The Case for India's Nuclear Weapons

The bomb has made India safer.

Both the benefits and limitations of nuclear weapons are best captured by a single fact: of all nuclear-armed adversaries, only the Soviet Union and China in 1969 and India and Pakistan in 1999 ever fought a war with one another. The benefits are intuitive. There have been only two such episodes in the 68 years since Hiroshima, and both were limited in scope and duration. The shortcomings of nuclear weapons are equally obvious: the fact that such conflict took place at all and that military competition between and against nuclear powers often took other forms, including the use of proxies and nonstate actors. After all, nuclear weapons did not prevent American and Soviet allies from killing tens of millions of each other’s people between 1945 and 1991, nor did they deter the 9/11 attacks.

In his August 26 article (‘India’s Nuclear Blunder’), Zachary Keck argues that India’s failure to prevent cross-border incursions by China and Pakistan since 1998, when it declared its nuclear weapon capability, is evidence of a colossal strategic blunder. In Keck’s reading, Indian nuclear weapons acquired with the intention of deterring China’s territorial ambitions failed to achieve that purpose and—worse—provoked a weaker power, Pakistan, to develop a nuclear deterrent to its benefit. But 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.

India’s decision to pursue a nuclear weapon capability—which resulted in preparations being made for a nuclear test in 1995—arose from the confluence of several factors, including security threats, a hostile international nuclear regime, domestic politics, and the country’s promising economic trajectory. Of the two primary external impulses, Keck correctly identifies the first, which was the latent threat of Chinese aggression dating back to the 1950s. But this threat was by no means static. As John Garver details in his book Protracted Contest, China withdrew its proposal to accept the territorial status quo in October 1985. This would have involved recognizing Indian control of Arunachal Pradesh in exchange for India’s recognition of China’s claims to Aksai Chin. In Garver’s telling, “China for the first time began actively asserting its claim to the southern slope” of the Himalayas. Moreover, Indian government reports have recently indicated a changing of ground realities. The People’s Liberation Army’s incursion earlier this year in Ladakh—where Beijing’s territorial objectives were thought to have been achieved—had little to do with its continuing claims to Arunachal Pradesh, and may have signaled an even more ambitious statement of intent, in line with Beijing’s newfound approach to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and South China Sea.

More significantly—and Keck’s omission here is glaring—China pursued a policy until the early 1990s of supporting Pakistan’s nascent nuclear program, a move very much directed at containing India. In fact, Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons with Chinese assistance proved an impetus for India’s nuclear-weapon pursuit, not the other way around. Indian and Western intelligence agencies believed that China conducted a test in 1990 for Pakistan’s benefit, effectively granting it a nuclear-weapons capability. Testifying before the Senate in 1993, then CIA director James Woolsey said, “Beijing, prior to joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1992, probably provided some nuclear weapons related assistance to Islamabad.” As far as Indian security planners were concerned, their country was by 1990 bordering not one, but two, nuclear-armed states with irredentist claims to Indian-controlled territory.