Home Pakistan China After the Border Clash, Will China-India Competition Go Nuclear? – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

After the Border Clash, Will China-India Competition Go Nuclear? – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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What do China and India think about each other’s nuclear weapons?

Tong Zhao and Toby Dalton: China sees the United States as its primary nuclear rival—the only country that could pose an existential threat. To Chinese strategists, India lacks the will and the military might to pick a fight with Beijing. China has been modernizing its nuclear forces mainly to deter a U.S. nuclear attack. Beijing’s improving arsenal is more than large enough to deter a nuclear attack from India, whose nuclear arsenal is dwarfed by China’s, much less the United States’.

Since they don’t see India as a threat, few Chinese analysts focus on the China-India nuclear relationship. Beijing believes that New Delhi developed nuclear weapons in pursuit of deterrence and international prestige, not as a way to threaten China. Chinese leaders are confident that their country’s rising power will discourage India from fighting China and are therefore quite optimistic about the future of the bilateral relationship. To them, a nuclear conflict with India has seemed almost unimaginable.

Granted, some in India have claimed that China’s nuclear weapons forced India to develop nuclear bombs in the first place. China’s arsenal, they further argue, justifies India in seeking to improve its nuclear weapons and build more of them. But Chinese experts dismiss these claims as political excuses.

Rukmani Gupta: Despite China’s formidable military strength and U.S. security rivalry, the Indian military has not backed down along the countries’ contested border. As the latest standoff enters its fifth month, Chinese scholars may want to reevaluate their sanguine assessment that the disparities between the countries’ militaries will keep conflict at bay.

[N]either country has openly threatened the other with the use of nuclear weapons, but their nuclear status is an unspoken factor.

In keeping with their no-first-use (NFU) policies, neither country has openly threatened the other with the use of nuclear weapons, but their nuclear status is an unspoken factor in the dispute. China has repeatedly dropped hints about its superior military assets, both conventional and nuclear, as it did when Chinese media reported on Chinese H-6 bombers deployed to a “plateau region” for training exercises. Clearly, Chinese military planners seem to have considered the nuclear dimension of its security calculus in the event of a military conflict or border dispute with India. Heading off nuclear escalation is another incentive for both countries to avoid conflict effectively.

Could a future China-India military confrontation involve nuclear weapons?

Zhao and Dalton: As their NFU policies demonstrate, both India and China have traditionally reserved nuclear weapons only for deterring a hostile nuclear attack. So even if their dispute over the border worsens, the risk of a Sino-Indian nuclear conflict is still very low, especially compared with other potential nuclear flashpoints around the world.

Toby Dalton

Co-director and Senior Fellow
Nuclear Policy Program

Dalton is the co-director and a senior fellow of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment. An expert on nonproliferation and nuclear energy, his work addresses regional security challenges and the evolution of the global nuclear order.

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That said, the risk of nuclear use is growing for several reasons. India has noticed that China is increasingly willing to leverage its growing economic and military power to advance its national interests, especially over disputed territory. The nationalist government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi presumably feels growing pressure from populists to push back, despite the potential short-term economic consequences.

Both countries are ruled by avowed strongmen who whip up nationalism as a source of popularity and legitimacy. The “fighting spirit” that Chinese President Xi Jinping has touted exposes senior Chinese officials and rank-and-file border guards alike to domestic criticism if they appear weak by making compromises with their Indian counterparts. Modi is similarly known for cultivating a macho image and has publicly alluded to nuclear weapons during previous military crises with Pakistan.

Chinese experts tend to dismiss the risk that a conventional border conflict with India could spark nuclear escalation because the tough, mountainous terrain makes large-scale troop maneuvers impossible. If there was a clash, they expect that the potential casualties and damage would be limited enough to avoid triggering nuclear threats.

Yet these risks may be growing. After both sides suffered casualties in the Galwan Valley clash in June 2020, both countries ramped up their military presence close to the border. Both sides now boast better transportation infrastructure and modern weaponry, so a severe, high-intensity conventional war can no longer be ruled out. Both countries also have dual-use (conventional or nuclear) weapon systems that could factor into a border conflict—weapons that could inadvertently fuel a deadly overreaction.

