Is India turning its nuclear focus toward China? | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 14.07.2017

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Is India turning its nuclear focus toward China?

India's nuclear policy is now believed to be placing a greater emphasis on China instead of focusing on archrival Pakistan. But this is not to be mistaken as a shift in the nation's nuclear doctrine, say experts.

A recent report by two top American experts that India's nuclear strategy is targeting China has drawn mixed responses from Indian experts and academics who maintain there is no cause for alarm about the country's nuclear position despite the changing geopolitical situation.   

Published in the July-August issue of the digital journal After Midnight, the article claimed that India is busy developing a missile, which can target all of China from its bases located in southern India.

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It also said that while modernizing its atomic arsenal, India has produced around 600 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium, which is sufficient for 150-200 nuclear warheads. 

China, India and Pakistan are all pursuing new ballistic missile, cruise missile, and sea-based nuclear delivery systems.

Like China, India's nuclear doctrine is based on the no-first-use (NFU) concept backed by a policy of assured massive retaliation.

"China appears to have maintained a measure of ambiguity on whether its 'no first use' pledge will be applicable to India. An unambiguous clarification on this issue has to be sought from China," argues Gopalaswami Parthasarthy - popularly known as G Parthasarthy - a former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan.

Shift in focus

India's NFU policy, which was adopted in 2003, states that any nuclear attack on the country and its forces anywhere shall result in unmitigated retaliation against the aggressor.

So when the US experts claimed that India's nuclear modernization program was placing increased emphasis on its future strategic relationship with China, it came as no big surprise.

"I think India's focus has shifted to China sometime back, which is why India is focusing on acquiring long-range missiles and nuclear missile submarines," Rajesh Rajagopalan, a professor in international politics specializing in nuclear weapons and disarmament, told DW.

"But possibly not to antagonize China, India has so far not built ICBM-range missiles," he added, referring to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which are guided ballistic missiles with a minimum range of 5,500 kilometers primarily designed for nuclear weapons delivery. "ICBM development will probably happen now. But I don't think warhead numbers indicate anything regarding who the target is," the expert said.

Rajagopalan argued that the number of nuclear warheads cited in the article suggested a dramatic increase and there were no indicators of such a change.

Strained ties

"I think India is fast-tracking its nuclear development program because of China. Yes, we are bullish because fears have shifted and our ballistic missile development program is progressing at a feverish pace," Happymon Jacob, Associate Professor of Disarmament Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, told DW.

Raketentest Indien Agni-V Langstreckenrakete

The report by the US experts states that the two-stage, solid-fuel, rail-mobile Agni-2 missile is probably targeted at western, central, and southern regions of China

For nearly a month now, Chinese and Indian border troops have confronted each other close to a valley controlled by China that separates India from its close ally Bhutan, and gives China access to the so-called Chicken's Neck, a thin strip of land that connects India to its remote northeastern regions.  

Beijing alleges Indian troops crossed into a region known in China as Donglang, called Doklam in India, early in June and obstructed work on a road on the Himalayan plateau.

"When tensions escalate, this article appears. Look, research work is different from reality. As far back as in May 1998, when we conducted a series of five nuclear bomb test explosions, the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told then US president Bill Clinton that China was a threat. This is sensationalism, its fundamentals are shaky," says defense expert Pravin Sawhney, editor of FORCE, a magazine on national security.

Srikanth Kondapalli, a China expert, believes India's focus in the nuclear arena is moving away from Pakistan toward China but the shift "has not yet happened."

"This is a speculative report. As part of the India-US nuclear deal, we agreed to place 60 percent of our nuclear plants under the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards with the remaining 40 percent left for military purposes. So India has to generate nuclear weapons from these 40 percent assets," Kondapalli told DW.

Deterrence or arms race?

The report by the US experts states that the two-stage, solid-fuel, rail-mobile Agni-2 missile, which can deliver a nuclear or conventional warhead to targets more than 2,000 kilometers away, is probably targeted at western, central, and southern regions of China. 

Indien China Grenzsoldaten Archiv 2008

For nearly a month now, Chinese and Indian border troops have confronted each other close to a valley controlled by China that separates India from its close ally Bhutan

"Obviously this can only generate 'minimal' nuclear deterrence. However, the 'credible' portion of India's nuclear policy suggests that it has to make preparations. Hence, the solid propellant Agni missiles," adds Kondapalli.

According to the Arms Control Association (ACA), India is estimated to have at least 520 kilograms of plutonium, enough for 100-120 nuclear devices, described as a "credible minimum deterrent."

By comparison, China has enough fissile material for between 200 and 250 devices.  Unofficial estimates reckon that China currently has 270 nuclear warheads.

India has built its own "triad" of land, sea and air forces, all equipped with nuclear weapons, says the ACA.

"If any nuclear adversary including China attacks India, nuclear weapons are, of course, meant to deter and retaliate. That is why India's nuclear doctrine recommends triad capability," Chintamani Mahapatra, an academic, told DW.

India has always promoted itself as a responsible nuclear weapons state and New Delhi has made it evident that nuclear weapons are indeed the weapons of last resort. But observers say the arms race is nevertheless on.