The Deterrence Trilemma: South Asia’s Nuclear Landscape in 2035

This article aims to fill a critical analytical gap regarding the impact of China's expected nuclear buildup by laying out the current South Asia nuclear landscape.

FacebookTwitterLinkedInEmailCopy Link

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD)’s Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China 2022 states that China is expected to expand its nuclear stockpile to 1,500 warheads by 2035 based on current modernization efforts. The 2023 iteration of the report estimates that China will have 1,000 operational nuclear warheads by 2030 and is currently on track to exceed previous projections. Concern about China’s growing nuclear capability has led to questions surrounding what the 2035 nuclear landscape will look like if current projections come to fruition.

China’s efforts to expand its nuclear stockpile also affect South Asia, a region with three countries that possess nuclear weapons and a long history of border disputes that shapes escalation dynamics and crisis management. The impact of China’s nuclear expansion in the region is overlooked in policy discussions in the West. This article aims to fill a critical analytical gap regarding the impact of China’s expected nuclear buildup by laying out the current South Asia nuclear landscape. The trilateral nature of nuclear deterrence in this region is a potent reminder of why Western policymakers need to pay attention to the China-India-Pakistan nuclear trilemma and landscape.

Nuclear Trilemma

The nuclear trilemma in South Asia has various relationship dynamics. These include India’s historically contentious relations with China and Pakistan amid military cooperation between the two countries. The drivers of the South Asia trilemma include reasons such as “asymmetry in capabilities, changing security alignments and emerging strategic rivalries.” There are layers of complexities that contribute to the current state of the trilemma. One includes nuclear postures and threat perception. China and India both follow an assured nuclear retaliation posture with a survivable second-strike force. China’s nuclear deterrent aims to be dependable, survivable, and one that can penetrate an adversary’s defenses following a nuclear attack. India’s doctrine aims to deter a nuclear attack by having retaliatory capability against a potential strike from both Pakistan and China. Pakistan maintains ambiguity over its nuclear policy and follows an asymmetric escalation posture, which includes threatening the first use of nuclear weapons in a conventional crisis. Statements from military officials clarify Pakistan’s nuclear policy, placing India at the center of its threat environment. In a public speech, Lt. General Khalid Kidwai, adviser to the Pakistan Nuclear Command Authority, mentioned full-spectrum capability, a policy aimed at keeping India’s “aggressive designs, including the Indian military’s Cold Start Doctrine, in check.”

Another layer of complexity arises from  no first use (NFU) policies, pledges not to use nuclear weapons first in the event of an attack. India and China are the only two countries to pledge such a policy globally. Concerns have recently arisen over their NFU commitments. Indian strategists and experts raised concerns over China’s NFU. In a recent study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Indian experts expressed concern regarding whether China would abide by its NFU policy if it were attacked by conventional weapons in Arunachal Pradesh. These concerns include entanglement of nuclear and conventional platforms and India’s lack of engagement with China, raising questions on the credibility of the policy. Recent statements by India have also raised questions regarding its NFU, with Indian defense minister Rajanth Singh commenting during a tour of the Pokhran test site in 2019 that “future [NFU] policy will depend on the situation.” Pakistan called the statement “shocking and irresponsible,” while China did not issue a response. While there is no indication that China and India have sought a policy reversal, it prompts questions on how future circumstances shape this policy.

Conventional military forces also shape deterrence in the region. Given Pakistan’s weak conventional forces in comparison to India, Pakistan cannot forgo the option of first nuclear use. India faces a similar problem regarding conventional military power vis-à-vis China. Moreover, growing military cooperation between Pakistan and China proves consequential for India’s conventional forces. This cooperation dates back to the development of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, with declassified intelligence revealing Chinese-language material in nuclear weapons designs that Pakistan provided to Libya. The documents claimed that China and Pakistan’s adversarial relationship toward India led to the development of a close military cooperation between the two, causing the current security alignment in the region. Current DOD estimates reveal that China is considering developing People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military logistics facilities in Pakistan. There are concerns from India regarding China’s “political support and flow of technology” to Pakistan. This security alignment, with India on one end, and China and Pakistan on the other, has led to the trilateral nature of deterrence in the region. This influences the nuclear escalation dynamics in the context of ongoing border disputes.

