China-India Nuclear Relations

Interview with Vipin Narang
October 28, 2014

In September 2014, Chinese president Xi Jinping made his first visit to India to meet with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Although they were able to pledge increased economic cooperation between China and India, Xi and Modi remained mindful that security issues continue to be a core concern, particularly the border skirmishes that coincided with much of Xi’s visit and ongoing military and nuclear tensions between the two Asian giants.

To explore the Sino-Indian security relationship further, NBR spoke with Vipin Narang, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict (Princeton University Press 2014). In this interview, Dr. Narang examines bilateral nuclear dynamics between China and India, Pakistan’s role in the relationship, and how the United States should encourage Sino-Indian stability by remaining largely in the background.

During his visit to New Delhi, President Xi pledged billions of dollars toward improving Indian infrastructure. Do you think improved economic relations between the two countries signify an easing of nuclear and border tensions?

Improving economic relations is part of a broader strategy by both Prime Minister Modi and President Xi to increase trade and hopefully ease tensions between India and China on the theory that states that trade with each other don’t invade each other. Both nations are setting aside their border disputes, military tensions, and the nuclear dynamic in order to build an economic relationship with the hope that a broader relationship will follow.

As for the border incursions that occurred when Xi Jinping was in New Delhi, the Indian media certainly viewed these incidents as timed to disrupt the bilateral meeting. The reality is that these disputes are very small in terms of the number of soldiers and the territory involved—they are nettlesome, but both sides seem determined to not let these issues hold the broader relationship hostage.

In your book, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict, you argue that states adopt different nuclear strategies based on their threat landscapes, thereby achieving different levels of nuclear deterrence. Will China and India continue to maintain assured retaliation?

Yes, I think both will maintain assured retaliation strategies, largely because both states privilege assertive control of their nuclear arsenals, resulting in a posture that is really designed only for retaliation. The difference is that India’s force requirements are determined by what it needs to assure retaliation against China, but Chinese force requirements are determined by what it believes it may need to assure retaliation against the United States.

As such, China’s nuclear modernization is probably best viewed as a response to what it believes are increasingly capable, sophisticated, and accurate U.S. counterforce capabilities at the conventional—and potentially nuclear—level, but mostly conventional counterforce capabilities and potential missile defenses. So China needs sufficient capability and mobility to be able to survive a potential counterforce attempt against it by the United States and have enough in reserve to be able to saturate what may, in the future, be a working missile defense system. Force requirements in the Chinese modernization program should be viewed, in my opinion, through that lens.

It is important to note what China has not invested in. There is no evidence that China is trying to develop tactical nuclear weapons. There is a whole array of conventional ballistic missile and cruise missile capabilities that China is developing to help offset the conventional imbalance it faces against the United States, but we don’t see the kinds of things in China that would suggest that they are moving toward anything but an assured retaliation strategy.

In the Indian case, we are similarly seeing modernization efforts, including some that seem puzzling. For example, the Indian Defence Research and Development Organization is talking about developing a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) capability, but there isn’t a lot of discussion about the rationale for that. Is it to enhance the assurance of retaliation or to position India for nuclear counterforce missions? In the Cold War, MIRVs were seen as a first-strike-enabling capability. But there is a rationale for MIRVs that is consistent with assured retaliation: warheads are cheaper than missiles, and if a country is worried about the survivability of its missiles, MIRV capabilities make sense. If a couple of missiles are lost in a first strike but the surviving ones are MIRVed, a country would still have sufficient retaliatory throw-weight to assure retaliation. I think this is likely the Indian rationale.

So although some of the developments on the Indian side may seem a bit puzzling, they are still potentially consistent with an assured retaliation posture, especially with respect to China, and I don’t see India moving away from that. Once India develops sufficient operational Agni-Vs, and then eventually maybe an SSBN (nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine) capability, it would possess a survivable capability against whatever counterforce threats China may be able to mount against it. Once India is confident in that level of survivability, I don’t see it moving much beyond that.

Is assured retaliation a stabilizing or destabilizing posture for China and India?

In a lot of ways the assured retaliation posture shared between India and China is stabilizing because it does not make the border dispute a “nuclear” flashpoint as might be the case in the India-Pakistan dynamic. There is really no contingency in the India-China border dispute area where nuclear weapons would be useful. The Indian media talks about Chinese DF-25s deployed in Tibet, but that is not accurate, and India is not developing any tactical nuclear weapons to use in that theater. There is no mission in that theater for which nuclear weapons are suitable given the hostile terrain and altitude. Without concentrated forces in the area to serve as targets, tactical use of nuclear weapons doesn’t make a lot of sense for either side. So this assured retaliation posture relying on almost strictly strategic retaliatory capabilities that are shared between India and China is very stabilizing.

If there ever was a conflict, there would be very little threat of nuclear escalation in that dispute, which is unlike the India-Pakistan dynamic, where Pakistan threatens to use tactical nuclear weapons on Indian forces in a theater where they might be useful to offset India’s conventional superiority.

