Nuclear Doctrinal Revision For The China Front
Col Ali Ahmed*
Missing in the ongoing debate on NFU, prompted by reference in the BJP manifesto to a revision of the nuclear doctrine, are the implications of any shift in doctrine for the China front. Nuclear analyst, WPS Sidhu, of Brookings India has indicated that the China factor is one among three factors that prompts revision. The other two are Pakistan’s induction of Nasr and the reconfiguration of the demated and dealerted status in light of nuclear submarines due to make their advent soon as the invulnerable leg of the triad.
The recent debate has alighted on two issues areas: one is the NFU and second is credibility of deterrence. While the discussion has confined itself mostly to the Pakistan front, no doubt with good reason, such as the volatility of relations with that state in light of long standing instability there, the China front has figured if at all in passing. Given that India has consistently privileged the China factor as motivating India’s nuclear developments, there appears a gap in analyses that this article will attempt to fill.
To Sidhu, the presence of DF 25, with a range of 3200km in Tibet and China’s surveillance capabilities together with increased border incidents must prompt rethinking in both conventional and nuclear dimensions. Conventional rethinking has already been initiated over half a decade ago and has resulted in the raising of two divisions in a defensive role and forming of a mountain strike corps. However, implications of the same on conventional-nuclear interface and on nuclear plane are of consequence for any impending revision of nuclear doctrine.
As a prelude to the discussion here, there are some mitigating factors on the China front that need noting. Firstly, China is embarked on an economy-first national endeavour that can do without buffeting by military distractions on a remote border that is not central to its more Pacific Ocean centered primary interests. Secondly, China is more attuned to global power play in which it is seen as a challenger. This means that in any stand-off with India it would only be able to muster and employ a proportion of its comprehensive national power since it would require to keep an eye out for the US and a post conflict rebalancing. Therefore, the seeming power asymmetry against India both conventional and nuclear needs moderating.
Thirdly, it is the sole nuclear power other than India that has an NFU in place. While some Indian analysts question whether this NFU is applicable to Chinese interpretation of its territory, that includes Arunachal Pradesh, to others this NFU is just as credible as any other unilateral declaration that a sovereign state can step away from at any time. Nevertheless, an NFU is in place, even if India were to take it for its planning purposes with a pinch of salt. Lastly, China and India are in a dialogue process that has gone through fifteen iterations so far. This indicates that an interface process is in place with potential for non-military conflict resolution.
With this in the background, what are implications of prospective areas of rethink, namely, NFU and credibility, for the China front?
NFU is relatively easy to tackle. In keeping with the dictates of the Draft Nuclear Doctrine of 1999, India has taken care to build up its conventional capability in order to lift upwards any nuclear threshold or need to go nuclear in a conflict. In the nuclear field, a full-fledged second strike capability resting on nuclear powered submarines packing a ballistic missile punch is still half a decade away. Agni V is yet to get operational status and into production. Therefore, since, firstly, conventionally India can do without nuclear reinforcement, and, secondly, the nuclear capability is yet to mature, there is little reason for India to go nuclear first.
Sticking with NFU at least till end decade may be militarily necessary. The strategic sense in this is that NFU keeps the nuclear factor at bay and, furthermore, provides a buffer in the form of rescinding the NFU in crisis or conflict itself serving as a telling message of India’s stakes and commitment. Politically, there is little reason to heighten tensions with China and thereby falling into line with a side role in the ongoing ‘pivot’ towards Asia of the US.
As for the second aspect, credibility, there is a case to be made for movement. India’s leading nuclear analysts, Bharat Karnad and Vipin Narang, have both pointed out that ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation that is current Indian declaratory nuclear doctrine, is untenable in respect of China. In case of China’s introduction of nuclear weapons into a conflict in a higher order mode such as against India’s heartland, then India is fully justified in having the doctrine inform its nuclear strategy. However, in case of nuclear first use by China in India’s periphery or in Tibet, India could have an operational nuclear doctrine also countenancing limited nuclear operations. This would be necessary at least over the remainder of this decade till the capability to strike China’s eastern seaboard with equal impunity as it can target Indian heartland is built up by the operationalization of the triad, IRBMs and MIRV technology.
A shift from a declaratory doctrine that in this case lacks credibility to ‘flexible’ nuclear retaliation may be necessary. The question that needs answering is: Which serves deterrence better: a doctrine that cannot be worked, or a doctrine that envisages nuclear war-fighting at lower order levels of nuclear exchange in order to deter better? After all, given the stakes involved in a border dispute, lower order levels of nuclear first use are more likely in the hypothetical case of Chinese first use.
In case of a shift to flexible nuclear retaliation on the China front, what does it imply for India’s nuclear doctrine on the Pakistan front? Does it mean that India’s atypical strategic location lends itself to a ‘differentiated’ (B. Karnad) nuclear doctrine: one for each front? Any rethinking would require answering such questions. Consequently, the China front cannot possibly be ‘missing in action’.
Col Ali Ahmed is author of India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (Routledge, 2014). He blogs at www.ali-writings.blogspot.in.
(Article uploaded on Apr. 29, 2014).