As India celebrates the 25th anniversary of the 1998 Shakti tests and becoming a Nuclear Weapons State, it has to ponder over those countries that treated it as a pariah and still block its legitimate interests as well as plan the road ahead.
China was at the forefront of imposing sanctions on India by moving the 1172 resolution in the UN Security Council, along with the US. While the US moved on, recognizing India as a “State with nuclear weapons” and supporting India for a “clean waiver” at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) after the ‘123 agreement’ in 2008, Beijing remains a stumbling block in India’s quest to boost nuclear energy.
China continues to block India’s entry into the NSG – crucial to stepped-up access to nuclear technology and resources. Despite the growing global support to India and recognition – through pacts with 14 countries so far – and growing isolation of China on the matter, Beijing has been unrelenting.
China also continues to exert pressure on India by stepping up its nuclear and missile capabilities quantitatively and qualitatively. While such capabilities are primarily meant for a show-down with the US, the fact that China’s national defense white papers of 2015 and 2019 called for “medium-range precision strikes” indicate that India is also in its crosshairs. According to the Indian Defence Ministry’s annual reports, China has had India’s strategic assets as targets since the 1980s. What has changed now is the lethality and precision of its weapons.
Though China had adopted a minimum nuclear deterrence policy, its preparations and literature indicate that it has graduated to a limited nuclear deterrence posture. Every now and then, China mentions that it has “only a handful” of nuclear warheads. However, external evidence suggests that it has miniaturized warheads, and increased their stockpile and delivery platforms.
Currently, 14 sites are associated with the nuclear weapons program in China and estimates of its weapons-grade enriched uranium and plutonium stockpiles indicate a substantial increase in its nuclear warheads. China may have anywhere from 250 to 2,000 warheads currently.
Doctrinally, while paying lip service to No First Use (NFU), China’s move to a limited nuclear deterrence posture is worrying. Its commentators are also increasingly using terms such as ‘strategic deterrence’, and advocating foregoing NFU in the event of an adversary knocking off China’s ballistic missile silos or strategic hubs. Some have even called for Beijing to prepare for “launch on warning” and “launch under attack” scenarios. While China denies acquiring tactical nuclear weapons, reports suggest the contrary – indicating clearly an escalatory ladder.
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China also reorganized its rocket forces, previously called the Second Artillery to an explicit Strategic Rocket Forces. The December 2015 reorganization gave it an increased budget and modernization of C4ISR capabilities. The successful test of a hypersonic glide vehicle in 2021 enhanced the global reach of China’s destructive capabilities.
Nuclear whispers haven’t been heard during the ongoing India-China standoff in Ladakh, but China has built new missile silos in the western regions at Yumen, Hami, and Ordos at a cost of over $33 billion. China had also deployed several versions of DF-21 missiles at Da Qaidam, Xiao Qaidam, and Delingha in Tibet. An extended version of this missile, the DF-21D, is meant to counter the US Navy’s assets but could also be used to target Indian aircraft carriers in the Bay of Bengal.
China has been a free rider so far in arms control and disarmament regimes, gobbling up critical Western technologies and proliferating them to countries of concern. It has been dubbed a “strategic proliferator”. While the strategic arms reduction talks continued between the US and Russia, China did not participate in these, claiming limited capabilities. However, the US has demanded that China participate in intermediate-range nuclear forces reduction talks, but in vain.
China’s Nuclear Expansion: Threat to India
For India, the expansion of China’s nuclear and missile capabilities, combined with their proliferation to Pakistan, is of serious concern, including over a potential “two-front war under nuclear overhang”. Since 2009, the Indian military has been preparing for such contingencies, compelling it to deploy the Russia-made S-400 air and missile defense system.
Escalation control procedures are missing between the two nuclear powers, posing serious concerns on addressing the escalatory ladder. In the Strategic Dialogue between the two foreign ministries, this issue cropped up, but China is said to have dismissed India’s nuclear status and refused to discuss such procedures. Also, despite there being a “hotline” between the Indian Prime Minister and the Chinese President, it is said that it has never been used. This suggests to a complicated road ahead for India.
China is under tremendous pressure from the international community to prove its credentials of being a responsible stakeholder in the international system. However, China’s nuclear and ballistic missile preparations pose tremendous challenges to India and the world. India needs to respond and make changes to its doctrine and arsenal.
The article was first published in Deccan Herald as India must respond to the widening nuclear gap with China on May 21, 2023
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