Author : Amey Velangi

Expert Speak Young Voices
Published on Jul 11, 2024

The global nuclear order is increasingly defined by regional contestations, necessitating comprehensive diplomatic strategies that address global and local dimensions of nuclear risk

Global nuclear order: Navigating the regional landscape

Source Image: The Hindu

 “Now I have become death, the destroyer of worlds”, were the words reiterated by Robert Oppenheimer, from the Bhagavad Gita, when he witnessed the first detonation of a nuclear bomb in 1945. Since then, the world of geopolitics, and the measures of destruction have not been the same. In just less than a month, after this ground-breaking scientific development, this scale of destruction was witnessed during World War II. Conceding to the scale, intensity, and impact of such a devasting weapon, the strategic community pondered upon the need to keep a check on its wielders, operators, and users. Alongside the Cold War, the two formidable poles of the nuclear order emerged, the United States (US) and the erstwhile USSR, which even today account for nearly 90 percent of the world’s nuclear stockpile. This nuclear camp was later joined by China, followed by India, Pakistan, and others. 

Although there are treaties like the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that attempt to provide a framework to establish a nuclear order, it is largely the geopolitical underpinnings of each nation and its interests that define the order. This order is characterised by the interplay of nuclear-armed states and non-nuclear-armed states; intraplay amongst the nuclear-armed states and geopolitical contestations. The regional nuclear dyads and triads play a crucial role in shaping this order. Looking at the geopolitical push and pull of these regional nuclear powers and their contestation for power will help in knowing the restructuring of the existing nuclear order.

Geopolitical fault lines: Exacerbating the nuclear competition

A vital element that intensifies the nuclear competition in the region is structurally formed geopolitical fault lines. These fault lines, characterised by historical animosities, unresolved territorial disputes, ideological differences, and strategic competition for regional dominance, drive nations to bolster their nuclear capabilities. The presence of nuclear weapons often serves as a deterrent against perceived threats, influencing states to adopt assertive postures to maintain or enhance their strategic leverage.

A vital element that intensifies the nuclear competition in the region is structurally formed geopolitical fault lines. These fault lines, characterised by historical animosities, unresolved territorial disputes, ideological differences, and strategic competition for regional dominance, drive nations to bolster their nuclear capabilities.

Such geopolitical divides create conditions where states prioritise military preparedness, including nuclear arsenals, as a means to secure national interests and maintain regional influence. This phenomenon is particularly evident in regions marked by persistent instability and strategic uncertainty, where the presence of nuclear weapons not only shapes regional power dynamics but also introduces complexities in conflict resolution and diplomatic negotiations. Understanding these geopolitical fault lines is fundamental for comprehending the broader implications for the evolving nuclear order and global security dynamics.

Regional contestations: Nuclear dyads

The great power nuclear dyad 

The rise of China as a nuclear power poses significant challenges to the established US-led nuclear order, reflecting broader geopolitical shifts and intensifying strategic competition between the two superpowers. China's nuclear modernisation and expansion have been marked by a shift from a minimal deterrence posture to a more robust one. This evolution is driven by China's desire to ensure a credible second-strike capability, thereby, enhancing its strategic autonomy and deterring potential adversaries.

China's growing nuclear arsenal, estimated to be close to 500 with projections of substantial growth, underscores Beijing's commitment to enhance its strategic deterrence.

China's growing nuclear arsenal, estimated to be close to 500 with projections of substantial growth, underscores Beijing's commitment to enhance its strategic deterrence. This trajectory challenges the existing nuclear order, which has been predominantly shaped by the US and its allies through frameworks such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and arms control agreements like the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). However, China's reluctance to engage in bilateral or trilateral arms control negotiations complicates efforts to integrate it into the existing order, raising concerns about an arms race and strategic instability. This changing nuclear posture of China is one of the major drivers of the restructuring global nuclear order from a bipolar nuclear order to a multipolar one. 

The Southern Asian nuclear triad

China's advanced nuclear arsenal and its strategic partnership with Pakistan underpin a significant power asymmetry in the region. China's nuclear modernisation, driven by its broader geopolitical ambitions, influences India's strategic calculus. India, perceiving a dual threat from both China and Pakistan, has pursued a credible minimum deterrent strategy, investing in a triad of nuclear delivery systems and advanced missile defence capabilities. This has spurred a corresponding response from Pakistan, which has developed a full spectrum deterrence posture, encompassing tactical nuclear weapons to counter India's conventional military superiority.

The dynamics within this nuclear triangle exacerbate regional tensions and complicate global non-proliferation efforts. Unlike the US-Soviet bipolar nuclear order, the trilateral nature of nuclear deterrence in South Asia involves more bilateral complexities, each with distinct security concerns and strategic imperatives. This multipolarity increases the risk of miscalculation and inadvertent escalation, posing challenges to crisis stability and conflict resolution mechanisms. This triadic relationship is characterised by asymmetrical nuclear capabilities and divergent strategic doctrines, which collectively challenge the stability of the broader nuclear landscape.

