Last week’s report on Asian nuclear transitions by Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Japan’s debate on its atomic options underline the shared security challenges for Delhi and Tokyo. At the root of that common nuclear challenge is the continuing growth in Chinese military power and the rapid modernisation of Beijing’s nuclear arsenal. India and Japan may have had good reasons until now to take a relaxed view of Chinese nuclear weapons. Both believed China’s modest nuclear arsenal does not pose an existential challenge to either of them. But three factors compel them to rethink this complacent calculus.
First, China is modernising and expanding its nuclear arsenal as part of the general military transformation. Some estimates say China’s arsenal could grow to 1,000 warheads by 2030 from about 350 now. Second, Xi Jinping’s China has taken a more muscular approach to its territorial disputes, including with India and Japan. China’s tactics of salami slicing and coercive diplomacy have come into sharp view in the East China Sea that Beijing shares with Japan and the vast Himalayan frontier with India. Third, the Ukraine crisis has revealed that if a nuclear weapon power invades and seizes the territory of a neighbour, the rest of the world is reluctant to directly confront the aggression for fear of an escalation to the nuclear level. Russia made this amply clear with its threat to use nuclear weapons if the US and NATO decide to join the war.
While Tokyo has woken up to the full implications of nuclear-armed Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Delhi’s strategic discourse is yet to dive deep into the emerging challenges of deterring a nuclear China. One factor seems obvious — India is a nuclear weapon power and Japan is not. But that only presents a partial picture. While Japan does not have nuclear weapons, it relies on the US nuclear umbrella for its security.
But Indian and Japanese capacity to deter China is eroding steadily thanks to the problems with India’s minimum deterrence posture and the US nuclear umbrella over Japan. The traditional nuclear narratives in India and Japan are part of the problem. But China is puncturing the nuclear moralpolitik in both Tokyo and Delhi. India and Japan have long presented themselves as champions of nuclear disarmament. Both Indian and Japanese positions are imbued with deep ambivalence. Despite its call for total nuclear disarmament, India never agreed to give up its own nuclear weapons. Japan, as the world’s victim of nuclear bombing, had even a higher moral claim than India as the champion for the global abolition of nuclear weapons. But Japan’s narrative is shaded by one reality—Tokyo’s reliance on the US nuclear umbrella. Today neither Delhi nor Tokyo is ready to sign the 2017 Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons.
The real issue is not the gap between the disarmament rhetoric and the importance of nuclear weapons for the security of India and Japan. It is the problem presented by the expanding Chinese nuclear arsenal and its growing sophistication. Locked in a confrontation with the US, China is determined to raise its nuclear profile.
As China closes the economic and military gap with the US, there is a darkening shadow over the credibility of the US-extended deterrence for Japan. This uncertainty is transforming the Japanese security debate. For India, the question is whether its nuclear restraint and policy of minimum deterrence are enough to prevent China’s bullying. In his report “Striking Asymmetries: Nuclear Transitions in Southern Asia”, Tellis explores the emerging challenges to the Indian posture from China’s nuclear modernisation.
In Japan, former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated earlier this month, called for a fresh look at Japan’s nuclear policy. He was by no means asking Japan to make its own nuclear weapons. He was suggesting that Tokyo must consider “nuclear weapon sharing” with the US. The model is Europe, where several countries including Belgium, Italy, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands have arrangements to participate in the US nuclear weapon deployment and use. Kishida, however, was quick to reject the proposal.
At his speech at the NPT review conference next week, Kishida is expected to affirm the enduring Japanese commitment to nuclear disarmament. Kishida is elected to the lower House of the Japanese parliament from Hiroshima which saw the first use of nuclear weapons on August 6, 1945. For Kishida, nuclear abolition is a deep personal conviction. Next week, he will become the first prime minister to address an NPT review conference. He will also host the next G-7 summit in Hiroshima. While rejecting nuclear solutions to Japan’s problem of deterring China, Kishida’s focus has been on raising the defence expenditure, developing sophisticated conventional weapons, beefing up the alliance with the US and widening the circle of Asian as well as European military partners.
Unlike Japan, India has no constraints on its nuclear weapons programme except the ones it has imposed on itself. The idea of “minimum deterrence” is one of those. In the wake of the nuclear tests of 1998, India quickly announced a policy of minimum deterrence and a doctrine of no-first-use of nuclear weapons. Tellis points to India’s extraordinary restraint and a reluctance to rush into building an ever larger nuclear arsenal since 1998.
The big question is whether this conservatism in India’s nuclear posture can or should be sustained in the face of China’s military modernisation, nuclear expansion and strategic assertiveness. The Tellis report, detailed and technical, should provide a basis for a fresh Indian debate about its nuclear weapons policies.
Tellis also calls on the US to revise its attitudes to India’s nuclear weapons programme. In the past, the US insisted on constraining India’s nuclear weapon programme. Today a strong Indian nuclear deterrent against China is critical for the geopolitical stability of Asia and the Indo-Pacific and in the US interest.
Tellis suggests that the US should be prepared to facilitate India’s development of more sophisticated nuclear warheads as well as improve the survivability of the Indian deterrent against the expanding Chinese nuclear arsenal. He suggests that the US should midwife an agreement under which France would help India accelerate the development of an Indian underwater deterrent based on ballistic missile carrying submarines (SSBN) as well as nuclear attack submarines (SSN).
The “INFRUS” agreement — between India, France and the US — would be even more ambitious than “AUKUS” in which the US and UK have agreed to help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines (SSN). Unlike Australia, India is a nuclear weapon state.
Tellis is calling both Delhi and Washington to reconsider entrenched nuclear assumptions in the two capitals. While the resistance to his ideas will be strong, Delhi and Washington will have to respond, sooner than later, to the dramatic changes in the global environment triggered by the rise and assertion of China. Meanwhile, the US and Japan are moving swiftly to rework their strategies to deter China. While Japan’s priority is to transform its conventional forces, India might need to consider both conventional and nuclear modernisation.
The writer is senior fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute, Delhi and a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express