The politics of nuclear weapons have always been complex and enigmatic. A testament to this reality came during the course of the current year, which not only saw a little over a quarter of UN member states agreeing to a nuclear weapons prohibition treaty, but was witnessed two major standoffs between nuclear-armed states, with one of these threatening to escalate into a nuclear conflagration.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear weapons could be viewed in two ways. One view is that the imperative of disarmament and total elimination of nuclear weapons is necessitated by the indomitable risk of nuclear war that would always hang like a Sword of Damocles as long as nuclear weapons exist. The other view is that the underlying rationale of the treaty lies in the palpable progression towards a post-proliferation world – that proliferation risks have substantially diminished, that nations are less likely to go to nuclear war and that the time is ripe for progression from non-proliferation to disarmament and total elimination. Inherent in both views is the role of nuclear deterrence – either its efficacy in mitigating nuclear conflict and nations finding it as a means to security and power, or its potency in sustaining the urge to acquire nuclear weapons capability. The irony about nuclear affairs – be it about the causes of proliferation or the impact of deterrence – is that there is ample empirical evidence to support and make convincing both these arguments.
The same applies to the Asian stand-offs: the India-China tussle over Doklam, and the unrelenting face-off between North Korea and the US and its East Asian allies. The crisis in the Korean peninsula is marked by enormity: a nuclear-armed despot tacitly backed by two great powers that switch sides according to the geo-strategic situation taking on a coalition led by the hegemon and its allies spearheading a global resistance against the despot’s brinkmanship. The gravity in this theatre lies in the fact that all the primary actors are either nuclear-armed, nuclear-capable, or under a nuclear umbrella. By all means, the situation has been fragile enough for both sets of parties to desist from firing the first bullet.
The Doklam dispute, on the other hand, was not a nuclear confrontation by any measure and had only the slightest hint of escalation to even a conventional war despite a girding of loins on both sides during the two month stand-off. Yet, the fact that the confrontation was between two nuclear-armed nations that are already competing for strategic space in the Asian landscape and along their periphery made the situation vulnerable to an escalation. Why then did these two nuclear powers resort to any action that could have led to a military confrontation? While there was a great deal of mudslinging and sustained derogatory campaigns (though largely one-sided) during the crisis, why was it that no nuclear threat was issued or for that matter why was there no talk of a nuclear conflict at any point of time? It is also tempting to note that this abstinence from nuclear posturing stands in contrast to the high dose of escalatory dynamics that marks interactions in the India-Pakistan nuclear dyad.
The two stand-offs thus offer some unique insights into how nuclear deterrence has evolved, especially in theatres with multiple nuclear-armed states, how crisis stability remains subject to the complexities of deterrence and what all this entails for disarmament.
Deterrence parity need not bring stability: The long-standing debate between proliferation optimists and pessimists has been about the role of deterrence in shaping the strategic dynamics of a nuclear dyad in terms of the degrees of instability, causes of conflict and escalation potential. While pessimists cite numerous limited wars and low-intensity conflicts to highlight the instability caused by competitive deterrents (numerous Cold War frontlines as well as in South Asia), optimists contend that none of these conflicts ever escalated to the nuclear level despite instances of brinkmanship (South Asia and DPRK). Kim Jong-un’s rapid acquisition of retaliatory capabilities, even while creating a mutual assured destruction (MAD) equation in the Korean peninsula, has not facilitated crisis stability though it is worth noting that both sides are yet to pull the trigger fearing a nuclear conflagration. Thus, while this condition may prima facie support the pessimist contention of ‘instability remaining a constant’, the fact that a full-fledged war has been stymied despite prolonged fragility also provides substance to the notion that nuclear deterrence has prevented the outbreak of military hostilities which both sides have consistently threatened to unleash. Kim’s nuclear behaviour, thus, provides the basis to assume that MAD equations need not necessarily be stable and instead could be exploited for political ends by an actor who sees space for brinkmanship, resulting in continued instability. South Asia too has witnessed a similar scenario with Pakistan practising brinkmanship aided by its postural ambiguity, though its degree of irrational behaviour was aimed at influencing international opinion and inviting external intervention in its favour. But the North Korean case differs on this aspect given the international isolation that it faces amid mixed signals on what it actually seeks through its nuclear posturing – sustenance of the Kim regime or recognition of its nuclear status.
