A serious competition between two nuclear-armed rivals is very hard to stabilize. When one rival increases its nuclear capability, the other does, too. Then both rivals feel less secure – even when they possess secure retaliatory capabilities. It’s even harder to stabilize a triangular nuclear competition. Isosceles triangles don’t exist in the nuclear business, and three unequal sides do not make for stable geometry.
Triangular competitions are never static. Gregory Koblentz characterizes three-sided competitions as “trilemmas.” Like two-party competitions, they can only be stabilized when disputes are resolved or set aside, direct trade increases, and rivals tacitly agree to restrain their nuclear capabilities.
Stabilization requires roughly balanced strategic modernization programs, conventional capabilities and national trajectories. These conditions were absent during the Cold War. The triangular competition among United States, the Soviet Union and China was particularly unstable because it involved shifting allegiances. Moscow and Beijing colluded at first, and then became bitter rivals, even engaging in a border clash. Once Beijing acquired a minimal deterrent, it dropped out of the nuclear competition, focusing instead on domestic and economic priorities. Today’s triangular competition among the United States, China, and Russia is also unstable. Russia is helping China to compete, even though Moscow understands that Beijing will pose as much of a strategic concern in the future as the United States.
The triangular nuclear competition among China, India and Pakistan is inherently unstable, with features that were not present during the Cold War. The Chinese and Indian legs of the triangle are growing taller, but unevenly. Pakistan’s leg is shrinking despite the growth of its nuclear arsenal, because of weak social and economic indicators. Pakistan measures its strategic requirements against India, while India measures against both its nuclear-armed neighbors. Even if Pakistan were to drop out of the nuclear competition, which is unlikely, India will continue to measure itself against China. China and Pakistan are becoming closer, while Washington gravitates increasingly toward New Delhi. Now add border disputes and violent extremist groups in Pakistan to ongoing nuclear modernization programs, disparate conventional military capabilities and national trajectories.
Read Full Story →