May, Nuclear Tests, and India: 25 Years on, Has the China Threat Magnified?

In a controversial letter to the US, India had made clear that it viewed China as a serious and dangerous threat.

6 min read

(This is part two of a four-part 'May' series that revisits significant historical events or policies and how the lessons learned from them continue to be of relevance in present-day politics and society. Read part one here, part three here, and part four here.)

“Dear Mr President,

You would already be aware of the underground nuclear tests carried out in India. In this letter, I would like to explain the rationale for the tests.

I have been deeply concerned about the deteriorating security environment, especially the nuclear environment, faced by India for some years past. We have an overt nuclear weapon state on our borders, a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962. Although our relations with that country have improved in the last decade or so, an atmosphere of distrust persists mainly due to the unresolved border problem. To add to the distrust that country has materially helped another neighbour of ours to become a covert nuclear weapons state….

Yours Sincerely,


Apart from the outrage in developed countries at the temerity of India to go overtly nuclear and subsequent sanctions, the letter from Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to American President Bill Clinton (leaked by his administration) caused quite a stir in global geopolitical circles.


China was then the darling of foreign investors, pouring billions of dollars to make itself a manufacturing hub. Starry-eyed geopolitical analysts, think tanks, and even foreign policy establishments of Western countries thought that a “benign” rise of China could be managed and it would eventually become a democracy. Serious moves were already afoot in the summer of 1998 to welcome China as a full member of the World Trade Organisation.

For most major global powers in 1998, while India always had potential, it had repeatedly squandered it and was something of a pesky irritant. But the message from the strategic community of India via that the controversial letter to China and the world was clear: India viewed China as a serious and dangerous threat.

China Threat Wasn’t Persuasive Until India Flagged It

Hindsight can be very illuminating when 25 years have passed. Events, actions, postures, and signals since 1998 make two conclusions evident. The first is that the “geopolitical experts” in the Western hemisphere were hopelessly and naively wrong in their assessment that an ascendant China will be a “benign” power that would pose no threat to its neighbours or the rules-based global order at large (The authors do not have space here to analyse in detail how even the existing global order is a construct forced down others' throats by former colonial powers).

The second conclusion is that the Indian strategic community was dead right in its assessment of an ambitious and authoritarian China threatening the sovereignty of India and many other nations. China’s rise has been anything but benign. When it got back control over Hong Kong in 1997, China made a solemn promise to retain the unique characteristics of the port city-state. But it has used brutal force and jailed anyone who has raised questions on China imposing harsh and authoritarian rules. It has consistently grabbed a series of islands in the South China Sea by unilaterally declaring they are Chinese territory.

It has been brazenly threatening and bullying small countries like the Philippines. It uses so-called Coast Guard vessels to actually ram fishing, civilian and military vessels of countries in the region. The Belt & Road Initiative it has launched has turned out to be a toxic Imperial move with “beneficiary” countries going bankrupt under the weight of opaque Chinese loans.

Not just in the Third World, China has bribed and subverted influential people and institutions even in First World countries. With Xi Jinping as the Supreme Leader a la Ma Zedong, Chinese envoys have revelled in wolf warrior diplomacy. Things have come to such a pass that realistic geopolitical experts in the West are now convinced it is a matter of time before Xi orders the Chinese military to invade and capture Taiwan by force.

Many leaders in Asia wonder if the United States has the military muscle or the political will anymore to deter China from these “adventures”. Surveys conducted by Pew have shown that mistrust of dislike for China has grown significantly in all continents and many countries.


China's Expansionist Ambitions

On a freezing night in Galwan in Ladakh on 20 June 2020, when the Covid pandemic was wreaking havoc across the world, China provided a stark reminder to Indians as to why it remains a serious and dangerous threat to the country. Twenty Indian Army personnel and an unknown number of Chinese troops were killed in a medieval hand-to-hand combat. Galwan resonated across India because soldiers were martyred. But China has been always making moves to capture Indian territory in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.

It stubbornly refuses to recognise Jammu & Kashmir as sovereign Indian territory. In fact, it has openly supported Pakistan and its strategy of state-sponsored terror attacks on India. It routinely blocks UN resolutions that designate a Pakistani national as a global terrorist. China persistently calls Arunachal Pradesh 'South Tibet'. If China somehow succeeds in gobbling up Taiwan, there is little doubt that it will turn its focus and attention to Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh in a more "forthright” manner. To that extent, the May 1998 letter from Vajpayee to Clinton in the immediate aftermath of nuclear tests was a calibrated message, no matter how controversial it became back then.

Even then, when China was far less menacing in its approach than it is now, the Indian strategic community was aware that the northern neighbour is a threat. CVoter has been conducting regular surveys on perceptions of Indians about different countries. Recent surveys have shown that Indians are convinced China is a bigger threat to India than Pakistan. Galwan is one reason, but the betrayal and military humiliation of 1962 is still deeply embedded in the Indian psyche.

To that extent, whether due to arrogance or ignorance or a combination of both, the Chinese leadership under Xi has made it pretty sure that friendly relations between India and China are well nigh impossible for the next decade and beyond. After Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, Narendra Modi was the only Indian leader who had the political capital to convince ordinary Indians that a pragmatic mending of ties with China would suit the interests of India. Between 2014 and 2020, he made numerous efforts to do the same. No longer.

It would be political death for any leader who advocates friendly ties with China as of now. China may be far stronger than India, but the authors think Xi and his coterie have needlessly committed a blunder by so brazenly antagonising the southern neighbour. In any case, recent statements by China on Arunachal Pradesh have made it clear that the former is bent on subjugating and humiliating India, to the extent it can.

India Needs To Strategise An Effective Counter To China 

Recognising a threat is a good thing. But then not doing anything substantive to counter that threat is also an abysmal failure on the part of India. Political parties can trade barbs at each other. But the fact is that Indian leadership could have done far more in terms of military strengthening and an economic strategy to counter a rising China. The authors think that failure on the economic front has cost India dearly, no matter who or which regime has ruled India since 1998. Some might think our stance is preposterous since the Indian economy has done remarkably well in the 21st century; at least far better than the first 50 years of independence. The GDP growth rate has averaged about 6% and the poverty ratio has declined from 50% to just 11%. Today, India is the fastest-growing economy in the world and sober global analysts reckon it will remain so this decade. How can that be a failure?

Well, success is relative. For want of space, the authors would just draw the attention of readers to the accompanying chart. It is this massive gap between the two that has given China the extra hundreds of billions of dollars every year to build an almost insurmountable strategic advantage over India. Add to that the madness of a trade deficit with China now touching USD 100 billion a year and one realises how badly India has goofed up in planning for the really long term. The authors had met and interacted with an American scholar from an Ivy League institution twenty years ago. He was a hawk on China and summed it up like this: “Guys, 20 years from now, do you want to be what Mexico is to the United States when it comes to China?” 25 years after going officially nuclear, India has perhaps escaped becoming a Mexico. But only just.

(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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