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China’s detachment from the South Asian nuclear triangle

Map of China, Russia and India.
Dr Lora Saalman

In contrast with coverage of the recent China–India border conflict, Chinese analysis of nuclear issues in South Asia has been decreasing. As pointed out by Indian, Chinese and US experts, neither China nor India has sought to insert nuclear dynamics into border tensions. Both countries’ past declarations on minimal nuclear deterrence, no first use, and de-mating of warheads and delivery systems, as well as aims for a nuclear-free world, offer greater room for de-escalation than found in India–Pakistan border dynamics. However, there is more to this than simply stated nuclear postures. Chinese official and non-official sources seek to remove China from any descriptions of a South Asian nuclear triangle. This WritePeace blog, based on interviews and Chinese-language sources, explores reasons behind this de-linkage and what it means for future nuclear stability and engagement.

Turning away from nuclear South Asia

For many years, China has considered South Asian nuclear issues to factor only India and Pakistan—but its reluctance to involve itself has strengthened over the past decade. In 2011, when this author hosted a China–India nuclear dialogue that generated an edited volume, one Chinese general expressed surprise at the extent of Indian strategic concerns over China. A 2019 global nuclear review by the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) devoted a single short paragraph to South Asia without any discussion of spill-over effects. Indeed, when preparing for the current project in 2019, a Chinese expert cautioned that a proposed trilateral event with Chinese, Indian and Pakistani experts in Beijing would be poorly perceived in China. In 2020, in nearly 50 interviews with Chinese experts during the most recent China–India border crisis, all interviewees questioned China’s impact on South Asian nuclear issues. And none made a direct connection between the current or even past China–India border tensions and nuclear escalation, much less deterrence. 

These are several potential explanations for this reluctance. First, by taking the strategic element out of its relations with South Asia, China has sought to contain its confrontations with India along their border. The recent conflict in Galwan Valley consisted of low-tech combat, even if conventional and nuclear forces were in the background. Second, despite China’s alleged nuclear and missile assistance to and alignment with Pakistan from the 1970s to the 1990s, China has increasingly stressed its impartiality—both in order to avoid conflict and to undermine Indian narratives of a ‘two-front’ confrontation with China and Pakistan. Third, Chinese analysts have highlighted China’s and India’s shared nuclear posture to maintain that nuclear tensions are non-existent. They further argue that, while remaining impartial in regional conflicts, China has largely played a stabilizing role by recalibrating Pakistan’s asymmetry. Fourth, since both India and Pakistan are non-signatories of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, they are relegated in Chinese narratives to a separate category. Fifth, Chinese nuclear strategists are fixated on the United States and, to a lesser degree, Russia. Those few Chinese nuclear experts who focus on South Asia have turned their research to North Korea and the South China Sea. Given that the majority of them are also based in Shanghai or Chengdu, they have had a muted impact on China’s often US-centric nuclear dialogues in Beijing

Rising and falling interest in nuclear South Asia

Chinese analysts have not always been dismissive of South Asian nuclear issues. In 1998 Chinese coverage increased after India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear tests, and it expanded rapidly when the USA lifted its sanctions on India in the early 2000s, yielding civil nuclear, military, and science and technology agreements. Still, the discussion in China largely revolved around US engagement of India, rather than a direct threat posed by India towards China. The challenges that India and the USA have encountered in achieving substantive civil nuclear and military deals, combined with China’s other priorities, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, have shifted Chinese attention. While the US announcement of an Indo-Pacific strategy in 2017 re-ignited some Chinese interest, the majority of online analyses and side panels related to this strategy in China have been broad and non-nuclear in scope. 

Nevertheless, some of these Chinese perspectives and dynamics may be changing. There has been renewed momentum behind the US Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) of Australia, India, Japan and the USA, propelled in part by the recent China–India border crisis. Further, the US presidential campaigns of both Donald J. Trump and Joe Biden have made engaging India and standing up to China part of their platforms. Much as with India–USA rapprochement in the early 2000s, the extent to which this translates into concrete outcomes remains to be seen. However, one thing is certain: Chinese coverage of South Asia continues to be dominated and distorted by the US lens. Among Chinese experts interviewed by the author, nearly all cited the USA as central to South Asian nuclear dynamics. 

Looking at nuclear South Asia through the US lens

To better understand the psychology behind these trends, it is noteworthy that Chinese publications on South Asia use similar terminology to that used in analyses on China–USA nuclear dynamics. Chinese analysts assail India’s use of its nuclear status to solidify its ‘hegemony’ and ‘absolute advantage’, thereby cementing its asymmetrical military dominance over Pakistan. Much as in Chinese writing on the US impact on China’s own nuclear programme, interviews and publications recount how Pakistan was ‘forced’ to develop nuclear weapons through being coerced into responding to a stronger adversary. 

Of course, this is not a direct one-to-one comparison. There is a power differential between China and Pakistan, just as there is between India and the USA. Yet each country’s position in the larger Chinese narrative of nuclear South Asia suggests how power balances rank. While Pakistan seeks survival against India as a regional hegemon, China seeks survival against the USA as a global hegemon. So, although China’s support for Pakistan has drivers that relate to the latter’s strategic location, impact on Xinjiang and effort to balance US regional influence, analysts often miss China’s self-identification with Pakistan’s asymmetry and long-standing desire to champion the weak against the strong.

