There has been no shortage of remembrances and lessons learned from the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. It’s easy to forget – unless your country codes are 86 and 91 – that this is also the 50th anniversary of the war between China and India. The United States and the Soviet Union managed to avoid direct combat. Instead, as Raymond Aron observed, crises became the substitute for direct clashes. Ditto for proxy wars. In Asia, nuclear competitors have fought wars, in addition to resorting to proxy wars and going eyeball to eyeball. The loser in these Asian wars has decided to acquire the Bomb and its means of delivery.

The lessons learned from the Cold War nuclear competition remain extremely relevant to Asia, but they have only partial application because the rules are somewhat different. For example:

  • The weight classes aren’t so obvious. The two heavyweights – China and India – have placed economic growth as their top national security objective. They are modernizing their deterrents, but at a much slower pace than the heavyweights during the Cold War. Pakistan and the DPRK, on the other hand, are fighting above their weight class with respect to nuclear weapons and their means of delivery.
  • In the Cold War competition, weapons that could destroy civilizations had a moderating effect, but not right away (queue up the “We will bury you” and “paper tiger” slides). While the Bomb’s moderating effects did not apply to internal affairs, which remained brutal in Communist states, the Bomb eventually helped to tone down belligerent foreign policies. This may also become true in Asia, but it’s too soon to tell. In the meantime, the DPRK continues to win awards for evocative expressions of paranoid endangerment and threat-mongering. The other regional outlier, Pakistan, cannot gain front-door entry into the club of responsible states that possess nuclear weapons because of the onward proliferation abetted by Pakistani nationals, and because wild men within national borders remain jokers in the deck of strategic stability. Joining the CTBT and the accepting FMCT negotiations could change Pakistan’s outlier status but, at present, these moves are not in the cards.
  • In the Cold War, hierarchy was clearly evident and structure could be reaffirmed by means of treaties. In Asia, hierarchy is not so clear (see point one), and the triangular competition among China, India and Pakistan does not lend itself to structural affirmation. If deterrence stability can be maintained in Asia, it is likely to occur through trade and economic interdependencies – something wholly lacking between the United States and the Soviet Union — as well as through norm building, tacit arrangements, and nuclear risk-reduction measures that have Western lineage, suitably adapted to Asia.
  • During the Cold War, extremists groups entered the picture minimally (think of the Baader-Meinhof gang and their escapade against a base in West Germany where tactical nuclear weapons were stored). The situation is starkly different in the subcontinent, where violent, extremist groups can spark confrontations and make the Baader-Meinhof gang look like unruly college students.
  • During the Cold War, spying was a critical source of nuclear know-how. In the Asian nuclear competition, spying has taken a back seat to buying, swapping, reverse engineering, and networking.
  • During the Cold War, the two most intense competitors agreed to collaborate in order to prevent proliferation. No tacit agreements of this kind exist or are reliable in Asia. China helped Pakistan compete with India, Pakistanis have helped others to acquire nuclear capabilities, and have been helped in turn, by the DPRK. The DPRK has little else to trade or sell.

The worst crises between the nuclear heavyweights during the Cold War occurred in the first ten to fifteen years of acquiring offsetting deterrent capabilities. India and Pakistan have also experienced intense crises over this timeline. In the U.S.-Soviet competition, arrangements to reduce nuclear dangers became possible after severe crises and mutual recognition of the status quo in each other’s backyards. In contrast, borders in southern Asia and on the Korean peninsula are far from settled.