This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

It is now a truism among foreign and defence policy practitioners that the post-Cold War nuclear build-up in the Indo-Pacific region constitutes the dawn of the “second nuclear age", argues the Atlantic Council's report, Asia in the "Second Nuclear Age".

From the 1990s onward, China’s decision to stir out of its strategic languor and modernize its nuclear arsenal, along with the resolve of India and Pakistan to deploy operational nuclear forces, and, more recently, North Korea’s sprint to develop reliable long-range nuclear capabilities that can credibly threaten the continental United States, has led many to aver that the second nuclear age will rival the worst aspects of the first.

During the first nuclear age, baroque nuclear arms build-ups, technical one-upmanship, forward deployed nuclear forces, and trigger-alert operational postures characterized the competition between the superpowers and their regional allies. The nuclear rivals embraced nuclear war-fighting doctrines, which internalized the notion that nuclear weapons were usable instruments in the pursuit of political ends, and that nuclear wars were winnable.

Two rivalries

There is a sense of déjà vu among nuclear pessimists that nuclear developments in China, India, and Pakistan could produce similar outcomes. When North Korea’s nuclear advances are factored in, the prognoses become even direr. More specifically, the second nuclear age consists of two separate systems of nuclear rivalry, with potentially dangerous spillover effects.

The first rivalry is centred on India, Pakistan, and China, with a geographic footprint that overlays the larger Indo-Pacific region. The second rivalry encompasses the Northeast Pacific, overlaying the Korean peninsula, Japan, and the United States. North Korean developments, and a potential US overreaction to them, threaten China’s historic nuclear minimalism and its own interests as an emerging global power.

Similarly, US suggestions of global retreat, and the retraction of extended deterrence guarantees to its allies in Northeast Asia, could push those allies to acquire independent nuclear arsenals and intensify the second nuclear age.

Splendid first-strike

Until very recently, the threat of a nuclear war was thought most likely in South Asia, where India and Pakistan are involved in a festering low-intensity conflict (LIC) fostered by deep conflicts about identity and territory. Specific dangers include Pakistan’s threats to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in a conventional war with India. Likewise, India’s investments in ballistic-missile defences (BMD) and multiple-re-entry vehicle (MRV) technology could, in theory, afford future decision-makers in New Delhi the means to execute splendid first-strike (a counterforce attack intended to disable the opponent’s nuclear capacity before it is used) options against Pakistan.

Prognoses of the nuclear rivalry between India and China are generally less threatening. But, when the latter rivalry is considered in the context of ongoing boundary disputes between New Delhi and Beijing, their self-identification as great powers accounting for nearly 50% of global gross domestic product (GDP) by mid-century, their participation in regional balance-of power-systems, and potential operational brushes between sea-based nuclear forces forward deployed in the Indian Ocean, those concerns invariably overshadow any optimism.

Asia's nuclear future

In the background of the unfolding gloom of the second nuclear age, the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center conducted three workshops in India, Pakistan, and China in the fall of 2016, with the objective of drawing academics, policy practitioners, and analysts in each country to discuss the unfolding nuclear dynamics in the region. All three workshops had a common theme: Assessing Nuclear Futures in Asia.

Under this umbrella theme, workshop participants tackled three specific subjects:

  • The general nature of the strategic competition in Indo-Pacific region;
  • The philosophical approaches shaping nuclear developments in China, India, and Pakistan;
  • The hardware and operational characteristics of their nuclear forces.

The report Asia in the "Second Nuclear Age" presents the findings of the three workshops, in separate sections on China, India, and Pakistan.

What stands out in these findings is that regional participants generally reject the nuclear pessimism in Western capitals. The nuclear “sky is falling” argument, they maintain, is simply not supported by the evidence, at least when evidence is embedded in its proper context.

Key Conclusions

• While the first nuclear age was riven by deep ideological conflicts between two contrarian political systems that viewed the victory of the other as an existential threat, the nuclear rivalry between China, India, and Pakistan is nothing like that.

All three states accept the legitimacy of the international system, to the extent that they share goals of market capitalism, state sovereignty, and multilateral institutionalism. Undoubtedly, the three states have different domestic political systems: authoritarian capitalist (China), liberal democracy (India), and praetorian democracy (Pakistan). Yet, none of these nuclear powers views the domestic political system of another as jeopardizing its own existence.

