By Vijay Shankar*
If armed hostilities, for the initiator, has very little to do with military balance both conventional and nuclear; then it raises the prospect that balance may indeed be skewed against gravity.
The late Thomas Schelling remarking on how skewed a nuclear deterrent relationship could get, famously drew the analogy of “one driver in a game of chicken who tears out and brandishes his steering column.” Conventional wisdom suggests that nuclear brinkmanship is the deliberate creation of a recognisable risk, exposing adversaries to mutual intimidation. If that risk is slanted such as by tearing out the steering column, then the act has a high probability of unleashing a nuclear catastrophe. By tossing the steering wheel out, the reckless motorist assumes the other player will concede the tourney. But this is not necessarily so since removal of the steering wheel to the other may well constitute a breakdown in the deterrent relationship, releasing the latter from nuclear restraint that the relationship may have implied.
The Zhenbao Incident
On 2 March 1969, Chinese troops ambushed and killed a group of Soviet border guards on Zhenbao Island; one of the (then) disputed islands on the Ussuri River. As Sino-Soviet tensions heightened, ownership of these islands designated as a border by the 1860 Treaty of Peking, became a grave issue. To Moscow, the Treaty identified the boundary as running along the Chinese riverbank. China saw, in military action, resolve to deter future provocations partly aggravated by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and further incited by the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ that gave rights to the Soviets to intervene in the affairs of Communist countries. Mao intended the limited attack to demonstrate that it could not be bullied. Moscow, however, interpreted China’s actions as aggressive and characteristic of a revisionist tendency. By end March, the battle escalated across a wider front.
On the diplomatic front, each armed escalation was paired with threats of increase in combat operations. So extensive was the intimidation that Mao feared a Soviet invasion preceded by a nuclear ‘first strike’. Behind the frontline, the USSR had requested US neutrality in the matter – the US had other intentions as diplomatic manoeuvres were afoot that sought China as a means of containing the Soviets. By August the USSR threatened to cross the nuclear Rubicon. For Beijing, the knowledge that Moscow had approached other countries to ascertain response to a nuclear strike greatly increased the credibility of the nuclear attack. However, Beijing’s perception of threat-reliability had unintended consequences that stoked the possibility of a nuclear exchange. China believed that negotiations were a mask for a nuclear “sneak attack.”
By October 1969, alarmed by an imminent Soviet nuclear strike, Chinese leadership evacuated Beijing, and placed its nuclear forces (stockpile of 60 to 80 warheads), on hair trigger alert. Had China wrenched out the steering column? There is much to suggest that it had. Kremlin, as recent reports testify, was stunned at the prospects of a people’s war under the overhang of a steering-less nuclear arsenal. It would appear that the Soviets had swerved out of the path of an uncontrolled Armageddon, and as in Schelling’s game of chicken, conceded the tourney. The two nations, by end October, were at the negotiation table.
Skewing Against Gravity
A central argument in contemporary deterrence literature is that nuclear weapons induce predictability in inter-state relations and prompt mirror imaging in policy-making; this in turn transforms national behaviour and reduces the likelihood of direct conflict between nuclear-armed states. Nuclear weapons, by this thinking, circumscribe the limits of conventional warfare. To the contrary, the Zhenbao war suggests that there can be armed conflicts that, for the initiator, have nothing to do with the military balance both conventional and nuclear. Critically it raises the prospect that balance may indeed be skewed against gravity. The India-Pakistan hostile correlation; China’s activities in the South China Sea, and the North Korea nuclear stand-off are stark reminders of this precept.
Differing Ideas of Deterrence
Strategic culture and the differing idea of deterrence characterise a key role in determining actions taken by international players. China’s traditional word for deterrence, weishe, means “to intimidate militarily” without nuances. While the Oxford English dictionary defines the verb “to deter” as to discourage or prevent, usually by instilling anxiety; from this is derived the accepted idea that essentially upholds the status quo. What Pakistan understands remains blurred: whether it is to discourage all forms of armed conflict against India or to provide an umbrella for non-state actors to bleed India is ambiguous. The introduction of jihadists and non-state actors is unique in that it delivers an asymmetricity that keeps the level of warfare well under the nuclear shadow, is deniable, and yet its impact can be as consequential as any act of war.
Indian strategic planners will do well to appreciate that the international nuclear milieu today is complex and multilateral in nature which increases the chances of strategic misunderstanding. The demand is for explicit credibility if deterrence is to be functional and exertive. In addition, the Zhenbao incident highlights an important dilemma: for deterrence to be effective, an opponent must fear the consequences of actions; however, excessive anxiety is also a potential peril, as it can lead to paranoia that ‘tears out the steering column’.
* Vijay Shankar
Former Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Forces Command of India