Nuclear doctrine constitutes set of rules for the development, deployment, and employment of nuclear weapons by the possessor state, as well as the policy objectives and the threat matrix of the said state. In Asian context, nuclear doctrines have an undeniable significance as three nuclear armed states of this region share borders- China, Pakistan and India. These states also share a history of conflicts and outstanding border disputes. Since partition, India and Pakistan have engaged in four wars and multiple diplomatic crises. On the other hand, China and India also engaged in war in 1962 over unresolved border disputes. Therefore, India views both China and Pakistan as its traditional adversaries in the region. Consequently, any changes in Indian nuclear doctrine can directly impact the strategic calculus of the region.
There are two defining features of the Indian Nuclear Doctrine – ‘No First Use’ and ‘Minimum Credible Deterrence’. Although the official definitions of both features have undergone radical changes over the years, they still remain to be the central focus of Indian nuclear doctrine. However, India is now signaling at a complete reversal of its No First Use Policy. In August 2019, the Defense Minster of India, Rajnath Singh, stated ““Till today, our nuclear policy is ‘no first use’. What happens in future depends on the circumstances.” Such statements carry serious security implications for regional and global security.
A No First Use Policy primarily relates to abstaining from using the nuclear option against an adversary until and unless a nuclear attack is commenced first. Through No First Use policy, a state declares that it will not employ its nuclear forces in a conflict as long as it remains in the conventional domain. Consequently, it implies that a state declares a No First Use policy when it perceives a conventional symmetry or superiority against its adversaries.
In case of Pakistan, India has been aspiring to exploit the gap of a limited through rapid military modernization. Given the conventional asymmetry and the Indian hegemonic ambitions, Pakistan had to rely on a ‘First Use Policy’ to deter India. Therefore, the declaration of First Use Policy by Pakistan indicates the defensive purposes of its nuclear forces rather than offensive ones. On the other hand, the Indian desires of reviewing its No First Use to First use may have two objectives.
First, BJP’s politics is based on ultra-nationalistic and Hindutva driven ideologies. With the rise of BJP, the ultra-nationalism has also increased in the socio-political environment of India. Thus, the statements of reviewing No First Use policy may be linked with feeding the sentiments of national pride and war hysteria among the masses. It is important to note that the statement of Defense Minster came at a time when tensions were high between India and Pakistan following post August 5 actions of the India in Kashmir (IoK).
Second, India also has outstanding border disputes with China along its northern regions. Therefore, China too is a party to the unresolved issue of Kashmir. By taking a unilateral decision to repeal the special status of Indian occupied Kashmir (IoK), India has undermined the national security interests of China as well. Therefore, China would have been perceived as a credible challenger on Kashmir by the Indian policy makers. A China centric strategic thinking of India is also evident by the recent modernization of its nuclear triad and delivery vehicles.
India successfully tested Agni V in 2018 that made it a member of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) club. Development of ICBM primarily poses a security threat to China as India already possessed nuclear missiles of strategic range against Pakistan. Moreover, India is also aspiring to acquire anti Satellite capabilities and Ballistic Missile Defense Systems, which impact the Indo-China strategic calculus to a greater extent as compared to Indo-Pak strategic calculus. In this backdrop, the Indian aspirations to shift towards First Use may be aimed at China more than Pakistan since China has proportionate conventional forces against India.
For the past few decades, India has been conducting a rapid modernization of its conventional and nuclear forces. Through conventional modernization, India aspires to deliver surgical strikes within the Pakistani territory as evident by the Balakot strikes (Feb, 2019). On the other hand, developments in the nuclear realm seem to be motivated towards gaining an advantage against China’s superior conventional and nuclear capabilities. In this regard, by hinting to review its NFU principle, India may be posturing towards China under the guise of Indo-Pak tensions. Therefore, it would not be imprudent to argue that India is now aspiring to gain a definitive advantage against China in terms of its nuclear arsenal, which could pose a significant risk to the strategic stability of the region and the world at large.
*Muhammad Faizan Fakhar, Assistant Research Associate at IPRI