India's Nuclear Weapons Folly

Despite what others contend, New Delhi's decision to acquire nuclear weapons has proven to be a mistake.

Several weeks ago, I penned an article for The National Interest arguing that, in hindsight, India’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons has proven to be a strategic blunder. I based this argument on the grounds that, while domestic and ideational factors are needed to explain the precise trajectory of India’s nuclear program, the original impetus for pursuing them was to address the threat that China posed to Delhi in the aftermath of the 1962 border war and Beijing’s nuclear test two years later.

I argued that this was a strategic miscalculation. While nuclear weapons are the strongest deterrent ever invented for strategic and existential threats, China only posed a limited threat to India, primarily along their shared border. Nuclear weapons are ill-suited to deterring low-level threats, and they have unsurprisingly not stopped China from continuing to challenge India in the border region.

On the other hand, India’s nuclear acquisition prompted Pakistan to pursue its own arsenal, negating Delhi’s massive conventional superiority over Islamabad. Consequently, India has found it difficult to respond to Pakistan’s support of proxy terrorist attacks against Delhi. In the final estimation then, India’s nuclear arsenal has done little to address the China threat, while it has weakened its position vis-à-vis Pakistan.

Earlier this month, Dhruva Jaishankar, an India and South Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC, responded with his own piece for The National Interest ostensibly refuting my thesis. Jaishankar is a top-notch analyst (see his work in The Indian Express, India Ink, and The Diplomat). Surprisingly, Jaishankar’s piece mostly provided additional examples that reinforced my argument. To be sure, that wasn’t his intention. After summarizing my thesis, Jaishankar argues that “this assessment stems from a fundamental misreading of India’s threat environment and strategic intent, the absence of certain key facts, and the obscuring of context.”

However, to demonstrate this he begins by conceding my point that India’s nuclear weapons have failed to address Chinese threats along the border. Indeed, as he points out, China’s claims to the border region have if anything expanded at various times since India demonstrated a nascent nuclear capability in 1974. For instance, China became more forceful in asserting its interests in 1985 as its conflict with the Soviet Union began to thaw and, subsequently, Chinese border excursions have become both more frequent and more brazen, in the context of Beijing’s growing conventional superiority. In fact, Delhi’s arsenal has apparently failed to prevent China from seizing 640 kilometers of the border region from India.

Jaishankar next criticizes my failure to discuss China’s nuclear assistance to Pakistan in my piece, which he characterizes as a “glaring” omission. While this grossly overstates the magnitude of this error, there is no denying that including a discussion of China’s assistance to Pakistan would have enhanced the piece, given how well it illustrates India’s strategic blunder.

As declassified U.S. government documents show, Washington became concerned with Pakistan and China’s growing security ties in the mid-to-late 1960s, during the Johnson administration. Notably, during this period the U.S. government was only concerned about conventional military weaponry cooperation such as China selling Type 59 medium tanks and MIG-19 jets to Pakistan. It wasn’t until the middle to late 1970s, under the Carter administration, that U.S. officials first began expressing concern that the Chinese were assisting Pakistan’s nuclear program, which was confirmed in the 1980s under the Reagan administration. This timeline is consistent with independent analyses.