Research & Analysis

Indian nuclear decision-making and the border standoff with China

By Tanvi Kulkarni 

The 2020 border standoff between India and China marks a tipping point in the bilateral relationship. It brings to an end the Indian illusion that the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China is a ‘disputed but peaceful’ border. As Beijing capitalises on the COVID-19 pandemic to rake up disputes in its neighbourhood through military intimidation, New Delhi is driven to revise its diplomatic and military calculations vis-à-vis its Asian neighbour. China’s growing military assertiveness also poses challenges for India’s nuclear deterrent.

This article looks at four factors that are likely to be of concern for Indian nuclear decision-making.

Context

China managed to pull a fait accompli with India on the LAC in the Ladakh region, which led to skirmishes between Indian and Chinese troops in Galwan Valley, and the Hot Springs and Pangong Tso areas. From April to June, China beefed up troops and military infrastructure in areas disputed by the two countries. Initial diplomatic engagement yielded little respite for India. In a rare episode in the border dispute, even as both sides attempted to disengage and de-escalate, on 16 June, twenty Indian soldiers and an undeclared number of Chinese soldiers were killed in a violent scuffle in Galwan Valley. Although details of the incident remain murky, the standoff and the Chinese fait accompli have activated the India-China conflict.

China’s Expanding Nuclear Arsenal

Since 2014, China has been gradually expanding its nuclear arsenal—both missile and warhead stockpiles. In mid-June 2020, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported an unusual jump in China’s nuclear arsenal to 320 warheads in 2020—an increase by 30 warheads from the 290 estimated in 2019.

China’s modernisation programme has involved enhancing its nuclear triad through multiple-range missile systems and additional nuclear submarines, Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) and Anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) capabilities, and cyber and electronic warfare capabilities. China’s modernisation efforts are prompted primarily by the need to ensure a credible second-strike capability against the US (missile defence and conventional prompt global strike). Indian policy-makers have so far taken respite in China’s No First Use (NFU) policy, reiterated in their 2019 Defence White Paper. Western and Chinese experts have ruled out a reversal of China’s NFU policy despite its expanding arsenal.

However, Beijing’s mounting nuclear arsenal is still a cause for Indian concern, for two reasons. First, the PLA’s Rocket Force (PLARF) deploys some of its rail and road-mobile medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) in the far-western Xinjiang province, which is geographically close to Aksai Chin and Ladakh. In the event of another standoff, Beijing could leverage these capabilities in the form of nuclear signalling or nuclear coercion. Second, while China asserts its growing nuclear prowess, its nuclear postures have become more ambiguous. The Chinese nuclear arsenal has departed from the classic minimum deterrence policy and there is little clarity about what Beijing considers sufficient deterrence in terms of the size and composition of its nuclear force structure.

The ‘Nuclear-ness’ of the Indo-Pacific Theatre

The Indo-Pacific region has emerged as the new theatre of major power conflict with China at its pivot. As the US, China, and Russia attempt to reduce the deterrence gap and exploit each other’s vulnerabilities, a wide range of conventional and military technologies are manifesting themselves in the region, including short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with hypersonic glide vehicles, supersonic cruise missiles on sea-based platforms like nuclear submarines (SSBNs), precision strike weapons, MIRVs, cyber systems, space-based systems and counterspace capabilities, missile defences, and enhanced command and communication.

Some of these technologies entail high readiness, quick launch capabilities, and the blurring of lines between conventional and nuclear attacks—dangerous postures which risk inadvertent nuclear use. Indian decision-makers will have to assess the specific impact of each of these technologies on India’s nuclear deterrence as well as their broader geopolitical implications on national security.

Looming Nuclear Arms Race

A renewed and reinvigorated arms race between the US, Russia, and China has consequences for India. Although it does not necessitate any fundamental change in India’s existing nuclear policy, the impulse to keep up with emerging capabilities as new benchmarks for nuclear deterrence are not likely to escape India’s national security establishment.

India could feel compelled to respond strategically to these growing nuclear capabilities and threats perceived from the nuclear arms race between the three major nuclear powers. In this dynamic, as India’s security interests converge with the US and diverge from China’s, Indian decision-makers would be encouraged to review the country’s operational force posture and nuclear policy.

China-Pakistan Redux

China’s military aggression vis-à-vis India is another signal that territorial consolidation and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are among Beijing’s top national security priorities. With the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—a part of BRI—Pakistan is now formally China’s key strategic partner. India should expect greater collusion between its nuclear-armed neighbours, especially with regard to border disputes with both countries. Even though India’s nuclear policy is not country-specific, a two-front confrontation with China and Pakistan poses unique strategic and operational challenges for India’s nuclear deterrence, particularly with regard to command and control issues, targeting strategies, or other doctrinal commitments.

But It’s Not All Downhill

India’s nuclear policy and doctrine currently hold off temptations of arms racing and military use of nuclear weapons. At the same time, strategic ambiguity has given space for manoeuvre to India’s national security decision-makers. The recent standoff is also indicative of Beijing’s reluctance toward military escalation with India.

Greater insight into China’s military thinking and nuclear behaviour will be a key factor for Indian decision-making. This will require systematic scholarship within and around the national security establishment. At the broader regional level, an arms control deal between the US, Russia, and China will be of tremendous help in dousing nuclear dangers in the Indo-Pacific.

The good news is that despite obliterating the Cold War arms control architecture, President Trump is not averse to multilateral arms control, provided it includes China. Given its increasing strategic closeness toward the US, New Delhi might be expected to support such a multilateral arms control arrangement.

 

The author is Assistant Professor of Defence and Strategic Studies at Pune University, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS.

 

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