Written by Dinshaw Mistry.

Asia’s four nuclear-armed states – Pakistan, India, China, and North Korea – have small to mid-sized nuclear arsenals. Varying security motivations have driven the development of these arsenals – Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons to counter India’s conventional and nuclear forces; India’s nuclear deterrent is a response to both China and Pakistan; and China developed nuclear forces to bolster its security against the United States, as did North Korea.

The deployment of new Pakistani medium-range missiles that can reach distant Indian targets, and Indian intermediate-range missiles that can reach China’s main cities, could strengthen each state’s countervalue deterrent capabilities and may not necessarily be destabilizing.

Pakistan has about 130-140 nuclear weapons, and it produces fissile material for about 5-10 additional weapons per year.  Its principal nuclear delivery systems are aircraft; land-based short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles; and land-based and air-launched cruise missiles. Pakistan has also tested a sea-launched cruise missile that could carry a nuclear warhead.

India has about 120-130 nuclear weapons, and its stockpile is growing at the rate of around 5 warheads per year. This rate could increase if new unsafeguarded reactors become operational. India’s main nuclear delivery systems are aircraft; land-based short-range, medium-range, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles; and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. India’s first nuclear-powered submarine completed sea trials in 2016.

China has an estimated 260 nuclear warheads (and fissile material for about 400 warheads), delivered on about 150 land-based ballistic missiles, 48 sea-based ballistic missiles, and bombers.

North Korea has an estimated 20 nuclear weapons, and may be building 3-7 additional weapons per year.  It has hundreds of conventionally-armed short-range missiles that can reach South Korea, and medium-range missiles that can reach Japan—these are presumably its main nuclear delivery systems. Further, in 2016, North Korea began testing intermediate-range missiles that can reach Guam, and also announced that it was building an intercontinental missile capable of reaching the US mainland.

In South Asia, there are three principal challenges to nuclear stability. First, how secure are Pakistan’s nuclear assets from theft or transfer? Pakistan has a security force of over 20,000 persons that are responsible for the physical security of its nuclear assets. It also has a personnel reliability program to monitor its nuclear scientists. Still, militants have attacked Pakistani air bases and army cantonments where Pakistan may have placed some nuclear weapons. And there remain concerns about “insider” threats from personnel who may have passed reliability tests but are subsequently coerced or radicalized to act against the state.

Second, what are the risks of an India-Pakistan nuclear exchange? Pakistan and India have been involved in two major military crises since their tests in 1998: in 1999 and 2001-02. In the absence of the US’ diplomatic intervention, these crises may have escalated to a conventional war, and during such a war, one or both sides could have used nuclear weapons.  Analysts remain concerned about similar future crises because India has developed plans for conventional military retaliation to Pakistan-linked terrorist attacks, and because Pakistan has developed a tactical nuclear missile to respond quickly to any Indian conventional attack.

Third, how would new strategic weapons influence deterrence stability? The deployment of new Pakistani medium-range missiles that can reach distant Indian targets, and Indian intermediate-range missiles that can reach China’s main cities, could strengthen each state’s countervalue deterrent capabilities and may not necessarily be destabilizing. However, Indian advances in ballistic missile defences and multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) could upset the India-Pakistan balance.

China’s nuclear modernization raises the question of whether it is moving away from a defensive assured retaliation strategy to a slightly more offensive strategy. Beijing is increasing the survivability of its nuclear forces by creating more mobile land-based delivery systems with MIRV capabilities; by increasing the promptness of launch through solid-fuel missiles; and by also enhancing its sea-based nuclear delivery capabilities.  For the most part, these developments make its nuclear assets less vulnerable to a US first-strike and enhance deterrence stability.  However, in a military crisis, Chinese fears about US counterforce capabilities may make it consider limited nuclear escalation as its least-bad response to preserve its deterrent.

North Korea has been the focus of international attention in 2017. Policymakers and analysts are divided about whether and how its nuclear program can be rolled back. Some call for engagement, an approach that has been previously tried with mixed results. Diplomatic engagement persuaded North Korea to halt plutonium production between 1994 and 2002, to halt missile tests between 1999 and 2006, and to temporarily disable its heavy water reactor in 2007.  Under such an approach, the United States, South Korea, and Japan could gradually normalize ties with Pyongyang—by opening diplomatic missions, reducing economic sanctions, accepting some restraints on military exercises, and signing a peace treaty. This would reduce Pyongyang’s security concerns and its need for nuclear weapons, and China and Russia could provide further implicit security assurances to Pyongyang. In exchange, Pyongyang could first halt nuclear and missile tests, and then curb its production of enriched uranium and plutonium (the verification of its known nuclear production facilities is feasible, while that of unknown facilities is more challenging but still technically possible). At a later stage, if security relations between North Korea and its adversaries substantially improve, North Korea could gradually give up its nuclear weapons, though verifying such an initiative would be extremely difficult.

Others call for increasing sanctions on Pyongyang, either to force it to the negotiating table, or to bring down the regime.  A variation of this strategy is to persuade China—which accounts for 80 to 90 percent of North Korea’s trade—to increase pressure on North Korea. This strategy was pursued in the final years of the Obama administration and at the start of the Trump administration, which also declared that it was not seeking a regime change in North Korea.

Still others argue that neither negotiations nor pressure would bring about denuclearization in North Korea, and therefore call for focusing on dissuading North Korea from exporting nuclear technology and deterring it from ever using a nuclear weapon.

In summary, Asia’s nuclear landscape is complex. There are a number of nuclear challenges relevant to South Asia, the Koreas, and China, and each of these requires nuanced strategies and responses to preserve strategic stability.

Dinshaw Mistry is a professor of political science and Asian Studies at the University of Cincinnati. He has also been a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center; the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University; and the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University. Dr. Mistry is the author of two major books – ‘Containing Missile Proliferation’ and ‘The US-India Nuclear Agreement’. Image credit: CC/ Wikimedia



  1. Pakistan’s ardent desire to promote peace and cooperation in South Asia for which security and stability are pre-requisites. On and off the United States has appreciated efforts made by Pakistan to promote peace and stability in South Asia.

  2. As far as the case of safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are concerned then it is worth mentioning and recalling that Pakistan has established robust and strong command and control structure including more than 25,000 security forces which are for securing the assets from insider threats. There is a strong protective shield in and around the nuclear assets which is better enough to protect them from theft and illegal transfer. This is quite an old propaganda which is only recalled once in a year in order to malign the image of Pakistan or can say when international actors have nothing left to discuss over.

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