Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 12:07 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 12:07 | SYDNEY

China-India: In nuclear denial


Fiona Cunningham

21 October 2011 14:50

The list of strategic tensions in the China-India relationship is dismally long.

While there are elements of increasing cooperation, notably in trade and global governance (think Copenhagen), mistrust underpins the bilateral relationship. The root of that mistrust is the disputed border and China's 'all-weather friendship' with Pakistan, but other problems have emerged in recent years — India worries about China's presence in the Indian Ocean; China worries about the India's newfound warmth for the US and its role in Tibetan politics. Add to that resource and diplomatic competition, rising nationalism and poor public perceptions and things are not looking too rosy.

But in The Dangers of Denial, a new Lowy Institute paper examining the China-India nuclear relationship, Rory Medcalf and I argue that nuclear weapons are a crucial factor in determining the tenor of the relationship. India and China need to start talking to each other about nuclear stability, but this will be by no means easy.

Understanding the asymmetry in Sino-Indian relations is critical to evaluating just how dangerous the nuclear factor is. China is quite relaxed about India and sees little threat from its southern neighbour. India, on the other hand, is very concerned about the Chinese threat.

Part of India's anxiety stems from the fact that China can strike just about any location in India's territory with a nuclear missile, while India has no such capability to hit Chinese cities. This asymmetrical deterrence anxiety has motivated India to seek longer range missiles and the ability to launch nuclear missiles from submarines. A submarine launch capability will, however, need to carry longer range missiles if it is to avoid the dangerous mission of hugging the Chinese coastline in the event of a crisis.

Uncertainties also abound in the relationship — both countries are dabbling in missile defence technology which may decrease their confidence in deterring the other. Both could also abandon their restrained nuclear postures and build bigger arsenals, changing deterrence calculations. And both appear to be using their partnership with the major strategic rival of the other — Pakistan and the US — pragmatically.

While none this bodes well for the future, China and India are not in an arms race, and there is a window of opportunity now to stabilise the nuclear dynamic before competition intensifies. But there is little basis for official talks on such sensitive matters at the moment — China will first need to stop refusing to talk to India about its nuclear weapons on the grounds that India is not a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, perhaps in return for some gesture from the Indian side, probably on the Indian Ocean.

Once the two powers are clear about how their nuclear weapons deter the other, clear about how to manage crises and reassured of each other's strategic intentions, they could aim for a bilateral no-first-use agreement and push for other nuclear-armed countries to adopt this restrained nuclear posture.

In this way China and India could possibly turn the dangers of denial into a norm of no-first-use.

The Nuclear Reactions column is supported by the Nuclear Security Project of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, as part of a wider partnership between the NSP and the Lowy Institute.

Photo courtesy of Sinodefence Forum.