Manish Tewari | The deterrence dynamic in India-China-Pak triad

No First Use benchmark was considered unique to Chinese strategic thinking

Ukraine had the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world when the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991. It gave up its nuclear weapons in return for security guarantees from the US, UK and Russia. Given that the guarantors of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 failed to measure up to their commitments and one of them, Russia, actually invaded Ukraine first in 2014 and then again in 2022, it will make many small and medium powers reassess their national positions qua acquiring nuclear arms.

One of the positives of the 22-month-old stand-off with China is that the deterrence posture of both the nations has remained stable. Both India and China have long been proponents of a No First Use Policy with regard to the use of nuclear weapons.

However, in the absence of a structured dialogue between the two nations, especially given the tense stand-off in Eastern Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, can strategic stability be taken as a given?

Similarly, the inadvertent launch of a Brahmos missile by India that landed in Mian Channu in Pakistan and the subsequent radio silence till the time Pakistan went public, forcing the NDA/BJP government to issue a public regret, underscored the limits of strategic patience.

As a first nuclear age power that had to face nuclear coercion both during the Korean War in 1950-53 and again during the Sino-Soviet Border war in 1969, post its first nuclear test at Lop Nor on October 16, 1964, China still adopted a posture of recessed deterrence during the Cold War and even after that.

This No First Use benchmark was considered unique to Chinese strategic thinking. Western researchers who have made careers reading tea leaves emanating from Zhongnanhai believe that the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does not consider it convincing or even ethically defensible to take a first strike position. They are of the considered view that China requires a nuclear arsenal for a very explicit objective, i.e., dissuading nuclear forays against China.

This is very distinct, however, from the US and Russian drill of maintaining a part of their respective nuclear arsenal on high alert status all the time. Apprehensive that an adversary might initiate a surprise nuclear first strike, both sovereigns are prepared to fire their nuclear missiles the moment they identify an attack to guarantee that their nuclear reprisal is efficacious. This defensive posture is called Launch on Warning (LOW) or Launch Under Attack (LUA).

This approach has started to filter into Chinese thinking on nuclear issues, too. Both the 2015 and 2019 defence white papers, respectively, reflect the desire to create a strategic early warning paradigm. Senior PLA military leaders are also perceived to be leaning towards a LOW posture. This would have a destabilising impact on strategic stability, especially in South Asia.

Pakistan is, of course, a different kettle of fish altogether. Its nuclear posture is fundamentally dictated by its perception of the “India” threat. As their former strategic plans division commander, Gen. Khalid Kidwai had opined, “Notwithstanding the growing conventional asymmetries, the development and possession of sufficient numbers and varieties of nuclear weapons by both India and Pakistan has made war as an instrument of policy near-redundant. The tried-and-tested concept of MAD has ensured that.” This, of course, has not prevented India and Pakistan from discerning spaces for limited wars under a nuclear overhang.

Pakistan has not declared an official nuclear doctrine since its nuclear tests of 1998. A publicly non-articulated doctrine does not lend itself to the interpretation that a theological basis for Pakistan’s nuclear programme is non-existent. Its position on nuclear first use and a unilateral moratorium against nuclear testing are seen as having intransience. However, whether its minimum credible deterrence during peace times is underpinned by both nondeployment and de-mating of weapons is an opaque facet and, therefore, an area of concern.

In the case of India, too, while the nuclear doctrine adopted on January 4, 2003, has held the field across different political dispensations now for over two decades, there have been certain unsettling noises that have given room for conjecture which can be increasingly unsettling in the world of nuclear theology.

When the BJP formulated its manifesto for the 2014 general elections, it incorporated a rather amorphous formulation with regard to nuclear weapons. In a subparagraph on Page 39 of its manifesto, it stated: “… BJP will study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times.”

In November 2016, former defence minister Manohar Parrikar stoked a controversy when he pontificated, “Why a lot of people say that India has No First Use policy. Why should I bind myself to a… I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it irresponsibly. … I am not saying that you have to use it first just because you don’t decide that you don’t use it first. The hoax can be called off.”

In his 2016 book, Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, Shivshankar Menon, NSA to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former foreign secretary, stated: “There is a potential grey area as to when India would use nuclear weapons first against another nuclear-weapon state. Circumstances are conceivable in which India might find it useful to strike first, for instance, against a nuclear weapons state (NWS) that had declared it would certainly use its weapons, and if India were certain that the adversary’s launch was imminent. But India’s present nuclear doctrine is silent on this scenario.”

On August 16, 2019, less than two weeks after the BJP-led NDA government amended Article 370 and abrogated Article 35-A from the Constitution, defence minister Rajnath Singh stirred the nuclear cauldron again. He tweeted, “Pokhran is the area which witnessed Atalji’s (A.B. Vajpayee) firm resolve to make India a nuclear power and yet remain firmly committed to the doctrine of ‘No First Use’. India has strictly adhered to this doctrine. What happens in future depends on the circumstances.”

Given that doctrinal thinking in all the three countries with regard to nuclear thresholds is evolving, the room for misunderstanding consequentially increases exponentially. It is, therefore, imperative for strategic stability in South Asia that two parallel and concurrent bilateral dialogues with both China and Pakistan on nuclear issues must be explored by India.

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