Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 03:55 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 03:55 | SYDNEY

Does India need nuclear asymmetry?


Rory Medcalf


6 September 2011 12:19

Incisive reporting from the Financial Times (subscription required) on India's growing concerns about the military difficulties posed by a rising China. This follows reports last week of an extraordinary challenge by Chinese forces to an Indian navy ship in the South China Sea, just after its visit to Vietnam.

Just imagine if the Indian Navy had declared a similar 'keep out' message to a Chinese destroyer transiting the Bay of Bengal after one of its friendly visits to Burma or Pakistan.

As my colleagues and I foreshadowed not long ago in our major report on Asian maritime security, Crisis and Confidence, China's tensions at sea with the US and various East Asian countries could in time be replicated in China-India relations. Some readers may have seen our report as too realist and gloomy for their tastes. But, if anything, we have under-estimated how quickly Asia's maritime security troubles might spill over into relations between the world's two most populous states.

This makes it all the more urgent for New Delhi and Beijing to begin building their own regime of confidence-building measures and continuous communications at sea.

As for India's wider sense of insecurity about Chinese military power, I would still point to this speech, which contains one of the wisest arguments made by an Indian military thinker. It is pointless for New Delhi to engage in a direct military competition with China based on the narrow calculus of defence spending, or on sheer numbers of modern planes, ships and conventional weapons systems.

India's economy and defence budget is smaller, its other security challenges are many and of a different kind (terrorism, insurgency, separatism), and its human development needs should remain a major priority for New Delhi's stretched resources.

Instead, when it comes to defence, India needs to think asymmetrically. And, unpleasant as it sounds, the shortest cut to a stable security relationship between India and China may be a genuinely effective Indian nuclear deterrent — with submarine-launched second strike capabilities — unlike the old-fashioned and largely air-dropped arsenal India is currently said to possess.

Unless, of course, the limited range of Indian missiles means that India has to survey contested waters close to China's eastern periphery so that its nuclear-armed boats can one day patrol there. In which case, expect to see much more strife at sea between Asia's rising giants.

Photo, of the INS Shishumar, by Flickr user obelix4.