Gupta: The Indian military is battle-tested and is experienced in mountain combat. Infrastructure development under way in India’s border regions will improve transport and logistics links, allowing for a year-round military presence in contested areas. Even though the military confrontation at the border will continue, the risk of nuclear escalation likely hasn’t budged much. The India-China relationship encompasses more than just military affairs. Neither side wants conflict to spill beyond isolated military standoffs. Although Modi and Xi have used nationalist rhetoric in bolstering their legitimacy, the countries’ declared NFU positions remain unchanged, and they remain similarly committed to reserving nuclear weapons for deterrence.

After all, the border dispute has not escalated to large-scale conflict in over five decades— clearly, both sides are abundantly cautious about using offensive weapons. The purpose of such contained military confrontation is finite, bound by perceptions of limited territorial claims. Large-scale conventional war beyond the border regions remains highly unlikely.

The chances that one side may inadvertently target the other’s weapon systems—a possible path to nuclear escalation—remain very low too. Neither country has embraced tactical nuclear weapons. In the interest of limiting conflict and in keeping with their NFUs, it is extremely unlikely that either country would deploy strategic nuclear weapons to border regions, especially since their respective nuclear missiles have sufficient range to be stationed far from the border. None of the Chinese bases believed to host nuclear-capable missiles that can target India are near the Line of Actual Control where the border conflict is simmering. The prospect of accidental nuclear escalation remains quite remote.

What security concerns do China and India have in South Asia?

Zhao and Dalton: Chinese analysts are confident that both countries’ civilian leaders would be able to defuse any risk of conflict escalation long before nuclear weapons could come into play. What’s more, Chinese experts remain optimistic that nuclear weapons in general play a stabilizing role by making both parties more likely to act carefully in future military confrontations.

[A]s its relationship with India turns more competitive, China’s own leverage to defuse future crises between India and Pakistan also may be ebbing.

By contrast, Chinese analysts are far more worried about nuclear weapons being used in a conflict between India and Pakistan. From Beijing’s perspective, India continues to widen the gap with Pakistan in overall military capabilities, giving Islamabad a greater incentive to threaten the use of nuclear weapons to avoid defeat in a future military conflict. Pakistan’s new tactical nuclear weapons and India’s existing short-range nuclear systems and increasingly powerful precision strike conventional weapons could make both sides worry that their nuclear forces are vulnerable, compounding in a crisis the time-sensitive pressures of being tempted to use such weapons before they were destroyed. This dynamic exacerbates Chinese concerns that a nuclear war is more likely to break out between India and Pakistan.

Tong Zhao

Senior Fellow
Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy

Tong Zhao is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.

Beijing recognizes how U.S. administrations have helped smooth over previous military crises on the Indian subcontinent. But it notes that Washington seems less willing and able to continue playing this mediating role. Detecting a power vacuum and worrying about a volatile security dynamic between India and Pakistan, some Chinese experts have called on the Chinese government to step up efforts to maintain regional stability. However, they have offered very few concrete suggestions in public analysis about how this could be done. And as its relationship with India turns more competitive, China’s own leverage to defuse future crises between India and Pakistan also may be ebbing.

Gupta: In the wake of the border standoff, China has sought to convince other countries that Indian infrastructure development is the root cause of the border tensions and that India has violated some common understanding of the Line of Actual Control. Yet Beijing’s professed concerns about India’s infrastructure building ignore that India is responding to large-scale infrastructure projects China itself has undertaken in the border regions abutting India. Beijing’s insinuations about India’s supposed bad faith on the LAC disregard India’s consistent rejection of the unilateral LAC proposed by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1959. This blatant misrepresentation of the diplomatic record is of concern to India. China has also repeatedly stated that it does not recognize the Indian Union Territory of Ladakh, even though the creation of this new administrative division had no impact on India’s external borders as articulated in official maps. China’s sudden expansion of territorial claims in Bhutan and commentary on what India views as domestic governance matters can be considered a change in tactics. Beijing seems more eager to build diplomatic pressure on India and exploit negative assessments of Indian actions in Jammu and Kashmir than to resolve its differences bilaterally with New Delhi.