Russian nuclear posture in Europe

Russia's strategic doctrine underscores the employment of nuclear weapons as a deterrent against NATO's military presence and potential encroachments. This posture encompasses the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and the modernisation of its strategic nuclear forces, reflecting a broader effort to sustain regional dominance and strategic parity with the US. 

In the context of the Ukrainian war, President Vladimir Putin’s statements about Russia’s readiness to use nuclear weapons if threatened have injected a new level of volatility into the international security environment, emphasising the precarious nature of nuclear deterrence. This escalation has profound implications for the global nuclear order. First, it undermines the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons, which has been a cornerstone of nuclear deterrence theory and international stability since the end of World War II. Second, Russia's posture complicates the strategic calculations of other nuclear-armed states and non-nuclear states alike. European countries, under the NATO umbrella, may feel compelled to re-evaluate their own security strategies, potentially seeking greater reliance on nuclear capabilities or advanced conventional forces. 

The Middle Eastern tug-of-war

The Middle Eastern nuclear power struggle is primarily between Israel and Iran, profoundly influencing regional stability. Israel's policy of “nuclear opacity”, serves as a strategic deterrent in an otherwise hostile neighbourhood. Conversely, Iran's nuclear ambitions, despite being framed as peaceful, have raised alarms, leading to international sanctions and diplomatic efforts to curtail its capabilities.

The Middle Eastern nuclear power struggle is primarily between Israel and Iran, profoundly influencing regional stability. Israel's policy of “nuclear opacity”, serves as a strategic deterrent in an otherwise hostile neighbourhood.

This struggle shapes the regional nuclear order by creating a dichotomy: Israel's presumed nuclear capability versus Iran's potential. Israel's undeclared arsenal is perceived as a stabilising force by some Western allies, deterring aggression from neighbouring states. In contrast, Iran's nuclear pursuits are seen as destabilising, prompting fears of a regional arms race.

Geopolitically, the contest fuels alliances and enmities. The US and its allies support Israel's security, influencing policies and military aid, while Iran's nuclear aspirations have drawn it closer to Russia and China, reshaping global alliances. This dichotomy influences regional security dynamics, with each side leveraging its position to garner support and strategic advantage. The ongoing tension underscores the complexity of achieving stability in a region fraught with historical grievances and strategic competition.

East Asian nuclear (in) stability

North Korea's nuclear ambitions have been a focal point of regional instability in East Asia. Pursuing nuclear weapons since the 1990s, North Korea has conducted multiple nuclear tests and developed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities, heightening security concerns. The threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea has prompted strong geopolitical contestations primarily from the US, Japan, and South Korea. These nations have employed a mix of diplomatic negotiations, economic sanctions, and military deterrence to curb Pyongyang's nuclear advancements.

In contrast, North Korea's close strategic proximity with China and Russia complicates these efforts. Both countries provide critical economic and political support to North Korea, often undermining international sanctions and diplomatic isolation strategies led by the US and its allies. This support not only emboldens Pyongyang's defiance but also reflects broader geopolitical rivalries, as China and Russia seek to counter US influence in the region.

This intricate web of alliances and oppositions significantly shapes the current nuclear order. North Korea's persistence in nuclear development challenges non-proliferation norms and exacerbates regional arms races. At the same time, the geopolitical tug-of-war among major powers over North Korea underscores the complexities of achieving denuclearization and maintaining regional stability.

The shifting balance of nuclear power: Reflecting regional contestations

The global nuclear order is undergoing a profound transformation, significantly influenced by regional nuclear contestations that mirror broader geopolitical shifts. As states navigate the intricate landscape of nuclear deterrence, non-proliferation, disarmament, and regional dynamics, manifesting in various hotspots around the world, reveal the complexities of sustaining global nuclear stability. This metamorphosis marks a departure from the Cold War's bipolar structure towards a more fragmented, multipolar nuclear environment

Emerging nuclear states and the modernisation of arsenals by established powers contribute to an increasingly volatile strategic landscape. Regional rivalries, evident in diverse geopolitical arenas, serve as microcosms of global nuclear tensions, illustrating how localised conflicts can have extensive ramifications for international security. The nuclear states, trying to prevent horizontal proliferation and maintain the status quo. And on the other hand, aspiring states, trying to acquire the weapons, and barge into the nuclear weapons, is the major tussle that is sculpting the nuclear order. Such geopolitical contestations between the nuclear states and also between the aspiring non-nuclear states are the major drivers in shaping this evolving nuclear order.

The evolving global nuclear order is increasingly defined by these regional contestations, underscoring the imperative for comprehensive diplomatic strategies that address both global and local dimensions of nuclear risk. Acknowledging this intricate interplay between regional conflicts and the overarching nuclear framework is paramount for devising a comprehensive strategy that adeptly manages and stabilises the evolving nuclear landscape.


Amey Velangi is a Research Intern at the Observer Research Foundation

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.

Author

Amey Velangi

Amey Velangi

Amey Velangi is a Research Intern at the Observer Research Foundation. ...

Read More +