[Dialogue Report] Managing Strategic Risks in Asia and the Pacific
Event Reports

[Dialogue Report] Managing Strategic Risks in Asia and the Pacific

Managing Strategic Risks in Asia and the Pacific

23-25 November, Kathmandu 

The Asia-Pacific Leadership Network (APLN) in partnership with the Toda Peace Institute, hosted a high-level policy dialogue, from 23 to 25 November 2022 in Kathmandu, Nepal, to discuss strategic risks in the Asia-Pacific, and specifically conflict dynamics and escalation risks in Southern Asia. This in-person dialogue brought together 26 participants from Southern Asia and from outside the region,[1] including former officials and military figures, and senior experts from regional organizations, think-tanks, and academia. Discussions at the Kathmandu policy-dialogue were based on scholarly papers commissioned on the theme  ‘China-India-Pakistan nuclear trilemma’, and a policy report from the first (virtual) project workshop convened by APLN and Toda Peace Institute in February 2022.

The purpose of the workshop was to examine the key drivers of conflicts among the countries, explore the China-India-Pakistan trilateral strategic and nuclear relationship, identify practical nuclear risk reduction, crisis stability and confidence building measures, and to propose mechanisms and opportunities for tension reduction and conflict resolution to normalize interstate relations and promote people-people ties.

The dialogue was divided into six themes:

  1. Perceptions, Misperceptions and Security Concerns
  2. Conflict Dynamics and Escalation Risks
  3. Prospective Trust and Confidence Building
  4. Trajectories, Challenges and Opportunities
  5. Impacts on Regional Security
  6. Quest for Peace and Stability

The agenda solicited perspectives from the dialogue participants on questions, including:

  • What are the foremost drivers of threat perceptions and misperceptions between China, India, and Pakistan?
  • What are the greatest escalation risks in Southern Asia and to what extent are they shared by the three nuclear powers
  • Do the domestic political environments portend cooperation or confrontation in Southern Asia?
  • In what ways do the nuclear issues in Southern Asia affect the security of the broader region?
  • Are existing treaties and agreements still a viable framework for trust and confidence building in Southern Asia?
  • What are the trust and confidence building priorities for the region?
  • What are the biggest roadblocks for dialogue in Southern Asia/globally and what steps can be taken to facilitate political momentum for such dialogues?

The following is a summary of key points of discussion

1. State of Play – Global and Regional Nuclear Architectures

Participants reviewed the global nuclear landscape which forms the context for examining the nuclear dynamics in Southern Asia. Compared to the Cold War, this current landscape is more challenging with multiple and interdependent nuclear dynamics. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) could be reaching the limits of success as as a regime that governs the global nuclear order. Some participants argued that given all the kinds of volatility in the contemporary international system, the notion of deterrence and analytical concepts like dyads and triads may not represent the accurate nature of the global and regional nuclear dynamics.

The growing US-China strategic rivalry has a growing salience for the global nuclear architecture. Participants also debated whether there is an emergence of multiple and overlapping security architectures, including a return of bloc politics. This intersection of multiple architectures and bloc politics will lead to further complications like distributing deterrence responsibilities across a group of states with asymmetric nuclear and conventional capabilities, vulnerability of smaller security partners to pressures from the more powerful actors, the credibility of extended deterrence commitments, and the temptation toward counterforce targeting strategies and doctrines.

In Southern Asia, the nuclear dynamics are not limited to India and Pakistan. China is an important strategic player affecting the regional security and nuclear architectures. These three nuclear armed states are defined by asymmetric capabilities and asymmetric nuclear doctrines. Some participants argued that the Southern Asian nuclear dynamics can only be understood through a broader lens which includes examining the role of other strategic players like the US, Russia, South Korea, Japan, and Iran. Southern Asia is part of a strategic nuclear chain, which is not unidirectional in its impacts. Even then, others argued that the significance of the India-Pakistan dyad or the China-India dyad as central features of the Southern Asian nuclear architecture cannot, however, be dismissed.

2. Lessons from the War in Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has renewed a focus on Europe, challenging the contemporary understanding that the locus of global peace and security has shifted to Asia and the Pacific. There is a perceived hierarchy in asking ‘how is this happening to Europe,’ implying condescendingly that such crises are a non-European feature. The war in Ukraine, however, has many lessons for the Asia-Pacific region, and also particularly for Southern Asia. It highlights the danger of letting long running conflicts fester with complacency. It is especially problematic to ignore these problems because clashes can erupt with unexpected urgency and have graver risks if there is a nuclear dimension to the conflict. The war in Ukraine is actually a reminder that we must not give up on conflict resolution.