The Chinese position that nuclear weapons play a “stabilizing role” in managing the security relationship with India seems to run contrary to Beijing’s assertion that India’s nuclear weapons play no role in its bilateral relationship with China. It seems hypocritical for Beijing to suggest that the gap in military capabilities between India and China mitigates the possibility of conflict between the two, while a similar gap in military capabilities between India and Pakistan only increases the risk of nuclear escalation. New Delhi sees Beijing’s position as a convenient explanation for China’s deepening defense relationship with Pakistan, which seems destabilizing for South Asia from India’s vantage point.

To Indian analysts, Beijing hardly seems like a neutral third party. China’s large-scale investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor involves a disputed region that India and Pakistan are contesting. While Beijing claims to be neutrally waiting for India and Pakistan to resolve their territorial dispute, China’s unspoken interests show it has already taken sides. India sees China’s hand in recent moves that suggest Pakistan may seek to grant Gilgit-Baltistan the status of a province. The establishment of a special economic zone within the economic corridor has not gone unnoticed in New Delhi either.

Concerns over China’s economic engagement with India’s neighbors also linger. India fears that China will leverage their economic dependence for political gain at the expense of Indian interests. New Delhi sees the bans China levied on commodity imports from Australia soon after the Australian government called for enquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and offered safe haven to Hong Kong residents as a harbinger of how Beijing may further leverage its interests in the region. All things considered, India is unlikely to welcome Chinese attempts to fill a perceived power vacuum in South Asia.

What do China and India think of each other’s current military technology?

Zhao and Dalton: Chinese experts generally do not believe that India’s development of more advanced military technologies—especially counterspace capabilities and cyber weapons—poses any near-term threat to China. But they do have concerns about Indian military technologies that may lower the threshold of nuclear use. For instance, some Chinese strategists worry that prospective Indian battlefield nuclear missiles—which would primarily counter Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons—could also be deployed against China. If that happens, the firewall between conventional and nuclear wars may be eroded, given that such nuclear weapons are more likely to be introduced in a high-stake conventional conflict than are long-range strategic nuclear systems. In most cases, Chinese experts are very confident in China’s ability to maintain a comfortable, decade-long edge over India in nuclear and strategic military technologies. Chinese analysts typically do not even try to hide their skepticism about India’s defense industry and military readiness.

Chinese analysts typically do not even try to hide their skepticism about India’s defense industry and military readiness.

That said, they are much more sensitive to Indian efforts to acquire advanced military technologies from, and establish partnerships with, other major powers—especially the United States. The concern is not necessarily about how such foreign acquisitions may help India catch up technologically. Rather, China worries that defense technology cooperation may lead to tighter security relations between India and the United States and other countries hostile to China. If New Delhi is lured toward Washington’s geopolitical orbit through defense cooperation, the overall balance of power in China’s immediate neighborhood would tilt considerably against Beijing.

Gupta: China aims to modernize its forces into a world-class military by 2050, and the United States is its primary competitor. India keeps close watch on the military technological progress Beijing has made, since this could impact their border dispute. Chinese activities in the South China Sea have been an instructive example. For example, the expansion of Chinese operational space as a result of its growing military prowess has enabled China to change the status quo in disputed waters of the South China Sea. The artificial islands China has constructed and built up can function as forward deployment bases, and the sporadic stationing of Chinese military platforms to the Spratly Islands signals their readiness to host military units. Beijing has harnessed the implicit threat to use force through military drills and military deployments to deter confrontation in the South China Sea. When other countries have declined to challenge these actions, China has been able to use military asymmetry to consolidate its military and civilian presence in the region. Consequently, other countries have seen their normal fishing activities disrupted and their civilian energy exploration hindered.

Rukmani Gupta

Rukmani Gupta is a New Delhi–based defense analyst whose work focuses on geopolitics, defense strategy, and military capabilities in Asia.