NFU has a stabilising effect: Unlike most nuclear dyads which have fragile strategic equations owing to asymmetry of capabilities or offence-defence imbalances, the India-China nuclear relationship is a study in contrast. The Chinese test of 1964 and subsequent build-up of its nuclear arsenal is supposed to be one factor in India’s peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE) of 1974 as well as in its strategic calculus during the covert nuclearisation phase from the late 1980s. Since India’s 1998 nuclear tests and pursuit of a credible minimum deterrent, there have been numerous standoffs over border disputes. But none of these involved a nuclear overhang during the crisis phase nor did the nuclear equation decisively influence the subsequent de-escalation. The Doklam flare-up, however, had the inherent potential for a military conflict owing to proactive intervention by Indian troops in an area claimed by China and Bhutan, and hence treated by the Chinese as ‘aggression’ demanding a military response.
Many conventional military factors – including the localised nature of the stand-off, recurring contexts of territorial tussles, China’s own apprehensions about being seen as a bully and habitual land ‘aggrandizer’, and the diplomatic burden of hosting the BRICS Summit – might have been reasons for the de-escalation. Yet, the stand-off is an eye-opener on how two nuclear-armed states, both with a defensive nuclear posture attributable to their No-First-Use (NFU) doctrines, behave in conflict situations. That the NFU posture has significant import in the India-China nuclear dynamics cannot be understated as the postural framework implies that conventional conflicts need not graduate to the nuclear level since both countries do not intend to use nuclear weapons first. Nothing exemplifies this better than the fragilities of the other dyad in this region wherein the dissonance created by Pakistan’s ambiguous nuclear posture (inclined towards first use) negates the stabilising effect of India’s NFU posture. Further, the ‘equaliser effect’ of NFU in the India-China nuclear relationship also needs emphasis considering the enduring conventional and nuclear force asymmetries notwithstanding India’s attainment of retaliatory deterrence with its Agni-V system.
Insights for the disarmament movement
What are the takeaways from the two standoffs for disarmament, and by consequence the nuclear weapons prohibition treaty? First, the efficacy of deterrence remains a contested landscape with defensive deterrence providing for more stable nuclear dyads in contrast to offensive deterrence which continues to incentivise nuclear weapons and their exploitation by maverick leaderships. While deterrence continues to mitigate conventional hostilities, if not prevent their outbreak, , the North Korean case is proof that reliance on nuclear deterrence will not just continue to fuel the appetite of newer nuclear-aspirant states but also make great power arsenals redundant and effete when confronted by determined nuclear-armed pigmies.
Second, the India-China dynamics, with its conflict resolution features sans a nuclear overhang, has an emphatic message for the disarmament movement – the significance of a global NFU regime. Considering that the efforts to universalize the prohibition treaty has been hampered by the non-participation of nuclear weapon states, the catalysts behind this exercise could take a leaf out of the Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC) which envisages the implementation of a global NFU regime as a key stimulus to a credible disarmament process. Even if the nuclear-armed states are not expected to easily discard their deterrence-centric strategies, a global NFU will be an ideal measure to ensure a stable crisis management framework for conflicts involving nuclear powers.
Lastly, the two standoffs have latent messages for the non-proliferation regime, especially the discriminatory nature of its normative structures. When the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was negotiated in the 1960s, most nations that have now voted for the nuclear weapons prohibition treaty had then preferred to bandwagon with the unbalanced treaty drafted by the superpowers. The fifty year history of the NPT has not just been about efforts to universalise the non-proliferation norm, but also the resistance put up by a handful of outliers against perpetual discrimination by allowing nuclear weapons in the hands of a few. Though over 120 nations have now decided to call the bluff on the commitment of the P-5 states to move towards disarmament, North Korea stands out as a reminder that no discriminatory system can ever be totally universalised.