In May 1998, India detonated five nuclear devices in the Thar Desert, crossing the threshold from a nuclear-capable to a nuclear-armed state. Indian Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee authorized the tests, fulfilling the Bharatiya Janata Party’s long-time pledge to exercise India’s “nuclear option.” In a letter to U.S. President Bill Clinton, Vajpayee cited the “deteriorating security environment, [e]specially the nuclear environment” — thinly veiled references to China and Pakistan — as the primary justification for Pokhran-II. Reflecting on Washington’s post-test diplomacy, former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott later wondered why India had gone through the trouble of testing “given the likelihood of consequences that would make India less secure.”
Twenty years later, it is worth asking: have nuclear weapons made India more secure? We attempt to answer this question by assessing India’s security through the lens of three security challenges: 1) Pakistan’s support to anti-India militant groups, 2) the state of India’s relations with China, and 3) the China-Pakistan axis.
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Pakistan responded to India’s tests by detonating a series of nuclear devices — six in total, one more than India had tested — in late May. The advent of Pakistan’s bomb greatly limited India’s options for confronting the Pakistan Army over its support to anti-India militants who stage attacks on civilian and military targets in India. The dilemma, as lucidly outlined by George Perkovich and Toby Dalton, is that most military options — from airstrikes to limited war — available to India would be unlikely to motivate the Pakistan Army to cease its aid to militant groups while requiring India to run significant escalation risks.
The aftermath of the 2001-02 “Twin Peaks” crisis highlights India’s quandary. This crisis began when terrorists with links to groups based in Pakistan attacked the Indian Parliament. New Delhi mobilized the military, but, in part due to fears of nuclear escalation, decided against authorizing a conventional assault on Pakistan. Afterwards, the Indian Army sought to address the perceived deficiencies of the response to “Twin Peaks” by developing a new limited-war doctrine for a nuclearized subcontinent. The result was Cold Start, which called on the army to mobilize rapidly, cross the international border, and capture Pakistani territory to give India bargaining leverage to compel Pakistan to end cross-border militancy. While experts doubt Cold Start’s feasibility, this endeavor to reclaim space for limited war factored into Pakistan’s embrace of full-spectrum deterrence and the deployment of the short-range Nasr system in 2011. This underscores a key reason, identified by Michael Krepon, that India’s nuclear-armed status has not delivered the returns trumpeted by BJP figures before and after the tests: policies to enhance India’s security have been “quickly undercut by countermeasures taken by wary adversaries.”
These interrelated challenges of compellence and deterrence have led some Indian and Western strategic analysts to tout the military utility of India’s nuclear arsenal. Experts such as Evan Braden Montgomery and former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman have encouraged India strategic planners to institute limited nuclear options to neutralize full-spectrum deterrence and shore up the credibility of its threats to punish Pakistan conventionally. Lt. Gen. B.S. Nagal, the former head of India’s Strategic Forces Command, has advocated softening India’s commitment to no first use to deter Pakistan from launching a damage-limiting first strike during a crisis. These debates highlight the degree to which nuclear weapons have generated new anxieties and a constant search for reassurance as much as they have contributed to deterrence.
The State of India’s Relations with China
India’s 1998 tests sacrificed the opportunity to set relations with China on a more stable trajectory. Sino-Indian relations had improved in the decade before India attained the bomb. Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made a bold visit to Beijing in 1988. This act of statesmanship was reciprocated by Chinese President Jiang Zemin with a visit to Delhi (and later Islamabad) in 1996. The end of the Cold War had weakened ties between New Delhi and Moscow. This geopolitical shift, coupled with the mutual desire to expand bilateral trade, provided the impetus for rapprochement. Jiang made a deposit in the Sino-Indian relationship account when on the Islamabad portion of his trip he pointedly insisted that India and Pakistan seek a “just and reasonable settlement through [bilateral] consultations and negotiations,” a clear rebuke of Pakistan’s desire to internationalize the Kashmir dispute. Both Jiang’s visit to New Delhi and the endorsement of India’s position regarding Kashmir reflected Beijing’s desire to adopt a more “balanced” approach toward South Asia.
