Nuclear India at the Crossroads

By Basrur, Rajesh M. | Arms Control Today, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Nuclear India at the Crossroads


Basrur, Rajesh M., Arms Control Today


Five years after first publicly testing nuclear weapons, India stands at a critical point in its strategic path. It faces today a crucial choice between maintaining a minimal deterrent and expanding its arsenal so as to sustain a Cold War-style posture toward its nuclear adversaries. Two factors are likely to shape its decision: its selection of a deterrence "model" based on two very diverse experiences with China and Pakistan and, more crucially, its own ability to comprehend and articulate the assumptions and ramifications of "minimum deterrence."

The 1998 tests broke with a history of leisurely, covert, and often hesitant weaponization and forced on Indian leaders important issues relating to doctrine and organization. Yet, the Indian government has truly to grapple with these concerns. The Draft Nuclear Doctrine floated in 1999 was widely debated but yielded no detailed follow-up. After a long gap, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's government in January 2003 released a short statement reiterating its commitment to "building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent." (See ACT, January/February 2003.) It emphasized that India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons (except against biological or chemical weapons) but promised massive retaliation in response to a nuclear attack to inflict "unacceptable damage" on the enemy. It also announced the existence of a Nuclear Command Authority under civilian control and the appointment of a commander-in-chief of the Strategic Forces Command as the apex military decision-maker.1 Apart from gradual organizational consolidation, India has demonstrated its deterrent capabilities in two ways: through the range of tests carried out in 1998 and through the array of missiles undergoing various stages of development and induction into its forces.2

Still, India's nuclear doctrine has yet to crystallize fully in the form of a clearly thought-out and articulated posture. On the one hand, there is a strong element of restraint in the fact that nuclear warheads have not been deployed on missiles but are stored in an unassembled state. On the other, the quest for a triad of launch platforms invites a continually expanding arsenal. As the organization of India's nuclear assets proceeds, pressures to stretch capability beyond the confines of minimum deterrence-or simply to redefine "minimum" to encompass more-are likely to increase. The persistence of high-level threat perceptions will also encourage an expansionary process. Which path will India's leaders take? Its relationships with China and Pakistan offer very different possibilities.

India and China: Oligopolistic Competition

It is often forgotten that India faces not one but two nuclear adversaries: China and Pakistan. With both rival nuclear powers, India must contend with territorial disputes, a history of war, and perceptions of nuclear threat. Yet, its relations with China and Pakistan are very different in tenor. India's stable relationship with China is conducive to a relaxed and minimalistic nuclear posture; its tense and crisis-ridden confrontation with Pakistan facilitates a volatile and expansionary one.

The China factor was central to Indian nuclear strategic thinking from as far back as 1964, when China tested its first nuclear bomb just two years after it had inflicted a serious military defeat on India. The war left unsettled a territorial dispute over their long border that still engages the two countries in endless talks. It also left Indians distrustful of the Chinese for having "betrayed" their friendship. The threat of a Sino-Indian war has since arisen on more than one occasion, most significantly in 1986-1987 in the Sumdorong Chu valley in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, an area which China to this day does not recognize as part of India. China threatened to "teach India a lesson," and both sides mobilized several divisions.3 Eventually, a political compromise was reached, although full withdrawal of forces took place only in August 1995. …

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