Nuclear loopholes pose worrying dilemma

By Xie Chao Source:Global Times Published: 2014-3-24 19:33:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

World leaders are gathering in The Hague to address nuclear security issues. China has been playing an active role in nuclear dialogue and cooperation. But there is an absence of effective Sino-India nuclear dialogue. India has never figured in China's threat assessment in any serious fashion.

Sino-Indian strategic stability is sustained by two cornerstones, China's possession of a more advanced nuclear arsenal, and the adoption of a no-first-use (NFU) doctrine by both countries. But if we look deeper into this, these foundations seem less staple.

As a declaratory policy, the credibility of NFU commitment is a two-way process, dependent on both how a country makes the statement and how others interpret it.

China was the first to propose and pledge an NFU policy and has consistently held a position which states that "China remains firmly committed to the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances. It unconditionally undertakes not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones."

However, India's ambiguous nuclear status complicates this issue. India's self-exile from the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime makes it, technically, not a nuclear weapon state and its de facto possession of nuclear weapons makes it not a non-nuclear weapon state either. Hence, India falls in a technical loophole in the context of China's full NFU commitment.

India's NFU policy is under constant debate and interpretation. India first announced its NFU policy after its nuclear tests in 1998, designed to alleviate international pressure after the blast, but no specific content was added.

Its Draft Nuclear Doctrine in 1999 stated that "India will not resort to the use or the threat of use of nuclear weapons against states which do not possess nuclear weapons, or are not aligned with nuclear weapons powers." This stirred up great controversy and failed to get final approval by the government.

In 2003, the Indian Nuclear Doctrine was released, stating an NFU posture but added that "in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons." This indicates that India would retaliate with nuclear weapons if attacked by non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction.

On October 21, 2010, India's National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon signaled a significant shift from "no first use" to "no first use against non-nuclear weapon states," and despite the speculation it generated, the Indian government chose not to walk back this comment. In April 2013, Shyam Saran, convener of the National Security Advisory Board, affirmed that Pakistani development of tactical battlefield nuclear weapon would nullify Indian NFU doctrine. Hence, the efficacy of India's NFU commitment has been significantly downgraded.

As for the other cornerstone of China's nuclear superiority, India's recent progress has significantly narrowed any gap.

India is now the fourth country in the world to have a workable nuclear triad. In September 2013, India tested its inter-continental ballistic missile the Agni-5, with a range of 5,000 kilometers covering the whole of China and reaching Europe and it further claims to possess the capability of producing a weapon system with a range of 10,000 kilometers in 2015.

According to the 2012 SIPRI Yearbook, the Indian nuclear arsenal comprises 80 to 100 warheads and it keeps expanding its storage of weapon-grade plutonium.

So if China was enjoying and still enjoys a certain nuclear superiority over India, this relative gap is definitely being narrowed.

Enhanced strategic stability needs more than an NFU and shrinking nuclear gap. Both countries are aiming at a greater role in global politics, and neither can afford a strong but hostile nuclear neighbor.

Confidence-building measures can be strengthened, and more effective dialogue mechanisms are required to address nuclear accidents and strategic misperceptions between the two countries. Increasing efforts on bilateral nuclear dialogue and cooperation will thus lead to sustained strategic stability.

The author is a PhD candidate in the Department of International Relations, Tsinghua University, and currently visiting at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford.

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