The China-centric nature of the rhetoric surrounding the missile serves as a reminder that although South Asia watchers often focus on India’s rivalry with Pakistan, India’s real strategic competitor is China.
China’s economy and military are far larger than India’s and are growing rapidly. China–India territorial disputes — which triggered the bloody 1962 border war that India lost badly — remain unresolved. The assertive nature of China’s recent regional behaviour suggests to Indian leaders that Beijing may try to settle such disagreements through coercion and fait accompli. If these trends continue, India could find itself economically and militarily outmatched and hard pressed to resist coercive Chinese pressure.
India views nuclear weapons as an important backstop against Chinese power. Despite pledging to maintain only a ‘credible minimum deterrent’, India continues to take steps to improve its nuclear capabilities. These measures include the production of fissile material to expand its nuclear arsenal; development of both ballistic and cruise missiles to deliver nuclear weapons further, faster and with greater accuracy; and pursuit of a full nuclear triad that includes sea-based nuclear weapons to enhance force survivability.
India could also revisit its nuclear doctrine of no first use (NFU) and adopt a more ambiguous stance. Indeed, it has already begun to do. In 2003, India announced that it would consider using nuclear weapons in response not only to a nuclear attack on its territory, but also in the event of a major chemical or biological weapons attack on its territory or in response to a nuclear, chemical or biological weapons attack on its forces anywhere.
Whether India will take further steps in this direction remains to be seen. The incentives to do so will endure and the possibility is a topic of lively debate in Indian strategic circles.
China claims to not view India as a serious strategic competitor and often expresses its disdain for India’s nuclear capabilities. But the pointed commentary in the Chinese press that followed India’s tests of the Agni V, coupled with Beijing’s substantial support for Pakistan’s ballistic missile program, suggest a degree of concern over India’s growing nuclear prowess. China generally does not try to match other countries’ nuclear capabilities tit for tat, but rather seeks simply to ensure that its arsenal is sufficient to avoid nuclear blackmail. With approximately 260 nuclear warheads compared to India’s 120–130, China will likely maintain this capacity against India for some time.
In contrast to China, Pakistan views India as its primary strategic competitor and designs its nuclear force structure in direct response to India’s military posture — even though significant elements of Indian forces like the Agni V are not Pakistan-centric. Pakistan is extremely sensitive to Indian capabilities and relies heavily on nuclear weapons to counter them. Due to Pakistan’s broader strategic shortcomings and inability to maintain military parity with an increasingly powerful India, Islamabad depends on nuclear forces to protect it against both conventional and nuclear Indian threats.
Pakistan is expanding its nuclear capabilities to achieve what it calls ‘full-spectrum deterrence’ that focusses on the development of low-yield ‘battlefield’ nuclear weapons. Pakistan hopes that these smaller weapons will make its nuclear threats more credible and enhance its deterrence capability against India. Pakistan’s move toward full-spectrum deterrence will likely create pressure for India to consider building flexibility into its force structure, potentially through the development of smaller nuclear weapons of its own.
These nuclear developments will pose numerous dangers for South Asia, including possible arms-racing pressures, first-use incentives and challenges regarding the physical custody of nuclear materials, technologies, and weapons. Yet the greatest regional danger stems from Pakistan’s emergent battlefield nuclear capability. By lowering the threshold for nuclear use, Pakistani battlefield weapons increase the likelihood that a conventional India–Pakistan conflict will escalate to the nuclear level. Pakistan’s strategy of employing Islamist militants to help it wrest control of Kashmir from India makes the eruption of a conventional confrontation — potentially triggered by a third-party non-state actor — a constant possibility.
Efforts to improve this situation will need to focus less on technical fixes and more on political choices. Pakistan will have to decide that its efforts to forcibly acquire Kashmir are not worth the cost or the risk and bring them to an end. Even modest steps in this direction could enable India to lower its military pressure on Pakistan, which could in turn help lessen Pakistan’s reliance on nuclear weapons and its need for Chinese support for its nuclear weapons program. This would help to ease India–Pakistan tensions and mitigate at least one irritant in the China–India strategic relationship.
Pakistan has not wavered in its efforts to acquire Kashmir in the seven decades since its founding and the odds that it will change course now are admittedly slim. But unless it does so, South Asia’s most serious nuclear dangers will remain unabated and Pakistan and the region will continue to court disaster.
S Paul Kapur is a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, California. He is also an Affiliate at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and a Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. The views expressed in this article are his alone, and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense.