Nuclear weapons are a main driver of Beijing’s regional interest in South Asia. Yet paradoxically, they seem to factor little into China-India bilateral relations. While historical border disputes, general strategic anxiety, and trade concerns vex the China-India relationship, nuclear weapons seldom emerge as a point of tension.
This paradox—wherein nuclear weapons are geopolitically important, but practically distant from day-to-day politics—should be interpreted as a successful example of nuclear deterrence. In theory, the ability of two countries to decimate one another using nuclear weapons actually contributes to stability. This is what is known as mutually assured destruction: if I am guaranteed to destroy you, and you in turn are guaranteed to destroy me, then we won’t fight in the first place. For many nuclear adversaries, this level of theorized stability does not reflect lived experience. But for the China-India relationship, a stable nuclear deterrent has in fact allowed these two nations to address their litany of bilateral issues without fear of escalation.
Not only does nuclear deterrence contribute to bilateral stability, but it also has important implications for China’s relationship with the United States. Sino-Indian nuclear stability allows Washington and Beijing to more easily align their nonproliferation policies in South Asia, and thus jointly work to reduce global nuclear risks.
Chinese Perspectives on Nuclear India, Nuclear Pakistan
Historically, nuclear weapons were central to China’s evolving strategy in South Asia. Beijing first tested a nuclear device in October, 1964. Mao viewed these weapons politically necessary for deterring any U.S. and Soviet nuclear use or coercion, but not for battlefield use. Two years prior to its test, China fought a brief war with India, concluding in India’s swift defeat and hundreds of miles of contested borderland. The 1962 war effectively established antagonism between the two nations, and when India (and subsequently Pakistan) tested nuclear weapons in 1998, New Delhi cited China as a main reason for developing its own nuclear weapons program.
Beijing condemned India and Pakistan’s 1998 tests in tandem with the majority of the international community. The United Nations had passed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1968, forbidding all countries without nuclear weapons by January 1967 from developing such weapons. In exchange, the few nuclear-capable states committed to sharing their nuclear technology for peaceful energy use. Since both India and Pakistan tested weapons after 1967, they became de facto nuclear states operating outside the international nuclear regime. Beijing’s condemnation derived from widespread security concerns about the danger of states holding ungoverned nuclear weapons. With two nuclear-capable and antagonistic neighbors, China became subject to inherently higher stakes in any regional conflict.
At the same time, Beijing had been funneling support to Pakistan’s nuclear program for decades, mainly through technology transfers, scientific assistance, and the sale of raw materials such as uranium. Fundamentally, Beijing’s relationship with Islamabad is premised on their shared security concern: India. Supporting Pakistan’s nuclear program provided Beijing with a relatively low-cost method of checking India’s growing power.
Contemporary Dynamics: India-Pakistan Instability, India-China Stability
Despite China’s historical involvement in the region, South Asia’s nuclear dynamics are predicated on India and Pakistan’s bilateral antagonism. Beijing does, however, calculate into India’s nuclear posture, which it defines as “credible minimum deterrence.” New Delhi’s stated goal is to maintain the minimum number of nuclear weapons that can credibly deter its two nuclear-capable adversaries: China and Pakistan. However, there is an inherent paradox within this posture. What is minimal to Pakistan—a state with relatively few nuclear capabilities—is not credible to China, a state whose nuclear capabilities must be sophisticated enough to deter the United States. Conversely, what is credible to China far exceeds what would be considered minimal to Pakistan. In other words, India cannot feasibly maintain a posture that is both credible and minimal to both of its nuclear adversaries.
The result of this dilemma is immense volatility in the Indo-Pakistani relationship. In order to match the capabilities New Delhi has developed to deter China, Pakistan built up its nuclear arsenal, precipitating an arms race. To deter India’s superior conventional capabilities, Pakistan maintains a nuclear-first doctrine. That is to say that Pakistan aims to prevent any Indian conventional attack by threatening nuclear use—a highly escalatory posture.
In the background of Indo-Pakistani volatility, China and India’s nuclear deterrent has actually remained fairly stable. This is not to say that overall relations have remained stable: to the contrary, the China-India bilateral relationship is becoming increasingly fraught. Historical border disputes once again reemerged in 2017 as Indian and Chinese troops faced off on the isolated Doklam plateau. Beijing staunchly believes India’s tightening relationship with the United States is designed to contain its growth. New Delhi retorts that China’s increased presence in the Indian Ocean is creating a “string of pearls” designed to contain its maritime dominance. New Delhi also points to the strategic implications of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship program of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which India has consistently declined to join. Both countries vie for influence amongst smaller South Asian countries, and their ballooning trade deficit contributes to underlying anxieties. In short, a culmination of historical and contemporary antagonisms has created a bilateral environment wherein both governments eye each other with relentless suspicion. Nonetheless—and crucially—both states are incredibly unlikely to resolve these issues through warfare.
It is not that the existence of nuclear weapons has uniquely prevented India and China from going to war. In 2017, sensible analysts were rightly concerned that a militarized standoff could escalate into larger conflict. There are also many other reasons why India and China are unlikely to engage in warfare anytime soon. Rather, the fact that nuclear weapons seldom, if at all, enter Beijing and New Delhi’s calculations when discussing their grievances is precisely the aim of nuclear deterrence. In this sense, nuclear weapons have essentially rendered themselves irrelevant; the existence of these weapons inherently precludes a likelihood of conflict escalation, allowing the two powers to untangle their host of issues on a completely separate plane.
Nuclear Deterrence and Sino-American Cooperation
Tensions between India and China will undoubtedly continue, and disputes are unlikely to be resolved quickly or easily. But few can legitimately argue that these disputes are likely to escalate into high-level conflict. As such, the type of deterrence established between India and China—two countries with a significant amount of problem solving to undertake, who maintain nuclear arsenals poised at one another, and who nonetheless are in little danger of accidentally falling into nuclear war—should be an example for policymakers to seek lessons in deterrence.
Even more, nuclear proliferation is one issue area that often unites the United States and China on the multilateral stage. Historically, the United States has played a major role in mediating South Asia’s recurring crises. Since 1998 onwards, all of these crises have held an inherent risk of nuclear escalation. But recently, China has played a larger role in South Asian crisis management. Many have argued that acting as joint mediators—or, at least coordinating policy when crises do break out—could be a method of improving Sino-American bilateral relations.
Coordinating Sino-American policy in South Asia contributes to Beijing’s desire to be viewed as a responsible stakeholder on the international stage. It would also take pressure of the United States from being the sole crisis mediator in the region. As such, Sino-American coordination on South Asian nonproliferation serves as a critical area where the United States and China can still make important progress in an era of almost complete bilateral antagonism. Most importantly, the nuclear deterrence established between India and China means that the two can continue to work on bilateral problem solving without fear of conflict, while the United States and China can simultaneously work to reduce overall global nuclear risks.