Beyond Pakistan: Why India’s Nuclear Policy Must Focus On China

Pakistan is no longer the primary security threat, China is.

5 min read
Hindi Female

Thirty years back, in 1992, George Tanham had put the cat among the pigeons by noting India’s ‘lack of strategic thinking’. Tanham had called out the lack of strategic culture by pointing to Delhi’s ‘reactive’ instincts, as opposed to ‘active’ vision or pre-emptive doctrines. Expectedly, this had rankled many people. However, many professional and apolitical thinkers had silently conceded the point. The irrepressible former Chief of Army Staff, General K Sundarji, who had actually written India’s nuclear doctrine along with Admiral RH Tahiliani, was one such concerned thinker. In 1993, General Sundarji wrote his fiction (‘faction’) book, Blind Men of Hindoostan, where he likened India’s nuclear strategy to blind men misinterpreting an elephant by touching parts of it.

In today’s hyper-jingoistic times, when there is a dangerous conflation of the idea of nationhood with partisan identity, such a sobering and forewarning perspective by an international analyst would automatically lead to a sharp response from partisan apologists, who will also point to a host of civilisational literature on the statecraft, strategy and philosophy of ancient ‘Bharat’.


What Has India Done After 2001?

But statecraft is not stagecraft – the two are borne out of completely different compulsions and purposes. More importantly, the so-called ‘political muscularity’ can never compensate for the lack of ever-evolving security doctrines (especially, nuclear doctrines) that respond to the furious churn in geopolitics, geostrategy and the changing security calculus. How much of India’s purported ‘lack of strategic thinking’ has changed over time requires an apolitical and cold assessment of facts beyond a partisan lens, and there, the real picture is not very reassuring.

Remember, the last time India ‘reacted’ fundamentally and substantially in the realm of strategic doctrines was in 2001 (owing to Operation Parakram) in the wake of the terror attack on Parliament. The doctrine of ‘Cold Start’ was then introduced as a result. It was a break from the well-worn Indian nuclear officialese and aimed to directly counter Pakistan’s repeated nuclear allusions.

While it marked a shift in the fundamental Indian approach that, for once, separated realities from bluffs, the Pakistani reaction, at least from its professional analysts, was immediate and acknowledging. Meanwhile, unhinged politicians on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) continued with innuendoes and loose talk of one-upmanship, with the likes of the former Pakistani Interior Minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, comically threatening a nuclear blitz wherein ‘neither the birds would chirp, nor the bells would ring in temples’. Such rhetoric notwithstanding, India shifted gears and addressed Pakistan in 2001.


In 2003, the Cabinet Committee on Security Reviews detailed India’s nuclear doctrine by spelling out the maintenance of a ‘credible minimum deterrent’, ‘no first use’ policy and the policy to use force only in response to a nuclear attack on Indian territory; it also assured retaliation by inflicting ‘unacceptable damage’; other perfunctory guidelines focused on strict controls on exports; a commitment to a nuclear weapons-free world; the primacy of civilian-political leadership, etc. The language and overwhelming sense of direction was still, unmistakably, for Pakistan. The traditional Indian ambiguity and mealy-mouthed inanities were given a rest and Pakistan got the message via the explicit tenor of the doctrine.

But Pakistan Is Not the Threat Anymore

Unlike the hush-hush details of actual nuclear warheads, carriers, strategic forces, deployments et al pertaining to nuclear weaponry, the sovereign nuclear doctrine weaponises the security, strategic and reactionary presumptions of a country, and is public. It is not shrouded in secrecy as that defeats the advanced purpose of deterrence. After the demonstration of the Indo-Pak Nuclear Tests of 1998 (Operation Shakti and Chagai-I & II), the protocolisation of the revised Indian intent was asserted and visibilised in the revised syntax of the nuclear doctrine.

But what has happened since then? For one, Pakistan is no longer the primary security threat, China is. The accompanying dynamics with China are completely different vis-à-vis threats emanating from Pakistan.

Beyond the vacuous sabre-rattling (‘muh tod javaab’, or, giving a befitting reply) and even lazy talk around India’s ‘two front’ capability that has mesmerised partisan cadres, the bloody summer of 2020 on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) ought to have led to some much-needed introspection amongst the Indian security mandarins.

Instead, the usual TV news fanfare involving smug panellists (sadly, many even from the ‘uniformed’ background) speaking on subjects such as ‘5 Rafales have landed in Ambala’ talk like party spokespersons instead of offering a sensible and professional assessment of the security situation.


Semantic gymnastics over ‘intrusion versus transgression’ continued over the Chinese deceit, just as all this had fooled Jawahar Lal Nehru in 1962. India responded with a flurry of ‘reactive’ weapon imports (much discussed in public space), obfuscation of hard questions, and a silent leadership that refused to name the dragon in the room. However, the electorate remained satisfied with the official response – multiple state elections validated the same. But the awkward query on India’s ‘lack of strategic thinking’ remained unanswered for those who sought non-partisan answers. No visible revision or modification to the nuclear doctrine has since been announced.

'Nuclear Disarmament Was a Mistake': Ukraine

The Russia-Ukraine war has muddied the security narrative and possibilities further, warranting an urgent relook at most security doctrines, most definitely the nuclear doctrine. For starters, it validates India’s age-old apprehensions about Nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT), as the war underlines the hegemony of the nuclear ‘haves’ as opposed to the nuclear ‘have-nots’. The inevitable fate of Ukraine, which had to surrender 1,700 nuclear warheads in 1994 (notionally the third-largest stockpile in the world) with the supposed assurances of the Budapest Memorandum, is a lesson for posterity.

Would Russia have been so brazen had Ukraine retained a modicum of nuclear deterrence? We may not know for sure, but history and inherent logic suggest that Putin may not have been as cavalier as he is now.

In 2019, the Secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council admitted, “Nuclear disarmament was a historic mistake”, and that “guarantees given to us are not even worth the paper they are written on”. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin’s threats of “consequences such as you have never seen in your entire history” suggest nuclear leverage, even if the threat realistically remains a merely that: a threat to drive home a hard bargain.


Should India Drop the 'No First Use' Policy for China?

Coming back to India, its perceived vulnerability due to an overbearing, expansionist, and substantially larger Chinese war machinery calls for a hard relook at its own doctrine and messaging. The existing conditionalities of ‘no first use’, or even the more bombastic-sounding ‘massive retaliation’ essentially expose the Indian Armed Forces to uneven warfare.

India successfully outsized the Pakistani threat by conventional superiority and the existing nuclear doctrine. But the same strategies won’t work for China. A clear China-centric policy needs to be formulated in the tabled doctrine, wherein perhaps the ‘no first use’ clause could be exceptionally and explicitly dropped for China.

Further, the Chinese perception (read, concern) of a guaranteed Indian reaction can drive caution on its part, which cannot realistically be achieved by conventional weaponry and deployment. Basically, the Chinese imagination can be rewired with good wordsmithing and redrafting of the Indian nuclear doctrine, which currently focuses only on Pakistan.

The Chinese only understand and respect strategic posturing/implications; they have an infamous history of exploiting the inefficiencies, distractions and pacifist moorings of democracies.

For India’s China experts, this will be a tall task; there is scope for an enhanced political-military dialogue, as also the need to utilise expert guidance in optimising the existing nuclear doctrine and the resultant deterrence.

Rubbishing Tanham’s warning is easy, and even increasingly fashionable. But the evolving chessboard of global ‘insecurity’ requires that the beliefs of the past and the bravado of the present be replaced with a more hardwired and China-centric approach in the Indian nuclear doctrine.

(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Pakistan    China 

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