Escalation Dynamics

Nuclear escalation dynamics in South Asia involve the entanglement of border disputes, nuclear signaling, and rhetoric. These border disputes come from conflicts in disputed territories along the India-China and India-Pakistan borders. Escalation dynamics in the region primarily involve conventional options but escalate to subsequent nuclear signaling and rhetoric. While this intention is not formally declared, border disputes create an opportunity to adopt these nuclear signaling and rhetorical responses. Table 1 highlights border disputes as well as the timelines of subsequent nuclear signaling and rhetoric. The borders along which disputes have taken place are the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China and the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan.

EventTimelineStatesNuclear Signaling and Rhetoric
Line of Actual Control
Tawang Border Issue12/9/2022China, IndiaOn December 15, 2022, India test-fired the Agni-5 nuclear-capable ballistic missile to strengthen its deterrence against China.
Galwan Valley Standoff6/15/2020China, IndiaOn February 19, 2021, video emerged of People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force soldiers pledging allegiance to Chinese sovereignty, with visuals of nuclear-capable DF missiles.

On March 26, 2021, China conducted a preparedness exercise for the DF-31AG and prepared the missile for testing for regional deterrence.
Line of Control
Pulwama and Balakot Crisis2/14/2019; 2/26/2019India, PakistanAt a campaign rally on April 21, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that if an Indian pilot had not been freed, India would have unleashed a “night of murder.” He also confirmed that India had a package of missile strikes in response.
Uri Attack9/18/2016; 9/28/2016India, PakistanOn January 19, 2017, Pakistan threatened that it would use nuclear weapons and take necessary measures to defend itself, “should India invade.”
Table 1: Border Disputes and Nuclear Signaling in South Asia

In this context, disputes occur along two border lines. The first is along the LAC, a 2,100-mile border between India and China. The Tawang border dispute was the latest incident, when India accused Chinese troops of encroaching on Indian territory. While resolved immediately via diplomatic channels, India conducted a test-fire of its Agni-5 ballistic missile in a show of deterrence against China, though the move elicited no response from China. The Tawang border issue followed the Galwan Valley standoff, the deadliest border clash between India and China since the Sino-Indian War in 1962. The clash occurred along the LAC, when India suspected China of setting up camp in a mutually agreed buffer zone, resulting in casualties on both sides. China released a video of People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) soldiers pledging allegiance to the DF intercontinental ballistic missile, followed by a preparedness exercise. There was no Indian response to the exercise.

The second area of dispute is along the LoC, a 450-mile border between India and Pakistan that is not legally recognized. The two case studies detailed here involve Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), a Pakistan-based militant group. The Pulwama attack was a suicide attack by a JeM assailant that killed 40 Indian soldiers, leading to a retaliatory strike by India at a JeM site in Balakot, followed by Pakistan retaliatory strikes in India-administered Kashmir. An Indian air force pilot was taken captive by Pakistan and released days later as a “gesture of peace,” putting an end to the conflict. After the incident, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi used the term “night of terror” in a campaign rally and later confirmed that India prepared for missile strikes if the pilot was not returned, a move which Pakistan denounced. The attack on the Indian army camp in Uri led to India responding with surgical strikes on suspected militant camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. During the following tensions, Pakistan threatened to use nuclear weapons if India invaded. There was no formal response from India.

China adopts the policy of neutrality over the Kashmir issue, though India views the policy as more “pro-Pakistan,” due to earlier years of conflict on either side of the border, with China and Pakistan forging a friendship due to their problems with India. However, China continues to defend its policy of neutrality despite its military closeness with Pakistan. It is believed that China’s pro-Pakistan policy during the Kargil War pivoted after Pakistan’s nuclear test, carried out against the advice of China.

Based on the two case studies along the LAC, it is evident that the border disputes, and subsequent escalatory behavior, arise from accusations of territorial encroachment. Poorly defined borders also exacerbate the situation, given the difficult terrain along the borders. India and China have not formally responded to each other’s signaling. The LoC case studies highlight the impact of militant groups and the military conflicts that occur in territories despite demarcations, resulting in nuclear rhetoric by both countries. Across both border lines, there is a lack of trust that further exacerbates border disputes and creates an environment for nuclear signaling and rhetoric.