Dismissing Indian threat perceptions on nuclear South Asia

Just as Chinese writers use a US nuclear lens to define relationships in South Asia, they apply the same approach in dismissing Indian arguments that a ‘China threat’ is convincing, much less real. A similar pattern has a long history in Chinese analyses on the USA, which conclude that the latter uses China as an excuse for its military deployments and technological advances. Thus, while some Chinese writers acknowledge India’s concerns over China, the majority argue that India is using an imagined enemy to justify its pursuit of ‘great power’ politics, games and military ambitions. 

While they discount the Indian perception of China as a threat, some Chinese analyses still catalogue Indian military programmes, particularly in maritime and aerospace. Among those receiving mention that have implications for China are the Aerobic Vehicle for Trans-atmospheric Hypersonic Aerospace Transportation (AVATAR) and Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle, the BrahMos cruise missile, the Agni-III and Agni-V ballistic missiles, the Su-30MKI combat aircraft and the Arihant-class submarine. However, these platforms are often framed in the context of India–Pakistan relations, and in some cases simply constitute a generic list of Indian advances.

Thus, while a few Chinese analyses may note the potential for India’s Agni-V to strike Beijing and may detail India’s achievements—in inertial navigation and positioning technologies, ring laser gyroscopes, composite rocket power control technology and composite material technology—the bulk discuss these advances in a vacuum. As India extends the range of its submarine-launched ballistic missiles and seeks to deploy BrahMos cruise missiles on submarines, Chinese coverage of technology may catch up to the strategic analyses on the Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quad. In the meantime, however, Chinese analyses and interviews reveal that there is only one domain that matters in South Asian nuclear dynamics: the land border between India and Pakistan.

Engaging foreign audiences on nuclear South Asia

There is no question that open-source publications and interviews have their limits, particularly when Chinese experts interact with a foreign, much less US, researcher. While Chinese-language publications may be more explicit and less guarded, they are also subject to an internal review process. During interviews with this author, some Chinese experts explicitly denounced any US attempts to drag China into South Asian strategic issues. Others did this implicitly by glossing over or omitting China’s and even Russia’s impact on nuclear South Asia, instead focusing only on US interference in the region. 

Still, comparing Chinese publications and interviews with the author’s previous research in China suggests that the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Forces and the Western Theatre Command pay more attention to South Asian nuclear trends than is often admitted. A few English-language analyses conducted by Chinese experts have also raised the possibility that DF-21 missiles deployed in north-western and south-western China may be nuclear armed, and that China may have deployed dual-capable DF-26 missiles in south-western China and even Xinjiang. Overall, military installations and missile deployments in the west of China and periodic landing of the H-6K strategic bomber in Tibet indicate that South Asian contingencies and deterrence are a factor within China, even if not always in open Chinese-language analysis.

Diversifying the South Asian nuclear geometry

Although there are indications of wider discussion behind closed doors, Chinese publications and interviews reveal a conscious—and at times unconscious—effort to avoid being included in a South Asian nuclear triangle. China’s impact is regularly omitted from Chinese coverage of debates in India over the future of the latter’s no-first-use policy. Even in cases where the intended aim is clear—as with the potential for the Agni-V to hit Beijing—Chinese analyses divert their attention—even citing the potential for India’s planned Agni-VI to threaten US territory. Whether narrowing the scope to the India–Pakistan dyad or expanding it to the India–Pakistan–USA triad, China is lost somewhere in the middle. 

In doing so, there is a potential for Chinese analysts to misread and underestimate the spill-over effect of South Asia nuclear dynamics. This could arise from assumptions about the lack of China’s impact on South Asia nuclear dynamics, self-identification with Pakistan on asymmetry, or alignment with India on nuclear posture. South Asia is much more complex than simply a nuclear triangle of China, India and Pakistan, much less an India–Pakistan nuclear dyad. Irrespective of shape or label, Chinese analyses indicate an intent to disconnect China from regional nuclear dynamics. Since the deterrence calculus in India and Pakistan continues to incorporate China, this could lead to mis-signalling and even escalation. 

One way to address China’s de-linkage would be to set aside the triangular discussions of the past and to focus on a more representative set of dynamics that includes not just India, Pakistan and China, but also Russia, a historical military supplier, and the USA. If China is intent on removing itself from one geometric pattern, then a new one is needed that is more representative of the complexity of these nuclear dynamics and distortions. Such novel and creative formulations would not only be beneficial in re-engaging China, but also to expanding other countries’ understanding of broader nuclear dynamics that have an impact on South Asia.

This is the first in a series of SIPRI WritePeace blogs that will explore nuclear narratives surrounding nuclear dynamics in South Asia.


Dr Lora Saalman is an Associate Senior Fellow within SIPRI’s Armament and Disarmament and Conflict and Peace research areas and a Senior Fellow in the Global Cooperation in Cyberspace Program at the EastWest Institute​​​​​​​.