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.
Whereas China and Pakistan’s substantial cooperation didn’t extend to the nuclear realm in the late 1960s or early 1970s, it did begin in this area during the late 1970s and expanded in the 1980s and early 1990s. One reason for this was that Pakistan’s interest and pursuit of nuclear weapons had begun in the first half of the 1970s, and Western nations began instituting stricter export controls over nuclear technology in the late 1970s. Still, the crucial event that gave rise to Sino-Pakistani nuclear cooperation was India’s own “peaceful nuclear test” in 1974.
This peaceful nuclear test was particularly crucial in shaping Chinese attitudes towards assisting Pakistan in the nuclear realm. As the U.S. embassy in Beijing would reflect in a cable, “The Chinese do not want to see the Pakistani program provoke a full-scale nuclear arms race with New Delhi. That being said, Beijing views the Pakistani program as primarily defensive in nature, a logical response to India's 1974 explosion of a ‘peaceful nuclear device’ and perhaps a check to what the Chinese perceive to be Indian ‘hegemonism’ in South Asia.”
Curiously, Jaishankar argues, “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.” This seems odd, to the say the least, given that Indian officials were openly debating nuclear weapons in the aftermath of China’s nuclear test in 1964, and at that time authorized what would be a decade long project that culminated in a “peaceful nuclear test” in 1974, years before China’s nuclear assistance to Pakistan had even been discussed.
Next, Jaishankar takes offense to my “gross oversimplication” that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has frustrated India’s attempts to retaliate or respond to the numerous large-scale terrorist attacks conducted against India by Pakistani proxies. As he notes, “Pakistani adventurism directed at India was not enabled by a nuclear deterrent, but in fact predated it.” As proof, he cites Pakistan’s use of irregular forces in Kashmir immediately after independence, in 1965 and in 1989.
Admittedly, in my piece I did not spell out that Pakistan had used proxy attacks before India’s nuclear acquisition, and instead assumed that the reader would have a basic understanding of recent South Asian history. At the same time, I most certainly did not say that Pakistan hadn’t used proxy forces against India before a situation of Mutual Assured Destruction developed between Delhi and Islamabad.
My argument in the piece was that before MAD gripped the subcontinent, Delhi had a viable means of retaliating against such incidents, and it indeed often utilized it. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has, thus far at least, largely eliminated India’s ability to retaliate to these attacks.
Consider that, in response to Pakistan’s Operation Gibraltar in Kashmir in 1965, India not only repelled the infiltrators but also invaded Pakistan. Although India’s military was in a sorry state at that time, its inherent numerical superiority allowed it to seize more than three times the amount of territory in Pakistan that Islamabad seized in India. While taking notable losses of its own, it inflicted heavy losses against a much smaller Pakistani force that could ill afford it. In any case, by the time a UN ceasefire was agreed to—Pakistan had jumped at the opportunity to get out of the war but India wasn’t quite so keen at first— the Indian military had Lahore completely encircled.
In contrast to its past record of invading Pakistan when Islamabad stirred up trouble in Kashmir, India has not mounted a military response to much more brazen attacks against it in recent years, such as the 2001 bombing of the Indian parliamentary building in Delhi, and Pakistan proxies holding the entire city of Mumbai hostage for days in 2008. It’s difficult to explain this discrepancy in India’s responses by anything other than Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
Furthermore, even though India bested Pakistan in their previous engagements during the Cold War, India’s conventional superiority over Pakistan is many times greater than it was during the second half the 20th century. Consider that in 1965, Pakistan’s economy (including Bangladesh) was about one-fifth the size of India’s; by 2011 it was about 9 percent. Furthermore, as late as 1988, Pakistan was spending $4.21 billion (in constant 2011 USD) on defense each year, while India was spending $18.2 billion. By 2012, Pakistan was spending$6.9 billion a year on defense while India was spending nearly $50 billion. Moreover, in the 1965 war, Islamabad’s alliance with the U.S. meant its military forces were qualitatively superior to their Indian counterparts. Given the technology gap today, the idea of Pakistan maintaining a qualitative edge over India is laughable.
