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Nuclear Doctrinal revision in its effects on the India-China Dyad
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Ali Ahmed | Date:06 Jan , 2017 0 Comments
Ali Ahmed
is independent Strategic Analyst and author of India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (Routledge).

In the latest brouhaha over the nuclear doctrine revision, Manoj Joshi offered the sage advice that Pakistan should not be the only referent in considering evolution of India’s nuclear doctrine. The discussion in the strategic circles sparked off by the defence minister recently voicing his personal opinion on nuclear doctrine, was rather Pakistan centric. Joshi rightly required that any changes in India’s nuclear doctrine would require reckoning with the effects in respect of China.

This article attempts to discern possible effects on the India-China nuclear dyad of the thrust areas of change in India’s nuclear doctrine. Since some of the impulse towards change is from a consideration of India-Pakistan nuclear dyad, if such change has no negative implications for the India-China dyad, then the proposed thrust line of change acquires greater credibility, if not plausibility.

Currently, India’s nuclear doctrine is fairly well adapted for the India-China nuclear dyad. By all accounts, China is the primary referent of India’s nuclear doctrine and the continuing suitability of the nuclear doctrine for the China front makes for little incentive for change. Both India and China subscribe to No First Use (NFU). Though to some, Chinese NFU is territorially caveated, India’s also is with a caveat that it would not hold in case of use of the other two types of weapons of mass destruction.

Whereas in terms of numbers, the Indian deterrent’s credibility is maintained at a ‘minimum’, though flexible, level, for China the numbers are relatively higher – characterised as ‘limited’ – owing to it having to contend with the US nuclear arsenal. Both are geared towards nuclear deterrence rather than nuclear warfighting. While India claims not to believe in non-strategic use of nuclear weapons and not to have tactical nuclear weapons (TNW), it cannot be plausibly said that China does not have a more variegated arsenal, since it has contingencies on the Pacific front, including Taiwan, to think about.

The doctrinal similarity – particularly on NFU – has led to a diminished focus on China in discussions of nuclear employment. Doctrinally, since neither side will initiate nuclear use in conflict, there was little to be gained by wargaming nuclear use other than for academic interest. Militarily, both sides maintain strong conventional forces and therefore do not need to rely on nuclear weapons to either supplement conventional operations or to bail either out of a tight conventional spot. Politically, the stakes in any envisaged conflict are not of an order as to compel either side to jeopardise respective economic and power trajectories by bringing nuclear weapons into a conflict. At worst, a border war is apprehended and, while this might have horizontal escalatory possibilities, no plausible vertical escalation scenario has found mention in discussions so far.

Nuclear related developments in India point towards a comfort level with the doctrinal status quo. NFU serves India well on the China front since it is in an asymmetric situation as of the moment, when it is still catching up with China. The invulnerable leg of India’s triad is still under development and its recent Agni V test is only the fourth one so far. To deterrence purists, this might point to a deterrence deficit that makes India’s deterrence vis-a-vis China a work-in-progress. They would also bemoan lack of a tested thermonuclear capability, irrespective of scientific claims dating to the Pokhran II tests to the contrary. Nevertheless, there is consensus that even if there is distance to traverse, India’s nuclear posture comprising cumulative progress in terms of numbers, delivery systems, reach, a ballistic missile defence capability in-the-works, command and control and survivability cannot be discounted by China. This implies an Indian self-confidence in its nuclear deterrence, which in turn disincentivises doctrinal change. Thus, it would appear that the impetus towards change that arises largely from a consideration of the India-Pakistan dyad is unlikely to make a dent on India-China doctrinal dyad. Such complacency merits scrutiny.

There are three thrust lines of impetus to change. The first is NFU, which was extensively dwelt on in the recent storm in the doctrinal teacup. The second is more significant in that it dwells on the doctrinal challenge posed by Pakistani TNW. The third is in interpreting the punitive quotient of counter strikes: when unacceptable damage in counter strike is sufficient, is going ‘massive’ necessary? The three need to be examined in their effects on the India-China dyad.

There is no strident call currently to jettison NFU in regard to China. India has a finite deterrence capability – even if it does not satisfy maximalists. There is however a situation of asymmetry currently brought about by Chinese missiles in Tibet and its vicinity that have a reach into India’s north Indian heartland, which India cannot match in reverse any time soon. This implies NFU serves India, for the moment. In case push comes to shove in conflict, there is the additional buffer the NFU pledge enables between a contingency and the nuclear button: rescinding the NFU pledge in the national security interest when warranted. This would warn off China from breaching possible Indian thresholds, such as a territorial one imagined variously astride the Se La or Bum La or Bomdi La ridgelines.

The second impetus stems from the TNW conundrum. How can escalation control kick in on breakdown of deterrence? This is possible through proportionate retaliation, which means operationalising the deterrent accordingly. For the China front, the implication needs factoring in a lapse in NFU. In case the need arises for redressing a fast developing adverse conventional situation that has politically unacceptable manifestations – such as another evacuation of Tezpur – nuclear weapons provide a fall-back option. Such use obviously would not be strategic but proportionate to rolling back the adverse situation, such as tamping down incoming Chinese hordes through disruption of the line of communication. This would presumably keep the nuclear dimension of the conflict from spilling onto the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin. This makes for a case not so much for TNW capability, but for ability for nuclear use in an operational-level, theatre-specific setting.

The third impetus is regards a reversion to the formulation of the Draft Nuclear Doctrine: that of punitive retaliation to inflict unacceptable damage. Clearly, the ‘massive’ formulation of the 2003 official adaptation makes no sense for the China front. For escalation control through in-conflict deterrence, there is a set of targets held in reserve, such as along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in Indian claimed territory. Holding these hostage might be useful in case of the feared ‘two front’ scenario.

From the preceding discussion it appears that the thrust lines of change visible in the India-Pakistan dyad are not irrelevant for the India-China dyad. Manoj Joshi rightly suggests caution in doctrinal revision, but that should not be interpreted as favouring the status quo. It is clear that the necessity for limiting nuclear use in either first use or retaliatory modes holds even regards conflict with China. Consequently, the minimal recommendation here is not to shy away from the discussion. However, if we are to heed China’s response to India’s Agni V test weighing-in in favour of strategic stability, treading softly might be prudent. Open doctrinal discussion might be a preferred substitute for doctrinal revision.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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