Global power contestation can have different dynamics, including geoeconomic, geopolitical, and geostrategic competition between the leading powers. Each of these terms is loaded in the broader studies of international politics. All these terms are interconnected, though one may not have a fixed definition.

For centuries, global power competition amongst the contending powers has been played out for primacy, power projection, and dominance. It is in the state of nature that many ruthless empires have risen and fallen, and the global power competition continues to triumph over the elements of non-traditional security paradigms such as international law, international institutions, economy, religion, mutual harmony, collective security, human rights, etc.

Global power contestation is played for one primary reason, which is to meet one’s vital security interest, a primary dictum of international relations that there is no permanent friend and no permanent enemy in the international system.

What ultimately remains supreme is the national interest. A nuclear dimension is one of the essential elements of global power contestation. Although security remains the predominant factor for a state’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, it is argued that without nuclear weapons, Britain would not remain Britain, and France would not remain France. To recall the history, they were once colonial powers.

Despite being the founding members of NATO and under Article 5 of NATO’s nuclear umbrella, both Britain and France opted for the road to weaponization after they observed how the US became the first to develop and use nuclear weapons and why the US unnecessarily would sacrifice Washington or New York for Paris and London. The elements of prestige and security contributed to Britain and France staying relevant in the global power competition.

Predominance of Realism

Linking up the nuclear dimension of great power competition with realism, It is very important to understand at least five essential ingredients of realism best reflected by John Mearsheimer in his often-quoted book “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics” where he simplifies the five assumptions of realism: one, the state is the principal actor in the international system that operates in an anarchic environment where there is no higher authority that sits above the state. Two, all states have some offensive military capability. Third, states cannot be certain about the intentions of other states. Because intentions are harder to see and measure than the capability a state may have.

Therefore, we discriminate between the intention and the capability of a state in international politics. Intentions can be malign or benign, but it is even harder for states to figure out what the future intentions of the states are against others. Fourth, the primary goal of a state is to survive in the international system because, without survival, a state may not effectively pursue other goals. Five, states are rational actors. They are strategic calculators that craft smart strategies to survive in an anarchic system.

Interestingly, when these five assumptions are blended with each other. One may end up with at least three sub-assumptions: 1) states fear each other in the international system, 2) they quickly come to know that it is a self-help system, and 3) states try to be as powerful as they can. Although convincing these core realist assumptions may be, the problem with these assumptions is that a state cannot be a global hegemon. Second, the state’s acquisition of material and economic sources against its adversary almost always leads to a quagmire. In a classic sense, this is called the security dilemma.

In the international system, when a state increases its power, it intentionally or unintentionally decreases the power of others, more especially when states are acute rivals to each other.

Domino Effect

That said, a state’s security is affected by what other states do in the international system. More academically, this may be termed as an extra-regional link factor. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by the US was out of the fear that Nazi Germany could endanger the US and its allies’ security through Germany’s missiles and possible development of its nuclear capability. As the Cold War rivalry intensified between the Soviet Union and the US after the end of WWII, the Soviet leadership that initially was not interested in getting the bomb later had to break the US nuclear monopoly.

As the Soviet Union expanded its security frontiers, both France and Britain got worried about their security and, therefore, acquired nuclear weapons without trusting much of the US-led NATO security umbrella. When the US threatened Chinese security with the indiscriminate use of nuclear weapons during the Korean War (1950-1953), the Chinese speeded up to weaponize with sheer assistance from the Soviet Union. Since China and India had a short border war in 1962, the Indians got worried and tested their nuclear capability first in 1974, which they called the “peaceful nuclear explosion,” and later tested their nuclear weapons again in May 1998. Because of the acute security rivalry that existed between India and Pakistan, Pakistan had no other option but to test its nuclear weapon capability in response to the Indian nuclear tests to restore strategic stability in South Asia.

North Korea would surely not forget what happened in the Korean War and how the US consequently attacked Iraq and Libya after 9/11. The Koreans thought they could be the next in line to be preempted, thereby testing its nuclear capability in 2006 after getting away from the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). If the security tussle of Iran intensifies with the US and Israel, Iran may speed up its nuclear weapons capability.

Global Contestation and South Asia

Considering all this, we come to know that the nuclear dimension of global power contestation is affecting many regions of the world, and the South Asian region is no exception. Due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we also come to know through reliable sources that all the established nuclear weapons states are modernizing their military and nuclear forces.

The New Start Treaty between the US and Russia is suspended. Russia has de-ratified the CTBT for obvious reasons. And there is no sign of arms control and disarmament between the nuclear weapons states. Recently, Germany indicated its aspiration for acquiring nuclear weapons for security purposes.

Finland and Sweden, which may not be allowed by the US to acquire their nuclear weapons, have joined NATO to get some form of security guarantee.

As part of the global power contestation, the US-led NATO expansion in Europe is encircling and containing the resurgence of Russia on the one hand, while the US has been strengthening its ties with its Asian allies in Asia to contain the regional rise of China on the other hand. That said, the US has been increasing its strategic partnership with India. The US-India nuclear deal in 2005, the QUAD in 2007, the NSG waiver in 2008, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016; the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018, the Industrial Security Agreement in 2019; and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) in 2020 and the Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership (DCCP) in 2024 are some of the important agreements reflecting the increasing US-India strategic partnership. Considering all these, the US balancing role in South Asia is being diminished as this is tilting towards India much more than Pakistan. India is exploiting the tilt to the best of its advantage by undermining the security of Pakistan. One may question if this benefits the US balancing security interest in South Asia.