• At least two among the three nuclear powers – China and India – have vast strategic depth, excellent geographical defences, and strong conventional forces. Neither fears a conventional threat to its existence. Leaderships in both countries have a shared belief that nuclear weapons are political weapons whose sole purpose is to deter nuclear use by others. They also share a common institutional legacy of civilian-dominated nuclear decision-making structures, in which the military is only one partner, and a relatively junior one, among a host of others.

All three factors – the structural, the normative, and the institutional – dampen both countries’ drives toward trigger-ready, destabilizing, operational nuclear postures that lean toward splendid first-strike options.

• However, this reassurance does not extend to Pakistan, which – due to the lack of geographic depth and weaker conventional forces against India – has embraced a first-use nuclear doctrine.

Pakistan’s hybrid praetorian system also allows its military near autonomy in nuclear decision-making. This combination of structural and institutional factors has led Pakistan to elect a rapidly expanding nuclear force that, within a decade, could rival the British, French, and Chinese arsenals in size, though not in sophistication.

Evidence also suggests that Pakistan has developed tactical nuclear weapons, although it does not appear to have operationalized tactical nuclear warfare.

• In the nuclear dynamic in the Indo-Pacific region, India and Pakistan are novice developers of nuclear arsenals; the weapons in their inventory are first-generation fission weapons. Likewise, their delivery systems are the first in the cycle of acquisitions. Their hardware acquisitions generate outside concern because of the scope of their ambitions. Both nations plan to deploy a triad capability.

Nonetheless, this ambitious goal and the selection of technologies underline the central lesson of the nuclear revolution, which is force survival (to enable an assured second-strike capability).

China's goal

• Force survival through secure second-strike capabilities is also China’s goal. It is the only nuclear power among the three that is actually modernizing, i.e., replacing ageing delivery systems with newer and better designs.

Thus far, the evidence suggests that Chinese and Indian explorations of multiple-re-entry vehicle technologies are aimed at reinforcing deterrence through the fielding of more robust second-strike capabilities. This conclusion is also supported by the fact that neither India nor China has, nor is developing, the ancillary intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems necessary to execute splendid first-strike attacks.

Another technology of concern is missile defence. India’s goals vis-à-vis missile defence are still unclear, and its technical successes with the programme are even less evident. Chinese goals are similarly unclear, and appear to be exploratory means for defeating adversarial attempts to stymie its deterrent capability.

• On a more positive note, neither India nor Pakistan is conducting nuclear tests to develop or improve designs for nuclear warheads. The same holds for China. However, Pakistan is rapidly accumulating fissile material, which could increase to four hundred and fifty kilograms of plutonium, sufficient for ninety weapons, and more than 2,500 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU), sufficient for one hundred simple fission warheads by 2020.

India's warheads

India is accumulating approximately 16.6 kilograms of fissile material annually, sufficient for a force of approximately 150-200 warheads, though all fissile material is probably not converted into nuclear warheads.

China, however, is no longer producing fissile material. It is only modestly increasing the size of its arsenal, from 264 to 314 warheads. The size of the Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani arsenals will remain a function of the calculations of damage ratios that each believes essential to achieve deterrence. Yet, if current trends remain stable, the size of their arsenals should remain comparable to the French and British nuclear arsenals. The arsenals will be large, but will by no means approach the gargantuan size of the US or Russian nuclear arsenals.

• Like other regional nuclear powers during the first nuclear age, China, India, and Pakistan might also decide to forego one or more vulnerable legs of their nuclear triad. At present, however, there are no indicators of this happening.

• The nuclear rivalry in South Asia remains ominous, because Pakistan wages LIC against India via non-state actors, while the latter has devised limited conventional-war options to punish the Pakistani military on Pakistani soil. India has also recently hinted that it could abandon nuclear no first use (NFU) in favour of splendid first-strike options. Simultaneously, however, India is backing away from its purported limited-conventional-war doctrine against Pakistan, on the premise that the LIC does not represent an existential threat to Indian security, and that there are other sophisticated methods for dealing with Pakistan’s aggressions that don’t involve pressing nuclear buttons.

The decline in India’s appetite for limited conventional war against Pakistan, if institutionalized over time, would represent a game changer and significantly reduce the risk of nuclear war in the region.

• The big difference between the first and second nuclear ages is the domestic stability of the nuclear-weapon powers. For the greater part of the first nuclear age, states that wielded nuclear arsenals were stable and boasted strong governing institutions.

In Asia – while China and India represent this continuity of strong state institutions, as well as checks and balances on the military – Pakistan remains internally unstable, and increasingly unable to rein in praetorianism over national security and nuclear policy.

Asia in the "Second Nuclear Age", Gaurav Kampani and Bharath Gopalaswamy