Changing Nature of Deterrence Discourse in South Asia vs International Discourse

“Deterrence stability is a better framework for conceptualizing and redressing the nuclear challenge in South Asia than focusing on preventing ‘loose nukes’ and nuclear terrorism.”

– George Perkovich, November 13, 2012

Deterrence discourse in South Asia has been altering since the advent of nuclear weapons in the region. The concept of deterrence in South Asia has changed from what it was in the late 1990s, and has evolved according to the contemporary security and political architecture of the region. The security dilemma in South Asia “operates as a chain reaction that involves regional and extra-regional powers with competing interests,” namely China, India and Pakistan. Thus, while shaping the eventual policy direction in this regard, taking the perceived national interests of each state into account is of great importance.

There were various factors driving India to develop nuclear weapons. Internationally, New Delhi’s perspective is that its program was driven by its reservations about China, which had nuclear weapons, but experts also cite its desire to achieve “great-power status” as a powerful motivation. Realistically speaking, New Delhi’s nuclear program was initiated before China’s 1964 nuclear test.  In fact, Nehru appears the architect of India’s doctrine of nuclear ambiguity, formulated to pursue a weapons course. The groundwork for nuclear weapons technology seems to have been laid as part of the civilian nuclear program during Nehru’s government, who was generally believed to be a staunch opponent of nuclear weapons. It was just after the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict that Dr. Homi Bhabha, came out more openly in favor of the Indian development of a nuclear deterrent. On the other hand, Pakistan’s troubled relationship with India explains its possession of nuclear weapons. Initially, the endeavor was just to generate a deterrence equation with arch-rival India, where minimum credible deterrence was considered adequate to deter the adversary, thus effectively guaranteeing deterrence stability.

But later, India devised a new doctrine called Cold Start, to respond to any discernible threat from Pakistan, motivating Islamabad to employ a new deterrent mechanism by introducing short range tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) in the region. Pakistan felt the need to develop TNWs in order to balance out conventional asymmetry between the two nations, as per Lt. Gen Khalid Kidwai, an advisor to Pakistan’s National Command Authority. With this, tactical deterrence commenced in South Asia, after which many Pakistani analysts believe that testing and upgrading TNWs will need to continue, to balance out this conventional asymmetry.

According to Bernard Brodie, a nuclear bomb is a weapon of peace and not a weapon for use. Nuclear deterrence is all about war avoidance and not war-fighting strategy. Brig (Retd) Samson Simon Sharaf, political economist and a television anchor, has called  deterrence “a cost-benefit analysis of the gains and losses in credible, capable and hostile environments, with a common and well understood strategic concept and language between the adversaries warranting a constant appraisal of capabilities and vulnerabilities.”

Deterrence in South Asia has faced many challenges in its progression, in the same manner as the evolution of the U.S. and Russian deterrence relations faced during the Cold War. According to Brig. Sharaf, “Regarding the changing dynamics of deterrence in South Asia, Pakistan’s fear of becoming vulnerable to a first strike (and/or a desire to attain first-strike capability) gives technology a central role in deterrence, and tends to fuel a high-intensity qualitative arms race. Pakistan has to develop and adopt effective controls on the Graduated Escalation Ladder both in conventional and nuclear forces to retain the initiative of nuclear retaliation.”

The number of nuclear weapons enough to maintain/ensure nuclear deterrence has continued to trouble nuclear deterrence theorists, strategists and policy-makers in the post-Cold War period. Meanwhile, the world’s nuclear weapons stockpile is estimated to be at 15,850, and all states possessing nuclear weapons, in one way or another, are constantly modifying and modernizing their nuclear inventories. No state will place a number or cap at what it considers to be a sufficient nuclear force for credible deterrence.

In South Asia, India and Pakistan, nuclear-armed neighbors and adversaries, have estimated stockpiles of 90-110 and 100-120 respectively, according to estimates from the SIPRI Yearbook 2015. Both countries have committed policies of minimum nuclear deterrence and no-nuclear arms race. While India seeks to maintain a nuclear force sufficient to deter mainly China and Pakistan, Pakistan maintains that it seeks a deterrent equilibrium vis a vis India and not nuclear parity.

Unlike the Western understanding of deterrence, South Asian states do not consider the use of force by nuclear states undesirable to achieve foreign policy objectives. This might be one of the reasons that the nuclear-armed, antagonistic neighbors are not taking serious steps towards crisis management, in terms of coming up with a doctrine. Instead, both use deterrent signaling to avoid potential conflict. It does not matter whether the adversary perceives that signal as weak or strong— it successfully ensures deterrence. Major wars between India and Pakistan have been avoided due to this nuclear signaling game (more specifically deterrence signaling game).  

Hence, deterrence discourse depends on the strategic behavior of the state, as to how it perceives a supposed threat, and what measures it adopts to tackle it. “Thus, strategic behavior of states engaged in nuclear rivalries tends to be schizophrenic, treating nuclear weapons sometimes as revolutionary and sometimes as conventional.” Nevertheless, despite the altering nature of deterrence, as George Perkovich mentions, it is “key to avoiding conflict and potential escalation to nuclear war.”


Image: Nicolas Raymond, Flickr


Posted in , Deterrence, History, India, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan

Beenish Altaf

Beenish Altaf

Beenish Altaf is working as a Research Associate at the Strategic Vision Institute, an Islamabad based think tank. Her areas of research are nuclear non-proliferation and strategic issues of South Asia. She has a masters degree in Defence and Diplomatic Studies from Fatima Jinnah Women University. Furthermore, she writes regularly for national and international dailies.

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One thought on “Changing Nature of Deterrence Discourse in South Asia vs International Discourse

  1. Beenish – thanks for another interesting post. In your view, what are the implications of – or risks of – two adversarial states taking differing approaches to answering the question of “how much is enough” with respect to nuclear weapons? Did the United States and Soviet Union do this? Is there evidence that India and Pakistan take differing approaches to answering the question, if yes, how so? Thanks

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