Assuming that nuclear weapons are going to be around for the foreseeable future, I hope to see more focus on managing India and Pakistan’s growing risk environment, particularly those risks that could increase the probability of nuclear use. For this, I would expect examinations of bilateral (and trilateral, to include China) nuclear dynamics to be contextualised in at least three broader trends. The first is geopolitical. We acknowledge, narrowly, that US nuclear developments have an impact on the Chinese capability build-up; China’s on Indian strategic thinking; and thereon on Pakistan’s nuclear trajectory. What our research lacks is an equal recognition of the role of geopolitics—such as US-China relations and its impact on regional security, or the Russia-Ukraine war—in shaping the nuclear strategies of states like India and Pakistan. The second is demystifying the emerging military applications of technologies and their ramifications for nuclear deterrence, as both India and Pakistan are engaged in multi-faceted technological development. The third broad trend is nuclear nationalism. Keeping an eye on how identity politics interfaces with the two other trends (geopolitics and emerging technologies) will be key to deciphering nuclear risk and assessing the demands of risk absorption in Southern Asia.
Since the overt nuclearization in 1998, both India and Pakistan have come a long way in their nuclear learning process. Although heavily influenced by the Cold War experiences of the United States and the former Soviet Union, the nuclear learning process of New Delhi and Islamabad was not linear and carried both positive and negative aspects. Over the past 25 years, both nuclear rivals have gradually increased the number of nuclear weapons, diversified their delivery means, established command and control systems, and consolidated their nuclear policies to a greater extent. Nonetheless, they have largely gone against the contention of nuclear revolution theory that mutual vulnerability created by nuclear weapons will significantly alter the state behaviour leading to more cooperation among states to stabilize deterrence. Unlike the Cold War model, India and Pakistan have failed to achieve strategic stability or establish some bilateral risk reduction measures. On the contrary, the recent Pulwama/Balakot crisis indicated a higher threshold for risk acceptance by both states.
Going forward, this behaviour indicates a precarious future where any miscalculation may lead to a serious crisis. In the next 25 years, South Asia is likely to witness a competitive nuclear approach that is already manifesting in the form of attempts to acquire nuclear superiority through the development of missile defence system, adoption of counterforce doctrines, the revival of limited nuclear war pursuits as well as the willingness to fight a conventional war under the nuclear overhang.
In the absence of meaningful political dialogue to resolve bilateral issues including Kashmir and alleged terrorism against one another and lack of effective communication channels to reduce the chance of inadvertent war, the risk of any future crisis escalating to the nuclear level remains high.