect conflicts between them increases. This theory is often associated with the Cold War nuclear strategist, Glenn Snyder, who argued that the fear of mutually assured destruction (MAD) could create a form of stability at a strategic level to that witnessed during the Cold War.1 Conversely, he also argued that nuclear weapons could simultaneously create instability by enabling lower levels of violence that do not rise up the escalatory ladder to the nuclear threshold. In the case of the USSR and the United States, this took the shape of numerous proxy wars throughout the globe, but never in a direct conventional conflict between the two countries.

In other words, by creating a nuclear ceiling that both sides do not wish to breach, there is space for conflict beneath that ceiling. The size of that space is dependent upon the countries involved. In the years that followed, Robert Jervis provided additional insights stemming from dynamics between challengers and status quo powers.2 He argued that challengers would be much more likely to engage in risk taking, including the use of asymmetrical strategies against status quo powers. Utilising—and in some cases challenging—this theoretical framework, this essay will explore symmetrical and asymmetrical conflict in South Asia under the shadow of nuclear weapons. It focuses on how conventional and non-conventional conflict has developed over the last two decades in the India-Pakistan nuclear dyad, followed by a preliminary discussion of some of the risks of such conflict developing in the India-China nuclear dyad in the future.

1 Dr David Brewster is a Senior Research Fellow with the National Security College, Australian
National University where he works on Indian Ocean and Indo Pacific maritime security.