Jaishankar next tries to demonstrate that I ignored the context in which India’s nuclear decisions were made. As a corrective, Jaishankar argues that “Given its adverse security environment in the early 1990s, India’s pursuit of nuclear weapons as a deterrent against Chinese and Pakistani adventurism would have appeared not only wise but necessary” given the “relatively low costs of a nuclear program, a multilateral order that threatened to recognize China’s nuclear status in perpetuity while denying India entry, and an enabling domestic political environment.”
Most of these specific claims are either logically unsound—how did “an enabling domestic political environment” make it strategically wise to test nuclear weapons?—or just highly questionable on their merits. The bigger issue here is that, paradoxically, Jaishankar ignores the context in which India’s nuclear decisions were made.
Like many academics who seek to undermine realism’s explanatory value for nuclear proliferation, Jaishankar is essentially asking us to evaluate India’s nuclear calculus solely on basis of its decision to test the nuclear weapons it already built in 1998. But this would require ignoring the thirty-five years prior to 1998, when Indian policymakers made the hundreds if not thousands of consequential decisions that are required to build nuclear weapons. In other words, it would be trying to explain the strategic rationale behind the program through a single tactical decision.
The fallacy in this approach is best demonstrated in other contexts. For example, when analyzing why Apple decided to produce a cheaper iPhone, we would learn little from examining its decision to release the phone in the third week of September. Similarly, that the Nazis invaded Russia on June 22, 1941 tells us little about why Hitler sought to conquer Russia in the first place. And Indian policymakers’ decision to test the Agni-V in April 2012 does not adequately explain why the missile was developed in the first place. Indeed, Sino-Indian relations were quite good at the time of the test following India’s hosting the fourth BRICS Summit in Delhi only days earlier. Does this mean that the so-called “China killer” missile was not developed with China in mind?
Thus, it might have been relatively cheap to test nuclear weapons in 1998, given that they had already been built, and an enabling domestic political environment might explain the timing of the tests. But there were many domestic political environments throughout India’s decades-long pursuit of nuclear weapons which, like other nations’ nuclear programs, was an immensely expensive undertaking.
Failing to distinguish the tactical from the strategic, Jaishankar next proposes evaluating the success of India’s nuclear deterrent through the purpose spelled out in the nuclear doctrine Indian cobbled together in the year following its nuclear tests. Specifically, he notes that the draft document calls for using India’s new nuclear deterrent “to preserve ‘an environment of durable peace and insurance against potential risks to peace and stability.’”
Jaishankar’s use of the word “preserve” is telling. Essentially, Jaishankar is proposing that the barometer we use in evaluating the value India derived from its nuclear deterrent was that the situation that existed before the 1998 nuclear tests continued to exist after them. Not surprisingly, based on that standard, Jaishankar concludes that having a nuclear deterrent has been a stunning success.
Well, sort of. Jaishankar notes that since India conducted its second nuclear tests, Sino-Indian bilateral trade has skyrocketed. As Jaishankar later acknowledges and weakly tries to explain away, this logic violates one of the most basic principles of scientific inquiry; namely, that correlation doesn’t equal causation. In fact, this case is a textbook example of why one should avoid equating correlation with causation. After all, why would nuclear weapons be more likely to have caused the Sino-Indo trade boom than the fact that both China and India’s trade openness ratios nearly doubled between the nuclear tests and 2007? Furthermore, China’s trade volumes grew at an annualized rate of over 18 percent between 1988 and 2008. Was India’s nuclear deterrent also behind this trade expansion?
But even if, somehow, India’s nuclear deterrent did in fact facilitate greater trade between China and India, then acquiring nuclear weapons has most certainly been a strategic blunder of the first order. Indeed, as Jaishankar mentions in passing, while Sino-Indian trade has grown substantially over the previous 15 years, this growth hasn’t been completely balanced.