A year and a half after the Chinese leader’s visit, Vajpayee authorized the Pokhran-II tests. Vajpayee’s invocation of the Chinese threat led Beijing to issue a statement accusing India of upsetting the region’s “peace and stability.” Jiang doubled down on the Chinese line in his public comments, noting that China, a country that subscribed to no first use of nuclear weapons, had become a potential target of India’s arsenal. He later blamed India for “single-handedly” provoking tensions in South Asia. In the assessment of Chinese nuclear scholars, India had tested in large part to advance its great-power aspirations. This conclusion appears to be shared by Chinese leaders and has reinforced Beijing’s determination to head off New Delhi’s rise as an alternative power center in Asia.
China’s concerns about India’s geopolitical ambitions were exacerbated by a momentous consequence of India’s nuclear tests: a burgeoning strategic partnership with the United States. U.S.-India ties improved under both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations via a series of strategic dialogues that overcame decades of mistrust. The Bush administration viewed New Delhi as an ideal counterweight to Beijing. It decided the best way to recruit India to this balancing mission was to downgrade nonproliferation issues in the bilateral relationship and integrate India into elements of the global nuclear order. In 2008, the two sides concluded the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear deal, which, along with a waiver secured from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, gave India the ability to engage in nuclear commerce with foreign industry. For China, the nuclear deal and NSG waiver demonstrated not only that the United States prioritized geopolitics ahead of nonproliferation concerns, but that the U.S. partnership could position India to compete in a regional arms race and pose a long-term threat to China.
The China-Pakistan Axis
India’s 1998 tests — combined with U.S. and international efforts to “normalize” India as a responsible nuclear-armed state — reinvigorated the China-Pakistan axis. China’s nuclear cooperation with Pakistan predated the subcontinent’s overt weaponization in 1998 and included the transfer of weapons-grade uranium and mobile M-11 missiles. Yet, India’s emergence as a nuclear-armed state did not help it overcome China’s policy of keeping the India-Pakistan relationship in a state of “managed mistrust.” This policy is manifested in China’s intent to re-hyphenate India to Pakistan by continuing to transfer military technology to Pakistan and linking India’s NSG membership to Pakistan’s. In March of this year, China admitted it had exported an advanced tracking system that could facilitate the development of the Ababeel, Pakistan’s first multiple-warhead missile. China has also sold several nuclear reactors to Pakistan and opposed India’s membership to the NSG unless Pakistan is granted simultaneous access to the cartel and nuclear commerce with its members.
Is India More Secure?
It would be too harsh to conclude that India made a mistake in testing nuclear devices in 1998. The BJP government perceived it had little choice in this matter and most Indians cheered its decision. China had been a nuclear-armed state since 1965 and Pakistan’s bomb had been in the basement for a decade. Even if New Delhi had opted against crossing the threshold of overt weaponization, Beijing and Islamabad would have likely sought to forestall India’s rise as a major power and keep it confined to the South Asian neighborhood.
However, India’s threat environment is no better than in 1998 and, in some cases, its security is worse. The Pakistan Army continues to abet cross-border militancy against India and lower the nuclear threshold to limit India’s military options. China appears more determined than ever to prevent India’s rise as a major power, rehyphenate India to Pakistan, and challenge India’s influence among its neighbors.
To their credit, Indian leaders have not responded to Chinese and Pakistani provocations or geopolitical uncertainty by embracing nuclear weapons. The languid pace at which India has developed and deployed its arsenal indicates it is not interested in engaging China or Pakistan in a nuclear competition. Yet, Indian leaders have not done enough to either surmount the security challenges posed by its adversaries or position India to realize its full potential in Asia and beyond. India lags behind in China in most measures of “usable” power — and nuclear weapons have not attenuated the widening gap in economic vitality, diplomatic influence, and conventional firepower between the two Asian giants. Twenty years after becoming a nuclear-armed state, India is, by many measures, underperforming in the security realm. With strategic competition in Southern Asia expected to intensify further in the coming years, economic growth, balancing coalitions, and military modernization may prove to be more rewarding sources of security than nuclear weapons.
Travis Wheeler is a Research Associate and Heather Byrne is a Research Assistant with the Stimson Center’s South Asia Program.