Understanding Nuclear Postures, Weapons and Technologies in South Asia

Author: Khanijo, Roshan

Published in National Security Journal, 27 February 2022

DOI: 10.36878/nsj20220227.07  

Download full PDF version – Understanding Nuclear Postures, Weapons and Technologies in South Asia ( 305 KB)


Geographic realities and emerging technologies play a significant role in challenging strategic stability. In South Asia, the geographical proximity of India, China and Pakistan is exacerbated by contentious borders, deteriorating diplomatic relations and the mounting collusive Pakistan-China relationship. This dynamic environment merits an analysis of evolving nuclear postures, weapon systems and the development of new technologies, which may challenge strategic stability. Furthermore, tactical nuclear weapons, unmanned weapons and asymmetric warfare, have a tendency to escalate situations and to impact confidence building measures. This essay examines the nuclear postures and weapon systems of China and Pakistan and recommends methods to maintain the status quo.

Keywords: emerging technologies, strategic stability, second-strike capability,
full-spectrum deterrence, asymmetric warfare


India is geographically flanked by two nuclear-armed states, China and Pakistan. Aside from the prevalent border disagreements among these states, the past few years have also witnessed a significant degradation of diplomatic relations between China and India with crises unfolding in Doklam and the Galwan Valley.1 Any nuclear discussion analysing the threat environment of South Asia, therefore, must also include the nuclear positioning of China. The traditional methods of discussing South Asian relations from a purely dyadic India-Pakistan perspective have become obsolete. Insisting on regional compartmentalisation could lead to short sightedness when examining inter-state communication and positioning.

Further, the geographic realities must be weighed against the significant global revolution in the realm of emerging technologies.2 These technologies possess the ability to change the nature of conflict altogether, threatening the precarious strategic stability in the region. This is even more salient in South Asia in light of the close relationship between China and Pakistan, under which the former serves as a major arms exporter to the latter. In fact, Pakistan has been the main recipient of Chinese exports from 1990s. If accounting for the data over just the last few years, Pakistan has received 35 percent of China’s total arms exports from 2015-2019.3 Given the rapid rate of China’s military modernisation, there is a distinct possibility of emerging technologies inevitably making their way to Pakistan.

In light of these interrelated trends, it is imperative to discuss South Asian nuclear challenges in a trilateral manner. Globalisation has impacted the way nation states interact with each other, and nuclear weapons can no longer be assessed from the lens of a country’s nuclear posture alone. The intersection of commercial and military interests ensures that there is a constant cross-fertilisation of policy decisions, as countries respond to threats and incentives from neighbours and competitors on the global stage. Any new technology has a cascading effect. For example, the development of weapon technologies by the United States and Russia in the past, as with the development of ballistic missile defence (BMD) and multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) often gave China a reason to compete to develop similar weapons, which has had an effect on threat perceptions and balancing within South Asia.

Furthermore, India’s ongoing border disputes with both Pakistan and China provide a baseline for skirmishes to escalate extremely quickly. India cannot afford to have a large technological gap as this will embolden its adversaries to adopt a more provocative stance through the use of emerging technologies and intensify asymmetric warfare. This, in turn, could adversely affect the delicate status quo within the region and may impact the nuclear deterrence, considering there is an absence of credible confidence building measures (CBMs) between the countries. Given this interconnected tapestry, a genealogy of conflict in South Asia must examine the interlinkages between the various countries rather than their individual projections in silos. As such, this essay will unravel the nuclear postures and emerging technologies of Pakistan and China and their impact on strategic stability in the region.

1 Dr Roshan Khanijo is Assistant Director (Research) with the Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation (CS3) at the United Service Institution of India (USI).