Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Ramesh Thakur  |  16 October, 2020

Confidence Building and Risk Reduction Measures in Asia’s Nuclear Chain

The Cold War-era weapons governance structures are no longer fit for purpose. In contemporary geopolitics, nuclear dyads have become nuclear chains. In an increasingly polycentric global order, the current nuclear arms control structure, built on the idea that disarmament can be managed via trade-offs between pairs of states whose very survival is dependent on stable strategic dyads, neither regulates nor constrains the choices of other nuclear-armed states.

The geostrategic environment of the China–India–Pakistan relationship is a case in point. This nuclear triad had no parallel in the Cold War, with shared borders, major territorial disputes, and history of many wars between them since 1947. Of the three, only China is party to the 1968 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and a signatory to the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). While China is yet to ratify the CTBT, India and Pakistan have refused to sign both the NPT and the CTBT, ensuring that the cornerstone of the global nuclear order cannot regulate their nuclear policies. Hence the need for alternative mechanisms for restraining their nuclear arsenals, doctrines and postures.

Following decades of an essentially North Atlantic bipolar nuclear landscape, we now face a much more complex era focused equally on the Indo–Pacific, involving multiple balances and vastly varying degrees of competence with built-in potential for strategic surprises. New technologies such as cyberwarfare, space-based dual use systems and autonomous weapons systems using artificial intelligence are introducing fresh instabilities in power relationships. These growing risks point to the urgent need to institutionalise a nuclear restraint regime fit for purpose in the Indo–Pacific.

In an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Manpreet Sethi and I argued that the manner in which the no-first-use nuclear policies and postures of China and India contributed to strategic stability even in the midst of deadly clashes in June and an ensuing tense military faceoff is worthy of wider global emulation by other nuclear-armed states and broader international study. In this article, drawing on a recent Toda Policy Brief, I argue that the Indo–Pacific in turn should explore the possible relevance to their nuclear chain of two mechanisms developed for the North Atlantic.

Open Skies Treaty

On 21 May, the US withdrew from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty. The treaty had its origins in a bold proposal from President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955. Moscow rejected the idea then but, with the end of the Cold War, President George H. W. Bush revived it as an effective way to verify the limits on military forces under the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe agreement. The post-Soviet government was amenable and the Open Skies Treaty was signed on 24 March 1992 and entered into force on 1 January 2002. By 2020 it had 35 States Parties.

The treaty authorised around 1,500 missions over its lifespan, including more than 500 flights over Russia as the most overflown and best-monitored country. Scheduled on short notice, the flights provided photographic evidence of major military equipment and movements across Europe. Overflights were closely monitored as to numbers, conditions and timingand the technical capabilities of the surveillance equipment. The treaty was both a symbol of political engagement and a practical contribution to confidence building and risk reduction, with every flight muting anxiety about surprise attack.

There is scope for two mutually reinforcing bilateral agreements between India and Pakistan, and China and India; or even a trilateral agreement among all three. Aerial observation of the borders on the two lines of control, from Arunachal Pradesh via Aksai Chin, Ladakh and Kashmir, to the Arabian Sea, could help secure the boundaries, detect incursions and prevent infiltration. Early detection of a security incursion, as would have occurred in the Galwan region in the spring and early summer of 2020, could raise the threshold for any military-nuclear response and give diplomacy more of a pre-emptive head start.

Incidents at Sea Agreement

In the Russia–US strategic rivalry, submarine-based nuclear weapons deepen stability by enhancing survivability and reducing successful first-strike possibilities. By contrast, the race to attain continuous at-sea deterrence capability through nuclear-armed submarines in the Indo–Pacific is potentially destabilising, because the regional powers lack well-developed operational concepts, robust and redundant command-and-control systems, and secure communications over submarines at sea.

In the late 1960s, the US and Soviet navies were involved in several close incidents involving ships and aircraft that could have escalated out of control. To reduce such risks, the Incidents at Sea Agreement was signed on 25 May 1972. Among other things, it calls on both sides to take steps to avoid collision, avoid manoeuvres in areas of heavy sea traffic, conduct surveillance from a safe distance in order not to provoke or endanger ships under surveillance, inform vessels when submarines are exercising near them, and avoid simulated attacks against aircraft or ships of the other side.

Like other CBMs, the agreement did not directly affect the size, weaponry or force structure of the parties. Rather, the functional navy-to-navy process enhanced mutual knowledge and understanding of military activities; reduced the possibility of conflict by accident, miscalculation or lack of communication; and increased stability in times of both calm and crisis. These general principles, not the specific provisions of the agreement, would be the key considerations in adapting them to the China–India–Pakistan equation.

Institutionalising a Nuclear Restraint Regime

A tense international security environment amidst heightened geopolitical tensions, irresponsible statements from the leaders of some nuclear-armed countries, proliferation of nuclear weapons to countries like North Korea, and potentially Iran, expansion of roles envisaged for them in updated nuclear doctrines, emergence of new technologies, and a crumbling arms control architecture, have all increased the risk of accidental or deliberate use of nuclear weapons. The risks are particularly acute in the Indo–Pacific because of the lack of arms control agreements and no history of practical confidence-building arrangements.

Arms control measures are easier to initiate when the political atmosphere is favourable, but the need for them is even more critical when the political atmosphere is tense. Nuclear disarmament remains an over-the-horizon prospect, however desirable it might be as a goal and however compelling the logic in its favour. In the meantime, there is an urgent need to institute additional safeguards against the intensified risks of accidental, unauthorised or threshold-crossing armed skirmishes tipping Asia and the world into the launch of nuclear weapons. The institutionalisation of CBMs and risk reduction arrangements and practices in a nuclear restraint regime, such as those proposed here, would help to consolidate both crisis and arms race stability measures at the global level as well as in the Indo–Pacific.

Ramesh Thakur is emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Senior Fellow, Toda Peace Institute; and a member of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network Board of Directors. He was formerly a United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and Co-Convenor of the APLN.