Takeaways – Prospects for Managing Risks in Nuclear South Asia

April 28, 2022   Reading Time: 5 minutes

Reading Time: 5 min read

Three key takeaways from the webinar ‘Prospects for Managing Risk in Nuclear South Asia’:

  1. The existence of nuclear weapons is inextricably linked to the risks that such weapons pose. This holds true irrespective of the region of the world where nuclear weapons exist.
  2. The risk of inadvertent use of nuclear weapons as a result of misperceptions, accidents and entanglement with other emerging technologies remains the most acute risk in nuclear South Asia.
  3. The devastating effects of nuclear weapons are universal. It is, therefore, important that non-nuclear weapon states pay adequate attention to raising public awareness of the grave dangers and challenges associated with such weapons of mass destruction.


  • The Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI) hosted a webinar titled ‘Prospects for Managing Risk in Nuclear South Asia’ on 14 March 2022.
  • The panellists were: Ambassador A.L.A Azeez, Former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN; Dr Manpreet Sethi, Senior Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Airpower Studies (CAPS); and  Dr Tong Zhao, Senior Fellow, Nuclear Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 
  • Dr. D.L. Mendis, Executive Director of LKI delivered the introductory remarks. The discussion was moderated by Mr. Malinda Meegoda, Research Associate of LKI.

Takeaways from Amb. A.L.A. Azeez’s Presentation: 

The Varying Legal Stances on the use of Nuclear Weapons

  • Historically, the legality of the use of nuclear weapons under international law has been discussed periodically at international law conferences and notably at the ICRC headquarters in Geneva.
  • The ICJ’s 1996 opinion stated that under customary international law and treaty law that there was no express prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons. The court held that it was permissible in extreme circumstances to use nuclear weapons in self-defence. However, the ICJ also noted that under international humanitarian law, it is illegal to use nuclear weapons as it will affect non-combatants.
  • Justice Weeramantri gave a dissenting view that the use of nuclear weapons is illegal under any circumstance, including circumstances of self-defence. This opinion was underpinned by the concept of ‘Erga Omnes.’ This concept compelled several countries to make extensive revisions to their nuclear doctrines.

 Managing the risks associated with Cross-Domain Warfare

  • It is important to consider the role of nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states in managing potential risks associated with the use of nuclear weapons. For example, early warning systems and verification systems must be strengthened to reassure countries. 
  • Now, nuclear terrorism is another risk that needs to be managed. In the hands of a nuclear terrorist, who is a non-state actor, use of such weapons will not be subject to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. The discussion of nuclear terrorism is sometimes used as a red herring to distract from the crucial issue which is ensuring that there is no threat or use of weapons by nuclear-weapon states. 
  • The cyber-nuclear nexus is another important development that may give rise to risk scenarios for both nuclear-weapon states and other states. 

Takeaways from Dr Manpreet Sethi’s Presentation: 

Managing the Risks of Nuclear Weapons

  • There is an immutable nuclear reality in that wherever nuclear weapons exist, nuclear risks also exist. A reminder of this reality was the March 9 2022, accidental launch of an Indian missile into Pakistani territory. 
  • Fortunately, India and Pakistan have some of the most progressive confidence-building measures (CBM) in the nuclear domain. These include; the sharing of lists of nuclear facilities and installations, agreement on advance notification of ballistic missile tests, agreement on reducing the risk from accidents relating to nuclear weapons. 
  • The presence of a CBM between India and Pakistan that covers accidents in the nuclear weapons domain is a rarity among other nuclear-weapon states. 

Commonalities of Nuclear Risks across Regions

  • The first risk would be a deliberate war that involves a premeditated thought out use of nuclear weapons. 
  • The second risk could be inadvertent nuclear escalations which involves stumbling into a nuclear war by accident as a result of misperceptions. 
  • The third risk would be an increase in nuclear proliferation due to an increased atmosphere of insecurity caused by nuclear-weapon states.  
  • Other risks could be accidents in nuclear weapon complexes such as leakage or theft of nuclear materials, technologies and nuclear terrorism. 

