India’s China predicament and No First Use
Engaging with Bharat Karnad
As usual, Bharat Karnad has set the cat among the pigeons. In his, ‘Ukraine in mind, India needs a nuclear option against China,’ he takes aim at India’s nuclear doctrinal pillar, No First Use (NFU), calling for it to be jettisoned in relation to China. His has been a longstanding recommendation that atomic demolition munitions (ADM) be emplaced along Chinese ingress passes, thereby deterring it. It would implacably demonstrate Indian resolve, since these would ab initio be embedded to deny use of those approaches either for intrusion or logistics support thereafter. At a minimum, the implicit threat that they could be triggered in face of a Chinese onslaught would keep China from chancing any invasion. For good measure, Karnad conjures up a Doom’s Day machine: the array of ADMs to be backed by a tier of Agni missiles, well forward enough to take out Beijing, the Three Gorges Dam, the Lop Nor weapons complex and China’s eastern seaboard.
To Karnad, a differentiated doctrine is required on the Pakistan front, since Pakistan is a manageable foe. To him, it is at best an irritant, with which the power asymmetry between the two can be suitably leveraged to deter. His overall pitch has been that India proffer friendly overtures to Pakistan, weaning it away from China. This would make conflict recede, leaving India with only one front to take care of: China.
To him, India is in China’s weight, but adverse power equations require India to apply its nuclear capability in a different manner. While doing without NFU does not necessarily mean first use of nuclear weapons, Karnad does not merely want to instill dissonance in the mind of the adversary that these ‘may’ be used, but a surety that these ‘will’ be used. Karnad is no nuclear minimalist, believing in a tous azimuts nuclear capability, with warheads numbering in mid-three digits figures. What it does to the other doctrinal pillar, ‘minimum’, does not detract him, since for the capability to be ‘credible’ is more important.
Elsewhere, I made a case for a rescinding of the NFU in face of a crisis or in conflict in order to demonstrate that China either desist from crossing a threshold or retrieve. In my mind’s eye, this was not so much to avoid a fight than to keep from losing one. There was space in my visualization for a conventional tryst, even a bloody-nosed, broken-jawed one. It is only if and when Chinese aims are self-evidently over the top – such as a bid to take Tawang or make a break for the Chicken Neck – then India could, as a first step publicly step back from NFU. Though not advocated by me, if nuclear weapons are to at all to be introduced into a conflict, it’s best done at the lowest possible level of destruction, provocation or opprobrium.
Thus, there are three nuclear use options: ‘maximalist’ (Karnad); ‘minimalist’; and, the in-between ones clubbed into a third, ‘graduated’ option.
There is little doubt that the maximalist option – Karnad’s potion - should make China think twice. However, the danger is, having given their prospective military actions a second thought the Chinese may yet undertake these. In short, the maximalist option might fail to deter. This owes to operation of self-deterrence. Whereas it might be reassuring to have the capability to see the rubble bounce on Chinese seaboard, it may take a while to get there. India does not have the reach for now or the numbers of warheads and missiles. Even when it does, self-deterrence will remain, since India and China would be in a state of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Self-deterrence will thus attend all nuclear decision making, given the inevitability of India suffering like damage.
Maximalists like to believe that resolve is all it takes to overcome self-deterrence. Resolve requires not only bolstering incessantly but demonstrating periodically. This is persuasive, but not wholly so. It does take resolve to commit suicide, but political decision makers in a democracy have no mandate to take a call on national suicide. No political aims or military objectives can be met by such an action. Preventing Chinese from taking Arunachal makes little sense if there is no India left to retain Arunachal.
The maximalists argue that the aim being deterrence, it can be met by a convincing show of irrationality – after all only a mad (wo)man will chance a ‘MAD’ situation. ‘It can happen; therefore, it will, so let’s not provoke it,’ should go the refrain. The higher the provocation – such as a bid to take Ladakh or breakout from Doklam for the Teesta plains – the more likely the house will be brought down on both heads. Threat of an irrational reaction prevents an irrational action. However, this does not prevent – deter – the more likely Chinese military actions: salami slicing.