Participants described the ongoing fighting as a proxy-war between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), with territorial disputes at the heart of conflict and a return to the use of brute force to deter or coerce the adversary. Whereas this is a reminder of Cold War geopolitics for Europe and the West, the Asia-Pacific states have maintained a more nuanced and differentiated approach to the Ukraine conflict. India, for instance, maintains a position of ‘strategic autonomy’ defined as taking a position favoring one side or another, while condemning the use of force as a means to settle dispute.

Participants expressed concern that the political perception of the utility of nuclear weapons and the value of brinkmanship and tactical nuclear weapons could go up because of the Ukraine crisis, depending on the outcome of the war. They condemned the irresponsible rhetoric on nuclear weapons coming out of Moscow. The fraying of norms of the non-use of nuclear weapons with irreverence risks a conventionalization of nuclear weapons in language during conflicts. Some participants argued that the conflict in fact points to the limited utility of nuclear weapons in war and as weapons of blackmail and coercion. Their political and leadership costs vastly exceed the military gains from these weapons. They also argued that many experts are realizing the disutility of Russian nuclear weapons.

3. The Power of Perceptions (and misperceptions)

The role of perceptions and misperceptions has not been sufficiently explored in nuclear politics. Perceptions can significantly affect states’ sense of risks and threats, and their understanding of strategic stability and nuclear decision-making processes and preparedness-levels. For instance, states with smaller nuclear arsenals might perceive transparency as a risk multiplier. These states may therefore opt for strategic ambiguity and secrecy as beneficial postures and to protect internal policymaking from external pressures.

In Southern Asia, there is an asymmetry of perceptions of nuclear threats, capabilities, and postures. Pakistan perceives India’s nuclear capabilities as a tool of conventional blackmail and an existential threat to its survival. Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons influences India’s perceptions about Pakistan’s readiness to deploy nuclear weapons in conflict and its command-and-control structure. India also perceives a two-front threat from the strategic military partnership between China and Pakistan. Indian perceptions are also affected by the deepening entrenchment of Chinese forces and Chinese naval forces in the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, China views the US Indo-Pacific strategy as bloc politics to counterbalance and constrain China, in which India participates misguidedly. The US is not ready to accept mutual nuclear vulnerability vis-à-vis China.

The absence of a nuclear dialogue in Southern Asia contributes to acute misperceptions in the region. An asymmetry of perceptions also keeps the regional nuclear powers from developing a sense of shared risks and nuclear dangers. These perceptions and misperceptions inform the security dilemma in Southern Asia. According to one participant, misperception is the norm in Southern Asia. Enemy narratives and political radicalization (religious or political) and new military technologies further add to the misperceptions in the region. The concept of two-front nuclear threat also needs more clarity

In the broader region, there is a sense of discomfort among the regional non-nuclear states about the nuclear capabilities of India, Pakistan, and China, and the absence of any bilateral or trilateral nuclear dialogues between them. Unfortunately, there is no platform in the region where conventional or nuclear issues and their impacts on the region can be discussed between the regional states. Consequently, there is no chance for non-nuclear states to contribute to the nuclear discourse within the region.

4. Escalation Factors – Emerging Technologies and Domestic Politics

Participants emphasized two factors that specifically have a high potential for conflict and nuclear escalation in Southern Asia: emerging technologies and domestic politics. New and emergent technologies affect threat perceptions. Some technologies can be stabilizing and help to bring states back from an escalation pathway and stabilize deterrence, like certain AI applications and early warning systems. Others, like cyber capabilities, hypersonic systems, and dual-use platforms can be destabilizing because of their potential to disrupt and create ambiguities. Modern applications of technologies have broken the wall between strictly civilian or military technologies. For instance, cyber capabilities can disrupt industrial, financial as well as military systems. How do we then strive towards better integration of civilian and military technologies without addressing their destabilizing effects? According to one participant, deployment strategies tell us more about the state’s threat assessment than just their possession of certain technologies.

The role of emerging technologies, participants argued, presents a window of opportunity for conversations between India, Pakistan, and China. For instance, cyber is one area where India and Pakistan can agree on non-attack postures. The region needs constructive dialogues which can explore the positive and disruptive effects of emerging technologies on regional stability and mutual nuclear deterrence, and a constructive balance between policy dialogues and technical dialogues.

The expansion of territorial conflicts to the maritime zones and the growing nuclearization of naval capabilities on one hand, and the gradual erosion of the nuclear taboo on the other hand, have made the maritime domain a rich environment for nuclear competition and escalation. Conventional and naval military capabilities are enablers of nuclear competition, creating a demand for new doctrines.  As conventional naval competition increasingly intersects with nuclear competition, especially in the form of more attack submarines in the maritime zones, the chances of accidental conflicts and a greater frequency of naval encounters are higher.