The Relations between China, India, Pakistan and the US

  • India-China and India-Pakistan are two adversarial nuclear dyads. 
  • China is developing its capabilities with the US in mind and this shadow of the US-China nuclear dyad has a downstream effect on India and Pakistan.
  • Due to this global shadow, it is very difficult to implement a nuclear-weapon-free zone in South Asia. Instead as India argues, global disarmament is needed.

Future Approaches:

  • Nuclear weapon and non-nuclear weapon states can engage in strategic dialogues to understand each other’s threat perceptions, doctrines and force postures,
  • Nuclear weapon and non-nuclear weapon states can disseminate unilateral coordinated statements on the negative effects of nuclear weapons.
  • Joint studies by think tanks or movies can be produced to bring the effects of the use of nuclear weapons into the public imagination. 

Takeaways from Dr Tong Zhao’s Presentation: 

China’s Recent Nuclear Developments 

  • China used to maintain a very small nuclear arsenal. Recently, China has been conducting incremental nuclear weapon modernisation with the goal of building more reliable nuclear retaliation capabilities. 
  • By 2027, China could have up to 700 nuclear weapons in total which is significant growth from today’s 350 nuclear weapons. By 2030, China could possess at least 1000 nuclear weapons. 
  • China has also been developing new technologies such as new missile delivery systems and hypersonic missiles which could be nuclear-capable. 

Drivers of China’s Recent Nuclear Developments

  • The threat of new US military technology, particularly missile defence systems have been driving China’s nuclear modernisation drive. 
  • Another motivation could be China’s interest in developing better nuclear escalation management capabilities. Many Chinese experts believe that China wants to acquire the capability to deter scenarios such as a US military invasion in the future.
  • China under Xi Jinping’s political leadership has marked a sharp departure from the role of nuclear weapons in comparison to its predecessors, viewing nuclear weapons as a pillar of China’s international status and prestige on the international stage. 

Implications of China’s Nuclear Arsenal for South Asia

  • As China develops new technologies, there is the potential for new risks and potential misjudgements during a crisis. This would have major implications for India and for regional stability in South Asia. 
  • The conflict in Ukraine is influencing India to reconsider its strategic orientation and its relationship with other major powers. India wants to reduce its reliance on Russian defence cooperation and diversify its military relationship with the US and other Western powers. This could lead to mounting tensions between China and India and increase the incentives for both countries to develop their military capabilities. 

Takeaways from  the Discussion: 

  • India and China are the only nuclear-weapons states that have a declared nuclear ‘No-first use’ policy. One way to build stronger bilateral and multilateral confidence would be for countries to agree on a common set of standards for evaluating the credibility of the no first use policy. 
  • The Non-proliferation of nuclear weapons can only be sustainable if it is applied equally. The more it is applied in an indiscriminate manner, the greater the challenges of easing the insecurities of other non-nuclear-weapon states.
  • Despite some of the perceived shortcomings, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has galvanised global public interest and engagement, especially among young people about the existential threat nuclear weapons pose.


Suggested Readings

Sethi, M. (2022). Disparity, escalation key issues for NPT review. The Tribune. [Online] Available at:https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/comment/disparity-escalation-key-issues-for-npt-review-360082 

Zhao, T. (2021). Why Is China Building Up  Its Nuclear Arsenal? The New York Times. [Online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/15/opinion/we-need-to-pay-attention-to-chinas-nuclear-build-up.html?smid=tw-nytopinion&smtyp=cur 

Meegoda, M. (2021). Why Sri Lanka Should Ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Lakshman Kadirgmar Institute. [Online] Available at: https://lki.lk/blog/why-sri-lanka-should-ratify-the-treaty-on-the-prohibition-of-nuclear-weapons/


  • 2022


  • Alisha Rajaratnam


Untitled Document