For this, Karnad has his ADMs in place. In a ‘graduated’ option, ADMs going off do not necessarily trigger off the Agnis. The Agnis are in case of retaliatory strike(s) which get ugly, or, if in the aftermath of ADM demolishing hillsides, China still proceeds downhill. In-conflict deterrence through escalation control should kick-in.
However, competent commentary exists that escalation control beliefs are wishful. At one time, Subrahmanyam, and lately, Prakash Menon, reflected on inevitability of escalation in their dissuading theology on escalation control. This implies that the graduated option has a higher probability of tending towards the maximalist option in short order. Even if a chimera of sorts, not having a graduated option makes a maximalist option the only option left.
This leaves one with the third - minimalist - option. This involve letting go of NFU at a crunch, to deliver an unmistakable message. Lack of NFU does not mean inevitable first use. However, a reluctant stepping up to the graduated option can be countenanced by climbing the ladder: nuclear tests, a green-field explosion, tactical nuclear strike(s) or taking out an operational level target. The assumption is that a nuclear weapon going off can even make the deaf hear. A war that’s gone nuclear has existential portents for the planet. It is liable to bring in unprecedented external pressure to bring home to belligerents the start of a wholly new ball game: use of nukes by both sides.
In his appraisal of the Ukraine conflict – that prompted his latest foray on his favourite nuclear hobby horse - Karnad observes that the Ukraine predicament was brought on by the fear in its supporters that their involvement in the conflict may make it go nuclear – a fear fed by Russia’s unambiguous nuclear threats. Consequently, Karnad thinks that states subject to attack by nuclear weapons powers have to resort to their own devices, unromantically expect no one to come to the rescue. This is true in the Russo-Ukraine case, but not tenable in a case of two nuclear powers in a MAD situation, such as India and Pakistan or, in due course, with progressive nuclear armament, India and China. Even in the interim, nuclear ordnance exchange between India and China would lead to curtains for Planet Earth.
Consequently, the maximalist option should not figure at all and every sinew strained to ensure that the graduated option does not tend towards the maximalist due to absent or ineffective escalation control measures and mechanisms. Compared with the graduated option, the minimalist option is sane. The logic that irrationality deters is undeniable, but sanity – nuclear weapons made thinkable by a reasonable doctrine - does equally well.
The minimalist option does not take Karnad’s fears of a conventional reverse to heart. Karnad - perhaps rightly - believes that the conventional equation is against India. China is indeed better positioned on the Himalayas in terms of geography, and is doctrinally and materially ahead. However, better armies have been checked all through history. We don’t need to go as far back as Alexander by Porus, but use the Ukrainian example itself. Ukraine has given a good account of itself in a situation of greater asymmetry than India versus China.
Therefore, recourse can be taken to the Draft Nuclear Doctrine that Karnad helped write up. It desired that a higher order conventional capability be maintained in order that Indian nuclear threshold is at a reasonably high level. Even if much improvement is needed, there is no call for substitution of conventional firepower with nuclear firepower.
Significantly, credible commentary – as by HS Panag – has it that when, in 2020, China spooked India, it was only asserting its claim to the areas up to its 1959 claim line. Having done that – and over stepped it slightly at an odd spot – I believe it is satiated in Ladakh. Though this does not hold for Arunachal, there is a consensus that 1962 cannot be replicated by China. This underscores conventional deterrence.
Therefore, NFU has continuing utility for India. NFU serves India’s purposes, since it incentivizes China to likewise maintain an NFU. It’s only if China gets too hot to handle conventionally, when a declaratory move away from NFU need be made. Whereas Karnad wishes for an up-front first use doctrine on the China front, he takes care to build in a buffer – having ADMs triggered by what China does, rather than having India hurl Agnis right away. So it’s a caveated first use of sorts, the onus on China. From his piece, it cannot be inferred that he is for raining down the Agnis at one go. Thus – much to his chagrin (!) - Karnad’s can also be taken as a nuanced, graduated option.
Even so, NFU rescinding does not necessarily mean first use. The ambiguity is enough to deter. I go so far as to say that even a conventional set back should not prompt first use. Even if playing with a weak hand, India must counter China conventionally. While a near-MAD situation compels this, it’s also because - to quote Barack Obama out of context - ‘Yes, we can.’