The first lesson that India has belatedly learned is that creeping Chinese advances in disputed regions must be challenged immediately. Given the disparity in military power, India will do well to set the terms of engagement early on rather than conform its response to Chinese actions. The second lesson for India is that China’s technological development and civil-military fusion equip it to engage in hybrid warfare or gray-zone conflicts, tactics Beijing can use to gain advantage even in a limited conflict.

India engages in defense partnerships as per the requirements of its armed forces. Although India’s defense trade with the United States is growing, its relationship with Russia remains important, and its defense relationships are not limited to countries that China deems hostile. Resurgent concerns over China’s military ambitions across the Indo-Pacific can be attributed to China’s disregard for the sensitivities of smaller countries. Beijing’s brazenness has led its neighbors to seek external balancers, the reemergence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States being one example. Australian inclusion in the naval exercise known as Malabar between India, Japan, and the United States marks an important turning point. The Quad members no longer strain to avoid ruffling Chinese feathers, as they did before. Greater military interoperability, maritime security cooperation, and military information sharing between India and the United States can also be attributed to increasing tensions with China. In the event of a conflict with China, these closer ties may influence U.S. diplomatic positions and facilitate information sharing for effective tactical operations or transfers of military hardware.  

Could Chinese and Indian investments in advanced military technologies spiral into a strategic arms race?

Zhao and Dalton: Chinese analysts dismiss the impact of India’s development of advanced strategic technologies on China’s security—although they are watching the technical details closely. Though Indian missiles, missile defense technologies, and anti-satellite weapons have progressed markedly, Chinese experts claim that Beijing still has at least a ten-year lead and that China’s state-centric defense industry will continue to outpace its Indian peer.

But this widely felt optimism also points to a problem that few Chinese analysts appear to acknowledge. Beijing’s dismissal of New Delhi’s security efforts does nothing to assuage India’s concerns about China’s growing nuclear and nonnuclear military capabilities. The border clashes will make such Indian concerns even more acute.

As India focuses more on China than Pakistan, a greater imbalance on the subcontinent will emerge. Pakistan does not have the resources to keep pace with India’s investment in better weaponry (despite long-standing Chinese assistance), so it may have to resort to more asymmetric military postures and tactics such as increasing the role of tactical nuclear weapons in its war strategies. Such spillover pressures may fuel a more dangerous Indo-Pakistani arms race and make bilateral tensions more precarious.

A strategically unstable South Asia is not in China’s interests, not least because it would threaten its sprawling Belt and Road Initiative investments, especially in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Beijing could also feel more pressure to redress an accelerating imbalance between India and Pakistan by helping Islamabad boost its military capabilities, but doing so could undermine China’s commitment to nonproliferation and harm its international image.

Gupta: Neither country seeks parity with its nuclear adversary, so a strategic arms race is unlikely. As India improves its second-strike capabilities, greater stability in South Asia may ensue. Whether addressing Pakistan’s threat perceptions is the primary focus of China’s policies in South Asia or a handy pretext cannot be reliably ascertained. Yet Chinese scholars do not seem to put much stock in the idea that the China-Pakistan relationship contributes to regional instability.

India is not party to the Belt and Road and has protested the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in particular. China’s continued investments in contested territories may encourage it to offer greater security assistance or assurances. China’s paramilitary forces man border posts along the China-Tajikistan-Afghanistan border to check the spread of Islamic extremism into Xinjiang. China has also employed security contractors to safeguard investments in Africa. So it isn’t inconceivable that China may employ security personnel beyond its borders in South Asia.

Any escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan that impacts the economic corridor could come to involve China. Both China and Pakistan have territorial disputes with India in Jammu and Kashmir, and their common interest in preventing India’s hold over claimed territories may engender closer security cooperation. New Delhi could even face the increased pressure of a two-front war if it were to confront Beijing or Islamabad; such a scenario would likely pair a large-scale conventional conflict with a second nebulous, gray-zone front, making it harder for India to formulate a response.

To learn more, read Tong Zhao and Toby Dalton’s paper, “At a Crossroads? China-India Nuclear Relations After the Border Clash.”

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