Maximization of Power

In addition, India is also increasing its strategic partnership with other players amid the global power contestation. For example, with Russia, India plans to develop more nuclear-powered submarines. It has already acquired sophisticated air-defense systems such as the S-400. It is increasing the ranges and speed of BrahMos from supersonic to hypersonic capability. This missile was misfired in Pakistan on 9 March 2022, which could have unintended consequences. With France, India is building its strategic partnership in various fields such as nuclear energy, defense, space, cyber, conventional force capability, and technology for nuclear-powered submarines as a broader part of the Indo-Pacific component. With Israel, India has long been in a strategic partnership for developing India’s ballistic missile defense (BMD) system.

The India-Israel strategic partnership also includes transferring advanced technology that India may use for its conventional and nuclear forces development.

This reflects how the nuclear dimension of great power contestation is broadly affecting South Asian strategic stability by increasing India’s security while decreasing Pakistan’s security. The more the great power competition in the geoeconomic, geostrategic, and geopolitical domains is intensified, the more this affects regions of their vital security interest. Similarly, the more the leading powers modernize their conventional and nuclear forces with offensive doctrinal postures, the more they affect others in the systematic security system.

Aspiration for Limited War

India, with its economic advancement and increasing geostrategic partnership with a number of countries, tempts India to be the hegemon of its region. It does not only demonstrate its geopolitical hubris when it gets into contact with other leading players in the region, including that of the US, but also the increasing acquisition of high-tech components for its conventional and nuclear forces tempts India to be more aggressive in its military and nuclear doctrinal posturing. India now aspires for preemptive counterforce targeting strategies.

By closely reading India’s Draft Nuclear Doctrine (DND) of 1999 and 2003, one may observe modifications in its DNDs with policy implications. India has already shifted away from “retaliation” to “massive retaliation” strategy without learning a lesson from the flawed US nuclear strategy of “Massive Retaliation” in the 1950s against the Soviet Union. Although India still proclaims to follow the “no-first use” nuclear option, India has been aspiring to shift away from this doctrinal posture to “first use” nuclear option.

India has often omitted “minimum” from the credible minimum deterrence it initially conceptualized. Besides, what is minimum against China cannot be minimum against Pakistan.

Affected by the global power contestation, India has been in constant search for waging a limited war and counterforce preemptive strikes against Pakistan without realistically assessing how limited war can quickly spiral out of control, especially when Pakistan produces effective countermeasures by plugging the deterrence gaps. At the same time, Pakistan possesses credible conventional and nuclear forces, which can be used for its ultimate defense and survival.

India’s temptation to waging a limited preemptive strike is becoming an escalatory risk for a serious military crisis between the South Asian nuclear rivals, endangering the use of nuclear weapons. Therefore, in the realm of strategic and tactical nuclear forces, the strategy for waging a limited war will be flawed risking escalation to a dangerous level.

Strategic Restraint

Since nuclear war cannot be won thereby it must never be fought reflects the value of credible nuclear deterrence between the two nuclear rivals. Nuclear weapons played a significant role in deterring rivals from waging direct large-scale wars, and they will continue to play a similar role despite the arrival of emerging technologies. The components of emerging technologies may become “force multipliers” enhancing the conventional power potential for a decisive role, but they may not make the old methods of fighting in the battlefield and for that matter the classic theorem of nuclear deterrence irrelevant by throwing everything nuclear related out of the window. In other words, artificial intelligence may not produce a supreme field commander winning wars without the human-in-the-loop supported by tactical and operational military strategies.

What is much needed is to reduce the intensifying global power competition amongst the major powers by turning the severe competition into cooperation. Cooperation may be possible under the security dilemma.

Countries do cooperate for many things despite the rivalry. In doing so, this will reduce the pressure on other nuclear rivals including that of India and Pakistan.

What is required in South Asia is a timely contribution towards crisis prevention and crisis management institutionalization between the South Asian nuclear rivals when it comes to the notion of nuclear responsibility. Such imperatives may include several measures to prevent developing war-fighting strategies, reducing reliance on nuclear weapons, practicing nuclear moratorium, mechanism for preventing accidental nuclear war, restricting to the essentials of credible minimum deterrence, and improving means of communication for risk reduction. South Asian rivals should continue to have hotlines, nuclear CBMs, effective utilization of the third-party role between the acute nuclear rivals, measures for retaining nuclear balance rather than parity.

Of course, it must also include the strategic restraint regime, efforts for peaceful uses of nuclear technology, participation in the international discussion on non-proliferation, de-mating nuclear warheads from delivery systems, and undertaking stringent safety and security mechanisms. More importantly, South Asian security leadership need to practice advance notices before carrying out nuclear and missile tests, and immediate reporting on an accidental firing of any missile directed against each other to prevent retaliatory nuclear strikes.  Most if not all these measures can be applicable and doable between the South Asian nuclear rivals to prevent the possibilities of accidental war and promote strategic stability.

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