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There was some flutter recently at reports that China was opening a “nuclear umbrella” for Ukraine. “Nuclear umbrella” is about a nuclear weapon power protecting a non-nuclear weapon state, usually a very close ally, against atomic threats from others. In nuclear jargon it is called “extended deterrence”.
China has in the past tended to avoid alliances and insisted that its nuclear arsenal was meant for national defence and not for securing the interests of any other nation. It had always denounced the US nuclear umbrella extended to its neighbours, Japan and South Korea. Given this background, there was much speculation if China was changing its policy on extended deterrence.
The speculation was triggered by a joint statement issued by Chinese President Xi Jinping after a meeting with the President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, last month. The joint statement said: “China pledges unconditionally not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the nuclear-free Ukraine and China further pledges to provide Ukraine nuclear security guarantee when Ukraine encounters an invasion involving nuclear weapons or Ukraine is under threat of a nuclear invasion.”
The confusion appears to have been caused by a misreading of the statement in a section of the Chinese media and mistranslation and over-interpretation by a few Western analysts. A closer reading of the statement, however, suggested China was merely offering boiler plate assurances to Ukraine, which had given up its claim to nuclear weapons after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.
Since the mid-1990s, all nuclear weapon powers had been issuing similar assurances, both negative and positive, to non-nuclear weapon states. Under the “negative assurances”, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council promise non-nuclear weapon states that they will not attack or threaten to attack them with atomic weapons. Under the “positive assurances”, the P-5 offer to come to the aid, the nature of which is deliberately left ambiguous, of non-nuclear states threatened by atomic weapons. Few in the world take these statements seriously.
From New Delhi’s perspective, the Western speculation on China offering nuclear protection to Ukraine is largely academic. India’s problem is rather different. It has long struggled to come to terms with China’s sustained nuclear and missile cooperation with Pakistan.
Beijing has gone way beyond offering a nuclear umbrella to Islamabad, by actively assisting the Pakistan army to build nuclear weapons in the 1980s and manufacture missiles in the 1990s. The depth of the connection has led some to argue that the Pakistani atomic armoury is but an extension of the Chinese arsenal.
China’s determination to maintain Pakistan’s nuclear parity with India has also been underlined by Beijing’s opposition to the US decision to facilitate an end to India’s nuclear isolation. When it could not block the US-India civil nuclear initiative, Beijing chose to offer additional nuclear power reactors to Pakistan in violation of its non-proliferation commitments.
India is now warily assessing reports that Pakistan is seeking the lease of a nuclear powered submarine from China to match India’s acquisition of a nuclear attack submarine from Russia. As India develops its under-water deterrent capability with the “Arihant” nuclear missile submarine, Pakistan is reportedly trying to build similar capability and asking for Chinese help. China and Pakistan have already signed a deal to build six conventional submarines in the shipyards of the two countries, but there is no official word on the nuclear dimension.
Although China formally rejects the doctrine of extended deterrence, its tight atomic relationship with Pakistan reveals that, where it has strong strategic interests, Beijing’s nuclear policy will be subordinate to the logic of alliance-building. As China rises to become a great power and is compelled to deal with its expanding interests worldwide, it is bound to construct solid alliances and, in special cases, likely to extend its nuclear umbrella.
Meanwhile, the immediate focus must necessarily be on the credibility of the US nuclear umbrella in Asia. As China challenges American military primacy in Asia, many are asking if the US is prepared to risk a nuclear escalation with China in defending its allies. Some suggest that the US allies may have no option but to eventually develop their own nuclear capabilities. India, then, needs to devote greater attention to the role of nuclear weapons in alliance politics amidst the power shift in Asia and look beyond its traditional emphasis on global nuclear disarmament.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.