Speaking of the likelihood of Pakistan using nuclear weapons, if China wants to increase stability in the region, should it reduce the asymmetry between Pakistan and India’s conventional weapons capabilities by supporting Pakistan’s conventional weapons systems?

My own sense is that the gap in potential power between India and Pakistan is so great that I don’t know if there is enough conventional capability out there that the Pakistanis can absorb to offset, in their own heads, India’s quantitatively—and increasingly qualitatively—superior forces.

If India is facing the short end of the stick with respect to China, Pakistan is really facing the short end of the stick with respect to India. In the long term, the disparity will only get worse as India’s economy continues to grow. India’s power potential is so great relative to Pakistan that I think the Pakistanis have convinced themselves that no amount of conventional capability can offset what India is buying and incorporating into its military. I’m sure the Pakistani military would welcome all the conventional assistance China might be willing to give it, but I don’t think it views conventional platforms as a substitute for nuclear weapons.

Put differently, the reliance on nuclear weapons, given the structural characteristics between India and Pakistan, is probably a permanent feature of the subcontinent that is hard to escape from, even if China were to further bolster Pakistan’s conventional capabilities. The other possibility that Pakistan has always hoped for is that in the event of a conflict with India, there would be a second front opened by China, but China has never done that. The Chinese strategy seems to be to build Pakistani capabilities but, in a conflict, to sit out the dispute.

Although India is preparing for a two-front war in the event of a conflict with Pakistan, I have a hard time seeing China threatening to open up a second front. China will probably continue to supply Pakistan with weapons, but I’m not sure what incentive the Chinese leadership would have to start a conflict just to open up a second front to relieve pressure off the Pakistanis.

Beyond the nuclear realm, how do you see the bilateral military relationship going forward? Is there potential for escalation of the border disputes between India and China?

I don’t see the prospect for major escalation of the skirmishes between Indian and Chinese troops along the Line of Actual Control. It is so far from the strategic heartland of India and China that it is hard to fathom how a military conflict over the disputed area in Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh, the Line of Actual Control, would escalate beyond just border skirmishes.

India’s primary concern is that its relationship with China does not turn overtly hostile. Given the asymmetry in the two countries’ military and nuclear capabilities, India is much more concerned about Chinese capabilities than vice-versa. There is no incentive for India to provoke China over the border dispute. They are competitors in various spheres, but they can also cooperate in other respects.

In the larger picture, India, which has always tried to diversify its portfolio of international relationships, is trying to hedge its bets in terms of its relationships with great powers. For example, one of the concerns in India with the Bush administration’s passing of a nuclear deal (permitting U.S.-India civilian nuclear cooperation) was that the agreement shouldn’t be seen as a vehicle to balance against China. India has tried to have good relations with both China and the United States for the past fifteen years or so and not privilege a strategic partnership with one over the other. It remains to be seen whether India can successfully execute a hedging strategy with both the United States and China going forward or whether, at some point, it will be forced to choose between the two. For now, though, India is trying to hedge its bets by cooperating with both nations where it suits Indian interests.

What, if anything, can the United States do to increase stability between the two rising giants in the region?

U.S. involvement would probably be viewed with suspicion by both China and India. China is already suspicious of the United States’ overtures to India, while Indians value what they call their “strategic autonomy.” This concept is sometimes viewed as a legacy of the Non-Aligned Movement, but it reflects a hard realist view that India has no permanent friends, only permanent interests, and values the flexibility to work with any state that helps New Delhi obtain its interests. In other words, India prefers a diversified strategic portfolio: it doesn’t necessarily form alliances with any one state but likes to have good relations with as many states as suits Indian interests. India is wary of a formal alliance or a strategic partnership with the United States for those reasons, likely even under the new Modi government.

The United States’ rebalance to Asia forces China to focus on its military modernization and potentially its nuclear modernization program, but I’m not sure that affects India tremendously. The India-China land balance is independent of U.S.-China military competition in the disputed region, although there is a possibility that Chinese naval growth radiates out toward the Indian Ocean region and starts posing a problem for the Indian Navy. In that sense, it is certainly true that the security competition between China and the United States can have downstream consequences for the India-China relationship, but I think those are largely secondary consequences that will not affect the texture of the relationship too much, since India’s naval capabilities are simultaneously increasing.

The best thing the United States can probably do is not force an alliance with India that might provoke fears of Chinese encirclement and exacerbate the regional security dilemma. The probability that India would accede to such a relationship is low enough that it might unnecessarily create a security dilemma for China. For the United States, wooing India too hard may do precisely that. I think there is a structural relationship between the United States and India that will evolve on its own and trying to force progress beyond a pace that is natural is probably not in either side’s interest.

Vipin Narang is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict (Princeton University Press 2014).

This interview was conducted by Ildiko Hrubos, an intern at the National Bureau of Asian Research.