This seems like a considerable understatement. During 2012-2013, bilateral trade between India and China was $67.83 billion; meanwhile, India’s trade deficit was $40.77 billion. This is all the more striking when one considers that during the 1990s India just as often maintained annual trade surpluses with China as vice-versa. Since international relations are organized around anarchy, states have to prioritize relative gains over absolute ones. As a result, India should hardly be celebrating its trading ties with China. Nor does it seem likely that subsidizing China’s unbalanced economy was one of the goals Indian policymakers had in mind when deciding to build nuclear weapons.
At the same time, Jaishankar maintains that acquiring nuclear weapons improved India’s position vis-à-vis Pakistan. As he put it, “despite regular terrorist attacks and military provocations on the border, conflict with Pakistan has remained limited since 1998. And that stability has been largely to India’s benefit”, given that Delhi’s economic growth relative to Pakistan’s has widened during that time. Once again, however, Jaishankar quickly concedes that “nuclear weapons again cannot be credited or blamed” for these differing economic growth rates.
Still, he is right to argue that conflict with Pakistan has remained limited since 1998, and this can be attributed to their situation of mutually assured destruction. However, this is only beneficial to the extent that one places the avoidance of war above all other goals states pursue—including national security.
As noted above, the lack of war between Pakistan and India since 1998 is almost entirely attributable to India’s restraint in responding to Pakistan’s provocations, which have grown far more brazen since 1998. Whereas Islamabad stirred up trouble along their shared borders when the two sides didn’t have nuclear weapons, Pakistan now holds India’s largest city hostage. Coupled with the fact that India’s conventional superiority over Pakistan is many times greater than it was during the Cold War, it’s hard to argue that Delhi would be less secure if it could punish the Pakistani army severely for supporting terrorist attacks on India. Indeed, by badly embarrassing Pakistan’s generals a couple of times in a conventional conflict, it’s nearly certain that they would desist supporting another attack on India—lest the national humiliation they continued bringing to bear on the Pakistani nation lead to their downfall. In either case, India’s terrorist problem from Pakistan would cease to exist.
Finally, Jaishankar points out that America’s nuclear arsenal hasn’t deterred North Korean provocations against South Korea, just as Israel’s nuclear deterrent doesn’t prevent Hamas from launching rocket attacks. Why should we hold India to a double standard, he asks?
I agree that India should be held to the same standards as every other country. Thus, if the U.S. had developed nuclear weapons to deter North Korea, or Israel developed nuclear weapons to deter Hamas, I would also concede that they had made a strategic blunder. But in reality this is not the case. The U.S., of course, first acquired nuclear weapons to bring a quick and satisfactory conclusion to WWII, and it’s hard to imagine Japan would have surrendered as fast and that the U.S. would have been the sole occupier of Japanese territory after the war had it not had the atomic bomb. Washington then built up its nuclear arsenal to prevent the massive Red Army from overrunning Western Europe. To this very day, they don’t speak Russian in Bonn or Paris.
Similarly, Israel developed a small nuclear arsenal to offset the inherent and inescapable latent conventional superiority of its adversaries. As I’ve explained elsewhere, “Egypt alone is 55 times larger than Israel and, in 1967, had about eleven times its population.” By this measure, Israel’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon was an unambiguous success. Following 1973, it has never had to fight a conventional conflict with a state-armed military that posed a potentially existential threat to Israel. And Israel today enjoys a degree of security that would have been unheard of before it acquired the bomb, Hamas’ occasional rocket attacks notwithstanding.
None of this can be said of India, which continues to experience the same security threats from China and Pakistan that it did before acquiring a nuclear weapon. Indeed, as Jaishankar readily admits in relation to China, in some cases India’s security situation has actually deteriorated further. And despite his denials, this is even more true of Pakistan.