Crisis Communications

As border disputes continue, hotlines serve as a mechanism to ensure communications within the region. There is no public information regarding any ongoing direct nuclear command and control hotlines. While India and China have planned to set up a high-level military and foreign minister hotline, there has been no development from either side. They engage in communications between border personnel and corps commanders. Pakistan and India have maintained hotlines between foreign ministers in the region since 2004. Border disputes have impacted communications in the past, often requiring third parties in the de-escalation process. The United States has also played a role in managing crises in the region, such as in the 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan. While the Kargil War was not nuclear, the United States urged Pakistan to conduct a force withdrawal along the border with India. During the war, China maintained its policy of neutrality, calling for Pakistan to resolve the dispute using peaceful methods.

While hotlines can help to prevent nuclear escalation in the region, an incident in 2022 highlights problems with crisis communications. India’s accidental firing of a BrahMos supersonic cruise missile into Pakistan sparked questions on nuclear security and crisis communications in the region. The BrahMos is a supersonic cruise missile with a single warhead capability and is not considered part of India’s nuclear forces, though it is nuclear capable. This occurred during a time of relative peace between the countries and caused no civilian casualties. India stated that a technical malfunction led to the missile’s accidental firing during routine maintenance, acknowledging its error and beginning an internal court of inquiry. However, Pakistan raised questions regarding India’s security protocols as well as the lack of communication over the nuclear hotline with India. It claimed that India did not report the incident to Pakistan, waiting for the latter’s announcement to respond. China continued its neutrality in the situation, calling for both countries to maintain regional stability.

Crisis communication in the region works to prevent a nuclear strike, but there is always an underlying concern of a breakdown in communications during a military conflict. The recent accidental missile firing places pressure on communications. There is also a reputational problem in the region where failures to reach consensus on the disputed territories signal intransigence and, in turn, exacerbate crisis management. The region still has a long way to go when establishing best practices in crisis communications. Moreover, China’s statements regarding peaceful resolve and regional stability highlight its concerns about escalation between the countries, even as it maintains military closeness with Pakistan.


China’s modernization efforts highlight patterns of increased threat perception and modernization in South Asia. India might consider ramping up developments of its capabilities in response to China, and Pakistan will respond to India’s developments. India has already begun nuclear weapons modernization to deal with the regional threat it faces from China. This will also cause Pakistan to respond, just as it has done in the past with its nuclear weapons program. While Pakistan and China continue to cooperate militarily, it is evident that China has historically tried to stay away from conversations regarding Pakistan’s nuclear signaling.

The deep mistrust, accusations of encroachment, and poorly defined borders contribute to escalatory behavior. India’s accidental missile firing raises concerns around crisis communication in the region. The region has avoided misreading nuclear signals, but the threat remains. Efforts to develop the China-India ministerial hotline need to be ramped up by both countries to ensure that communication lines between senior leaders remains open. Indian and Pakistani officials need to engage in a dialogue over the accidental missile firing and identify lapses in the use of hotlines to ensure that these lines of communication stay open to prevent further escalation. De-escalation at lower thresholds could prevent the threat of nuclear signaling in the long term.

China’s nuclear expansion by 2035 is decisive in shaping the South Asia region. China does not see India and Pakistan in the same nuclear threat environment as the United States, but its nuclear expansion is causing ripple effects across the region. This needs to be considered not just by China but by the United States, particularly as it forges stronger defense ties with India while maintaining its own dynamic with China and Pakistan. This is crucial context as the United States continues its analysis of China’s military buildup through efforts such as the DOD’s annual report on China’s military power. An important takeaway regarding the nuclear landscape is that the trilateral nature of deterrence, now prominent in the U.S.-Russia-China discourse, is not as novel as it seems. The South Asia trilemma provides lessons for the United States to consider as it moves toward its own trilemma. As the U.S. strengthens its military cooperation with India, platforms such as the Quad and 2+2 ministerial dialogues provide policymakers an opportunity to discuss India’s escalation dynamics alongside China and Pakistan’s military responses. This in turn could help the United States develop lessons and best practices for addressing its trilateral concerns with China and Russia. It could also provide the United States an avenue to reconsider hypothetical situations involving the entanglement of military conflicts and nuclear signaling at different thresholds.

FacebookTwitterLinkedInEmailCopy Link