Domestic factors like internal stability and leadership politics can both incentivize and restrain risky behaviours. Near-term risks of escalation are high in the case of internal instability. Participants discussed three elements of the domestic environment which are common to India, China, and Pakistan. First is nationalism and a sense of national pride; second is a focus on hard power and military build-up; and third is the low level of understanding among the public and political leadership about the consequences of deterrence breakdown. Social media, on the other hand, has brought about a greater awareness among the Southern Asian public of national security. All three countries have strategic hats that are trapped into security dilemmas and zero-sum thinking vis-à-vis nuclear weapons.

5. Risk Reduction and CBMs

Southern Asia is one of the least interconnected regions in the world. The region lacks the physical and economic integration needed to achieve a shared sense of the region, risks, and opportunities. The persistence of conflicts and tensions, especially the long-standing India-Pakistan territorial dispute, have kept the region mostly poor. On the other hand, even at the peak of the recent 2020 crisis between China and India, China-India bilateral trade peaked at US$100 billion. Can geo-economics, then, be the incentive for risk reduction and confidence building in the region? Participants debated whether domestic economic lobbies can push for bilateral dialogue and peaceful relations between India and Pakistan. Southern Asia can learn from the experience of Southeast Asia, where efforts to open and rationalize integrated markets have improved the regions overall economic indicators and have had a positive impact on strategic stability in the region.

Whereas CBMs in and of themselves cannot resolve conflicts, they can help to manage stress and create habits of dialogue and cooperation across cross-cutting issues. These are relatively easier to achieve in the nuclear domain, since they are not as strictly binding as arms controls. Building on successful CBMs and creating new mechanisms for dialogue and risk reduction can be more helpful than reification of old CBMs.

In Southern Asia, there is an urgent need for a resumption of dialogue between India and Pakistan at the highest political and military levels, to save the bilateral relationship from deteriorating any further and preventing crises from escalating into full-fledged war. India and China must establish a nuclear component in their bilateral political and military dialogue to understand perceptions and mutual risks. Competition management and crisis management is as important as conflict resolution in Southern Asia. The processes of conflict prevention and conflict resolution can benefit greatly from domestic political support. Public and political education regarding the risks and dangers is important to push the actors to engage in nuclear CBMs. The region needs a combination of Track 1, Track 1.5 and Track 2 dialogues to address the problems of misperceptions and risks of escalation.

Participants brainstormed a number of ideas and proposals for confidence building and nuclear risk reduction in Southern Asia:

India-Pakistan bilateral CBMs

  • Formalizing peace constituencies in India and Pakistan.
  • Iterative expansion of missile test notification agreements between India and Pakistan.
  • Strengthening and reemphasizing the use of hotlines.
  • An India-Pakistan no-war pact.
  • Military-to-military dialogues.

Southern Asia Trilateral and Multilateral CBMs

  • Maritime security dialogues in Asia and the Pacific, involving China, India, and Pakistan to discuss naval CBMs and formal INCSEA-type agreements in the region.
  • Establishing a Southern Asian forum for informing others in case of civilian nuclear accidents.
  • Leveraging Nuclear Centers of Excellence in China, India, and Pakistan for dialogue and discussions on best practices in nuclear matters.
  • Funding and conducting joint research in South Asia on nuclear risks and opportunities for cooperation.
  • Peace and development education, including especially youth and media training workshops about the risks and dangers of nuclear use.
  • Leveraging SAARC as a forum for constructive regional security discussions.

Global Multilateral CBMs

  • Expanding the P5 nuclear dialogue to include the other nuclear-armed states and expanding discussions to include an examination of the domestic, regional, and global drivers of nuclear escalation.
  • Conventional and nuclear naval arms controls.
  • Cooperation on missile tracking technologies.
  • Global NFU (no first use) convention.

Participants agreed that political dialogue was the key to addressing strategic risks in Asia and the Pacific. There is a need to situate this dialogue in the region, combining ownership and the responsibility for conflict resolution with the regional actors and finding Asia-led, Asia-based, and Asia-funded solutions to the region’s problems. It is also crucial to foreground these dialogues and confidence-building measures (CBMs) in language which is not borrowed from great power politics but instead reflects the ground conditions of the region in which the states operate.

[1] China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and the United States.


Learn about the project here.

Read the latest reports from the project here.


Image: Elico-Gaia/iStock/Canva

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