The Case for India's Nuclear Weapons

September 7, 2013 Topic: Great PowersNuclear ProliferationWMDSecurity Region: India

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.="#.uhr8ipk3k8c.twitter">="#.uhr8ipk3k8c.twitter">


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. ="#v=onepage&q=%22china%20for%20the%20first%20time%20began%20actively%20asserting%20its%20claim%20to%20the%20southern%20slope%22&f=false">

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.="#v=onepage&q=%22prior%20to%20joining%20the%20non-proliferation%20treaty%20in%201992%22&f=false">

As with his casual dismissal of China’s ambitions, Keck characterization of Pakistan’s objectives vis-à-vis India as purely territorial is a gross oversimplification. Pakistani adventurism directed at India was not enabled by a nuclear deterrent, but in fact predated it. It began just after the two countries’ independence in 1947, when Pakistan backed mujahideen raiders against Jammu and Kashmir. Then—and in 1965 and again after 1989—Pakistan employed proxy forces working closely with its military to undermine Indian security. Pakistan’s provocations occurred despite the power asymmetry in India’s favour and one humiliating defeat at India’s hands, and continue not only against nuclear-armed India but against nonnuclear Afghanistan. Keck’s argument that India’s pursuit of nuclear weaponry allowed Pakistan to provoke it from under a nuclear umbrella simply does not hold water.

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, particularly when considered in conjunction with 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.

Keck is correct in asserting that nuclear weapons are ill-suited for addressing certain security threats and that low-level violence against nuclear-armed states is still possible. Yet India’s experience is by no means unique in this respect, for it mirrors that of other countries facing chronic provocations by state and nonstate actors. When nuclear weapons have not deterred Hamas rocket attacks against Israeli civilians, or North Korean provocations against U.S. forces in South Korea, why should India’s struggles against Chinese infantry patrols and Pakistan-based terrorists be singled out for condemnation?

Furthermore, Indian security planners have long been appreciative of the limitations of nuclear deterrence. India’s official nuclear doctrine, released in 2003, stipulates only that India would use nuclear weapons only in response to “a nuclear attack” or “a major attack…by biological or chemical weapons.” Nowhere does it discuss nuclear deterrence being applied to conventional, let alone sub-conventional, contingencies. Indeed, the rise in Indian military spending on conventional arms and the raising of new forces would all be considered unnecessary if India truly believed in absolute deterrence which, despite the father of India’s nuclear program Homi Bhabha’s promise of 1964, it never considered a realistic prospect. In today’s context, describing India’s nuclear objectives as a quest for absolute deterrence might be considered a straw man.

How has India benefited from its nuclear weapons? India’s semi-official Draft Nuclear Doctrine of 1999 spelled out the political objective of India’s nuclear arsenal: to preserve “an environment of durable peace and insurance against potential risks to peace and stability.” By that measure, India’s nuclear weapons have delivered largely positive results. Consider the fact that in 1998, economic relations between China and India were negligible, with trade under $2 billion. Today, economic ties are robust, if imbalanced, there are new stakeholders for improved relations on both sides of the border, and the prospects of major conflict are ever more remote. Nuclear weapons cannot be credited with these developments, but they certainly helped create an enabling environment for them.

Similarly, 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. In 1993, India’s economy was only four and a half times the size of Pakistan’s; today it is over eight times larger. While violence of all kinds has declined steadily in India, the blowback from terrorist provocations has had incredibly adverse effects for the Pakistani state and society. Nuclear weapons again cannot be credited or blamed for the contrasting fortunes of the two subcontinental powers, but perhaps India did stand to gain in relative terms from the modicum of stability they provided.

Dhruva Jaishankar is a Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter at @d_jaishankar.