Why India Tested Nuclear Weapons in 1998

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Why India Tested Nuclear Weapons in 1998

Much of the conventional wisdom is wrong; only domestic politics really mattered for the decision.

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for The National Interest arguing that India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons had been a mistake because it had not achieved its initial purpose of addressing the Chinese threat to India’s border, while it worsened Delhi’s ability to deal with Pakistan.

I was pleased to learn that Dhruva Jaishankar of the German Marshall Fund had taken the time to write a rebuttal to my piece, which also appeared in TNI. On Thursday TNI was kind enough to publish my response to Jaishankar’s piece.

In order to address Jaishankar’s major points, my response ran rather long. As such, I tried to reduce the length of the piece by eliminating one section. Specifically, Jaishankar had argued I ignored the context in which India’s nuclear-decision making took place. He countered by arguing:

“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.”

In my response, I focused mainly on whether it made sense to examine India’s nuclear calculus solely through the decision to test nuclear weapons in 1998. Not surprisingly, I argued that it did not. However, I also noted in passing that many of Jaishankar’s specific claims were questionable on the merits, without elaborating on why this was the case.

Since Jaishankar’s claims are representative of the ones often given for why India tested nuclear weapons in 1998, its worth explaining in greater detail why these are indeed questionable on the merits.

First, Jaishankar argues that India faced in adverse security environment in the early 1990s. Although this is rather vague, he is probably referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union, India’s Cold War ally, as this is often used by Indian officials and analysts to justify the nuclear tests in 1998.

Although there is something to this argument, it is grossly overstated because the loss of the immense Soviet military machine meant that Russia’s defense industry was all too willing to continue selling India military supplies. Delhi may have had to pay more for weapons under the Russian Federation, but its economy was also expanding rapidly starting in the 1990s and 2000s. Thus, it could afford to do so.

But India’s security environment in the early 1990s cannot be characterized as highly adverse because its external threat environment was greatly reduced. China, for instance, spent the first few years of the decade completely immersed in domestic affairs following Tiananmen Square. Its interest in threatening Indian territory was greatly reduced during this time. Additionally, during this time the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began to downsize its ground forces, which had historically taken precedence. Since these were the primary menace to India along its shared border with China, this also reduced the threat Beijing posed to India in the early to mid-1990s.

The China threat to India was further reduced in the middle 1990s by the fact that China began to encounter greater external threats from the U.S. during this time. For example, in 1994 it had to contend with the prospect of a U.S. military invasion of North Korea along China’s northwestern border. The next two years it had to deal with the Taiwan Strait Crisis. Thus, in the years leading up to India’s nuclear tests in 1998, China was greatly distracted and reducing its capability to threaten India.

Pakistan was, if anything, in worse shape during the 1990s. First, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union entirely, left it with a nasty civil war along its western border. This would partially distract it from antagonizing India.

More importantly, the withdrawal of the Soviet Union also saw Pakistan’s great power patron, the U.S., lose interest in the region. This had profound negative repercussions for Pakistan. For instance, during the 1980s, the U.S. had shelved its concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear program and poured immense amounts of various kinds of aid into the country. The year after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan, however, the George H.W. Bush administration broke with tradition in declaring that it could not confirm Pakistan’s nuclear program was completely peaceful. In line with existing U.S. law, the administration then halted all economic and military aid to Pakistan and imposed sanctions against it. Thus, if anyone lost a great power patron in the early 1990s, it was Pakistan; India’s just changed names.    

Jaishankar also tried to put in context India’s nuclear calculus by declaring that India’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons (likely meaning its decision to test nuclear weapons) was strategically wise given “a multilateral order that threatened to recognize China’s nuclear status in perpetuity while denying India entry.” This likely refers to the often-heard argument from India officials that they had to test weaponized nuclear weapons before the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)—which had opened for signatures in 1996 and which 150 nations had signed by the time of India’s nuclear weapons test—went into effect.

If so, India’s decision was paradoxically both premature and much delayed. It was premature in so far as the CTBT still has not gone into effect. On the other hand, if India’s goal was to avoid a “multilateral order that threatened to recognize China’s nuclear status in perpetuity while denying India’s entry,” India’s 1998 nuclear tests were two decades too late. After all, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) enshrined in the global order that China is a legal nuclear weapon state and India will never be. And the NPT was extended indefinitely in May 1995, a full three years before India’s nuclear test.

Next Jaishankar argues that India’s nuclear tests made sense given the “relatively low costs of a nuclear program.” It’s unclear what he means by the “relatively low costs of a nuclear program.” The development and maintenance of a nuclear arsenal is an enormously expensive undertaking, and India’s nuclear program—which began as a peaceful nuclear program in the 1950s but changed to one geared toward developing a nuclear weapons capability by the middle 1960s—was no exception.

An argument can be made—in fact I would make it—that nuclear weapons are still cost-efficient if used to deter a strategic threat that conventional arms would otherwise have to meet. For instance, the U.S. used its nuclear deterrent to prevent the massive Red Army from overrunning Europe during the Cold War. The cost of fielding a conventional force that could do this would have been many times higher than the cost of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. However, as I explained in my initial piece and my response, India’s nuclear arsenal is not deterring a strategic threat—it’s merely been an enormous drain on the country’s resources that could have otherwise been spent on conventional weapons that could actually meet or defeat the threats India does face.

That leaves Jaishankar’s claim that an “an enabling domestic environment” made it strategically wise to test nuclear weapons in the late 1990s. It’s unclear exactly how. But Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) retaking the premiership in the 1998 general elections is indeed the most compelling explanation for why India tested nuclear weapons later that year. That is not to say that these political dynamics undergirded India’s decision and implementation of a nuclear weapons program, only that it explains the precise timing of the tests.