Book review: Ashley J. Tellis, Striking Asymmetries: Nuclear Transitions in Southern Asia

Published date01 April 2023
Date01 April 2023
Subject MatterBook Reviews
Ashley J. Tellis, Striking Asymmetries: Nuclear Transitions in Southern
Asia. Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,
2022, 303 pp., (electronic). ISBN: NA.
The triadic nuclear arms race between China and the United States, China and
India, and Pakistan and India has accelerated in the past few years. Yet, we know
relatively very little about the nature and extent of weapons building and operational
plans in the three Asian countries especially in recent years as published materials
seem scant. There is also relatively limited knowledge on nuclear stability in
these dyads, unlike the Cold War era US–Soviet nuclear relationship. To fill
this gap, the leading South Asia and strategic affairs scholar Ashley Tellis of
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace provides an impressive and in-depth
study Striking Asymmetries: Nuclear Transitions in Southern Asia. This book is
rich in details, data and analysis. It is thorough and it clearly took the author a
considerable effort to glean information from a variety of sources on these three
countries which keep their nuclear activities secret.
The book contains four chapters and a substantive introduction and conclu-
sions. The first chapter deals with China and the transformation of its nuclear
deterrent to meet the challenge from the United States that Beijing is seeking to
become a peer-competitor with. Beijing’s declaratory policy still remains no-first
use, a policy that it developed during the Cold War era. The operational strategy
is based on a minimum deterrent comprising long-range and medium range
missiles and aircraft-based weapons. During the Cold War era, the strategy was
that China would retaliate any nuclear state that attacked it at a time and place that
it determined the best. In the post-Cold War era, this policy began to change,
shifting from a minimum deterrence posture to a slightly more elaborate ‘limited’
deterrence, indicating more willingness on the part of China to use nuclear weapons
in war or crisis situations. The predicted major increase in the Chinese arsenal,
with an estimated at 350 warheads in 2021, poised to grow to some 1,400
warheads by 2030, is another dimension noted by Tellis here. China is also shifting
towards a rapid retaliation policy after suffering a nuclear first strike which is
driven by Beijing’s desire to become a peer competitor to the United States.
Despite all these changes, China is maintaining a no-first use policy and smaller
force levels than the United States and Russia, but it seems to have made more
changes in terms of ‘assured retaliation’ than the previous policy of ‘uncertain
retaliation’. The fact that China has not made nuclear competition a centrepiece
of its rivalry with the United States, or potentially with Russia, is revealing.
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
10(1) 122–133, 2023
© The Author(s) 2023
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970231152019
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