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India And China: Time For Dialogue On Nuclear Security? – Analysis

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By Rukmani Gupta*

Discussions on nuclear security in South Asia generally focus on the India-Pakistan relationship. Given the volatile military equation and frequent sabre-rattling between these two neighbours, that is unsurprising. China as a nuclear power that has a bearing on nuclear security and stability in South Asia is discussed in India primarily in terms of its nuclear relationship with Pakistan – the materiel and technology that Indian analysts believe China provides to bolster Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. That the India-China relationship might itself merit a discussion on issues of nuclear security, perhaps even Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), is seldom mooted. A dialogue on nuclear security between the two is supposed unnecessary since – a) Chinese analysts maintain that India’s nuclear capability is apparently inconsequential and China does not believe it is in a deterrence relationship with India; b) given that no shots have been fired along the disputed border, there is no realistic scenario in which the two states would enter into a military conflict; and, c) both countries have a declared no-first-use (NFU) policy, which is believed to be guarantee enough against nuclear escalation. There are, however, many reasons to re-examine this comfortable assessment of the impossibility of nuclear escalation between India and China.

Chinese scholars continue to state that China’s technological superiority implies that India’s nuclear weapons capabilities do not pose a threat to China and that India does not feature in China’s nuclear calculus. This seems singularly peculiar given that Indian analysts and even ministers have repeatedly stated that India’s nuclear deterrent is primarily a safeguard against nuclear blackmail by China. Despite the overt unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of a neighbour with nuclear weapons, Chinese views of Indian capabilities are certainly changing. This is best exemplified in the changing tone of statements made by Beijing in response to India’s missile tests. In the wake of India’s first intercontinental ballistic missile test of Agni V in 2012, the spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) did not so much as allude to the missile test and emphasised only that China and India were cooperative partners rather than rivals.1 By 2016, when India undertook the fourth Agni V test, China’s reaction to the test was very hostile. Not only did the MoFA spokesperson insinuate that India’s missile test was in violation of United Nations Security Council Regulations, but also sought clarity on its “intentions”.2 From muted reactions that seemed to ignore missile development to belligerent statements that place the blame for destabilising South Asia at India’s door, there has clearly been a change in perception regarding India’s nuclear capabilities within the Chinese government. When considered along with the fact that China maintains nuclear missile launch sites and storage facilities in the provinces bordering India, it seems reasonable to suppose that China’s security assessments do actively account for India’s growing nuclear capabilities.

It would be wilful ignorance to deny that the bilateral relationship between India and China remains hostage to the territorial dispute which is becoming increasingly acrimonious. Perhaps, as a prelude to the final settlement of the outstanding border dispute and with a view to bolstering their respective negotiating positions, both sides are seeking to increase their areas of “regular” operations in disputed territory. This has not only led to a steady increase in the number of border “transgressions” logged by each country, but also brought troops in face-offs more frequently. While it is true that the India-China border has not seen skirmishes of the sort witnessed on India’s borders with Bangladesh or Pakistan involving the use of small arms or artillery and can thus be termed provisionally “peaceful”, fisticuffs and stone-throwing along the Western border3 indicate that tensions remain high.

As India and China compete for greater influence in the Asia-Pacific, this history of mistrust and the legacy of an unresolved territorial dispute continue to dog their diplomatic efforts. A zero-sum analysis predominates assessments of foreign policy. India’s ‘Act-East’ policy is assessed by Chinese scholars as an attempt by India to position itself as an economic and military alternative to China in Southeast Asia. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is viewed with suspicion in India not merely because there is lack of clarity on the details of the vision, but also because the reflex with regard to developments concerning China is one of assessing what India might lose. The possibility that efforts by both countries in Southeast Asia and beyond can be synthesised for mutual benefit is considered utopian.

The stand-off at Doklam demonstrated that they could well become embroiled in territorial disputes that are not strictly bilateral. Could a similar stand-off occur in the South China Sea if Indian naval vessels were to be challenged by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy? The rapid militarisation of features controlled by China in the disputed waters of the South China Sea along with the active expansion of China’s area of operations in the region make this a real possibility. Chinese investment and military presence in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor too raises the prospect of Chinese military involvement in conflict between India and Pakistan in the area.

What does a declared NFU policy mean when there exists a trust deficit between two countries? How far can declaratory positions be relied upon in the event of a conflict? Leaders in both countries have stoked nationalism in aid of legitimising their positions in power. In the event of a military conflict, how would a country losing a conventional war explain adherence to NFU to its domestic constituency? Does the reliance on declared NFUs make military conflict more likely given the assurance that the adversary will not use nuclear weapons?

Even as far as the declaratory postures of the two countries are concerned, there appears to be continued uncertainty. From a recommendation attributed to the third National Security Advisory Board for India to consider withdrawing from a NFU commitment in 2003,4 to remarks made in 2016 by then defence minister Manohar Parrikar suggesting that India need not bind itself to NFU,5 there has been recurring speculation that India is reconsidering its NFU policy. Similar speculation over changes in China’s nuclear posture is also ongoing. Within China there are scholars who emphasise the need to review China’s NFU position.6 Furthermore, discussion over the possible loss of China’s retaliatory strike capabilities has led to suggestions since 2013 at least that the PLA implement a hair-trigger alert in the event of a confirmed incoming attack.7 Given President Xi Jinping’s emphasis on combat-readiness and restructuring the military for a rapid response, the idea does not seem far-fetched. If Xi condones some version of a “launch on alert” mechanism, it could potentially lead to accidental or mistaken launch triggered by a false alert since the fallibility of detection and monitoring systems has been amply demonstrated in the past.

That there will be no nuclear escalation between India and China has become conventional wisdom. The growing capabilities, competing aspirations and overweening hubris of these two neighbours, however, suggest that reliance on accepted assumptions will lead to complacency. It may therefore be time for India and China to discuss nuclear issues bilaterally with a view to mediating the uncertainties borne of their differing perspectives and postures.

*Rukmani Gupta is a New Delhi based Defence and Security Analyst

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India. This article was published by IDSA.


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IDSA

IDSA

The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. IDSA has been consistently ranked over the last few years as one of the top think tanks in Asia.

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