Testing the Feasibility of Nuclear Confidence-Building in Southern Asia

24 Mar, 2020    ·   5665

Shivani Singh reviews three prominent recommendations, identifies roadblocks, and proposes a way forward

Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Researcher, Nuclear Security Programme (NSP)

The next NPT Review Conference (RevCon)—held every five years—is so far scheduled for this year. Although India is neither party to the NPT nor an observer state at the RevCon, the deliberations and their conclusions will still have some bearing on countries such as India that are part of normative nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament frameworks. In any case, the success of such regimes is contingent upon cooperation from India and other nuclear-armed states like it. In this light, what is India’s record in proposing steps to strengthen said regimes? What are the primary obstacles to their implementation? Can these roadblocks be overcome?

Regional Roadblocks to India’s Global Efforts

India has been a steadfast advocate of complete, verifiable, and non-discriminatory disarmament. This was made clear very early on by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in his 1988 UN General Assembly address. This goal, advocated through a step-by-step approach, was most recently reiterated by India at the 74th session of the UNGA in 2019.

Similar efforts include India’s support for calls for a Comprehensive Nuclear Weapons Convention in the Conference on Disarmament (CD). India also tabled two resolutions in 2019: Convention on Prohibition of Use of Nuclear Weapons, and reducing nuclear danger arising from an accidental threat or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons.

However, these efforts have not meaningfully materialised at the regional level in South Asia, which is heavily shaped by its security dynamics, particularly India’s deterrence relationship with Pakistan and China.

Most, if not all, of India’s international commitments and proposals are built to address the trust deficit among states that have nuclear weapons programmes. The challenge to these initiatives is that a precise articulation of this trust-related goal is still lacking. These efforts will therefore continue to be stymied by more practical concerns about regional distrust and nuclear instability in South Asia.  

A Review of Three Recommendations

Several recommendations to overcome these regional roadblocks have been proposed. This article will consider the feasibility of the three most prominent suggestions.

One is the proposal for a global multilateral agreement/political statement on no first use (NFU). While a trilateral NFU pledge between China, India, and Pakistan could in theory significantly reduce their threat perceptions of each other, practical challenges remain. Pakistan does not consider India’s NFU pledge credible. While India maintains that its NFU is rock solid, observers believe that the current ambiguity around it is further compounded by the country’s growing investments in its nuclear triad. China’s NFU is similarly viewed with scepticism, particularly in India. Pakistan does not have an NFU, and the nuclear-arms build-up is rationalised by its perceived existential threat from India. It is therefore difficult to imagine a scenario in which, given the different motivations guiding their declaratory postures, the three countries come together to discuss a trilateral—or even bilateral—NFU undertaking.  

Two, trilateral political engagement between China, India, and Pakistan for cooperation on arms control, and as a way to diminish the security dilemma, has also been suggested. However, this, too, does not pass the feasibility test. China does not recognise India as a legitimate nuclear power, or see it as a security threat. Since the Indian nuclear tests in 1998, and its refusal to join the NPT, China has kept nuclear issues of regional and global concern out of bilateral discussions with India. While the equation could change in the future as India becomes more pivotal in the Indo-Pacific, it is not clear whether, even then, China will consider it opportune to have a bilateral nuclear dialogue.

As far as Pakistan is concerned, important agreements like non-attack of nuclear facilities and prior notification of military exercises exist. However, given prevailing tensions, a new agreement, particularly one that focuses on mutual arms control, is not likely. Any such agreement would have to take stock of Pakistan’s asymmetric warfare strategy as well as its full-spectrum deterrence posture. India, too, may be reluctant to participate in any such discussion, seeing it as a further hyphenation of their relations. Together, all these issues will greatly limit consensus-building.

The third popular recommendation is a regional dialogue on  nuclear policies and doctrines. This would include an open exchange of information on nuclear stockpiles and verification systems. This appears to be the most insurmountable proposal—no state will agree to more transparency in one of their opaquest issue areas, arguing that this will be counter to national security.


The negative assessment of these proposals is not to discredit their merit. Indeed, as international stalemates on nuclear issues increase, a consideration of dialogue at the regional level will, and must, take greater precedence. Given the preponderance of challenges, however, it is important to start with what these problems are, and how they may be addressed. Past precedence shows that initiating regional nuclear CBMs is not impossible. What it needs is a  concrete roadmap to address political and diplomatic roadblocks—and that is where China, India, and Pakistan could begin.


Shivani Singh is a Researcher with the Nuclear Security Programme at IPCS and an MPhil scholar at the Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament (CIPOD), JNU.