As China and India enter new stages in nuclear arsenal development, including ICBM capabilities and plans for a nuclear-armed submarine fleet, strategic dialogue is needed to reduce the risk of political tension caused by mutual uncertainty.
The US stands at the center of China’s nuclear threat perception. China feels threatened by American ballistic missile defense plans. Its recent anti-satellite tests were partly an effort to signal resolve against this perceived challenge. Recently deployed DF-31A ICBMs, with a range of over 11,000 kilometers, intend to restore mutual deterrence to the Sino-American strategic relationship.
China is building nuclear-armed submarine forces, with a projected fleet of five Jin-class boats. A SSBN naval base is currently being constructed on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. Beijing labelled the South China Sea a “core interest” in April, seeking to ensure a secure area for operating its sea-based nuclear forces.
These developments are informing Indian security thinking. Although Chinese nuclear force planning is largely oriented against the US, Indian nuclear force planning is increasingly shaped by a view of dark Chinese intentions.
India is presently assured of mutual deterrence in its relationship with Pakistan and poses a credible nuclear threat to its traditional rival with short-range missiles and air-delivered gravity bombs. However, it is less confident regarding the “northern neighbor” alluded to during its nuclear tests in 1998.
The direction of its current nuclear force modernization points clearly toward meeting internal fears of an aggressive China. India seeks to begin testing the Agni-V missile, its first ICBM, next year. Its projected range of 5,000-6,000km is largely designed for reaching Chinese destinations. When asked why the Indian Defense Ministry was not building an ICBM with a more extensive range, and implicitly a wider selection of targets, the Agni-V project director replied, “We have the capability. But the missile's range and lethality is based on the immediate objective of threat mitigation.”
India is testing its first SSBN, the Arihant, and is building an SSBN base near Visakhapatnam on its east coast. Indian defense thinkers view the new SSBN platform as a vessel for countering Chinese incursions into the Indian Ocean. As one commentator has remarked, “India’s sea borders are an open threat to India’s security.”
The K-15 submarine-launched ballistic missile likely to arm Indian SSBNs has a range of only 700km, meaning submarines will have to travel close to China to bring significant east and south coast Chinese targets into range. Development only recently commenced on the longer-range Agni-III SLBM. India’s fears of naval competition with China could thus be self-fulfilling.
Current dialogue regarding these nuclear ambitions is minimal. India and China meet for a general defense discussion only on an annual basis. Regular dialogue should be initiated regarding nuclear arsenal capability improvements and doctrine. This will help in reducing strategic tensions caused by misperception.
The role of Pakistan in this nascent nuclear competition is currently unclear. India’s nuclear threat analysis is increasingly focused on China. However, Pakistan is rapidly producing weapons-grade fissile material and is negotiating the supply of two nuclear reactors from China in contravention of Nuclear Suppliers Group rules. Pakistan should therefore be included in this regional dialogue to assist all parties in obtaining a clear picture of their strategic environment.
Indian and Chinese nuclear arsenal developments are currently driven by asymmetrical threat perceptions. Addressing their internal nuclear fears in open discussion will require political courage. In the interests of nuclear risk reduction, and of preventing strategic competition threatening their mutual economic rise, it is time for New Delhi and Beijing to take these first steps in controlling the direction and shape of their nuclear rivalry.
By. Frank O'Donnell