Future rivalry between India and China is likely to be economic, not military
Now that India has rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the country's nuclear debate has zeroed in on the holiest of the holy cows -- the question of testing and deployment. The more strident hawks within the strategic community have urged successive governments to do so. So far New Delhi has refused to comply. Why? Because the current policy of nuclear ambiguity suits the country well.
Such a policy allows the country to signal its nuclear capability and retain the potential to rapidly build a nuclear arsenal, without actually doing so. This is a clever strategy. India avoids the economic costs of building and deploying nuclear weapons. Yet, by simultaneously drawing credibility from a phantom arsenal, it achieves deterrence by uncertainty. No mean achievement that!
I, for one, would argue that we continue with our present course. Open development and deployment of nuclear weapons would be a disaster.
From a strictly regional perspective, it is doubtful if nuclear weapons have brought India any lasting strategic advantage. Having achieved rough nuclear parity, Pakistan has neutralised India's conventional superiority. By deftly avoiding entry into a "no-first-use" pact with India and not spelling out the "red line" that could trigger a nuclear response, Pakistan has effectively frozen conflict in the subcontinent at the sub-conventional level. From the mid-1980s onwards, it has brazenly fanned insurgencies, first in Punjab and now in Kashmir, comfortable in the assurance that the Indian army would not dare a "hot pursuit" across the border for fear that a conventional war might escalate into a nuclear war.
In the current strategic environment, the only way India can re-establish its nuclear superiority against Pakistan is by full strategic deployment. This may provide India with psychological security, but the strategic scenario on the ground would remain unchanged. Ironically, an Indian test programme would give Pakistan not only an opportunity to validate its own nuclear capability, but elevate it to a position of formal nuclear parity.
It is also increasingly evident that the 'Chinese threat' has perhaps been manufactured to justify India's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. There are indicators that the Chinese threat is not perceived at an operational level. For instance, the absence of any doctrine to govern India's nuclear capability, the scuttling of the Agni at the 'technology demonstrator' stage, lack of any civil defense measures to deal with a potential Chinese nuclear threat, and the fact that no Indian government has ever raised nuclear weapons related issues with China, are some.
Sino-Indian relations have improved steadily during the 1990s. Both countries have agreed to freeze the border dispute, abjured the use of force in bilateral relations, and agreed to mutual troop reductions and confidence building measures along the border. Relations have thawed sufficiently to permit the Indian army to withdraw some of its mountain divisions for internal security and training operations. No doubt scars form the 1962 war remain.
But the stark truth is, the status quo on the border favours China. India is in no position to militarily dislodge China from the border. China is an entire generation ahead in nuclear weapon technologies, rocketry, missiles, space launch business, economic growth and overall military strength. Thus, future rivalry between India and China is likely to be economic and not military.
It is also preposterous to argue that nuclear deployment would result in reduced conventional spending. Given India's security profile, expenditures on a nuclear force could only be in addition to what is spent on conventional defence. After all, it is conventional weapons that buy security. Nuclear weapons don't; they only deter use by other states.
Having a few bombs in the basement is vastly different from building a sophisticated nuclear arsenal. Nuclear deployments are prohibitively expensive and the low estimates presented by nuclear aficionados are thoroughly misleading. In computing the costs of a potential Indian deterrent, these bomb-lobbyists only account for the basic procurement costs of non-existent weapon systems but overlook development and infrastructure costs. Costs for research and development, production of fissile material, and command, control, and communications infrastructure are either buried under conventional defence or assigned to the civil nuclear and space sectors of the economy.
Complex technology systems, like nuclear submarines, are taken as given. These do not even exist and are unlikely to become operational until the first decade of the next century. No attempts are made to account for the infrastructure needed to support nuclear hardware. By way of an extreme example, the cost of nuclear warheads in the US is just one-tenth that of the entire weapons complex.