Our nuclear future would take a significant turn for the worse if Beijing and New Delhi begin to mimic Cold War thinking about the utility of nuclear weapons. So far, they haven’t. New Delhi waited 24 years in between nuclear tests, and Beijing took about as long to begin sea trials of second-generation ballistic missile-carrying submarines. Both have issued “No First Use” declarations, focused on economic metrics of national influence, and generally dealt with nuclear deterrence in ways that are hard for Washington and Moscow to comprehend. Their parallel nuclear postures are all the more remarkable because they have fought a limited war over a longstanding border dispute. Can the uncommon strategic constraint of these two rising powers continue? Important tests lie ahead, like those facing Washington and Moscow in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
One test will be whether China, and then India decide to place multiple warheads atop their new long-range ballistic missiles. Given the small number of nuclear powered SSBNs China plans to build, the small number of ballistic missiles they can carry, and concerns about the effectiveness of U.S. anti-submarine warfare capabilities, it would not be surprising if Beijing moved toward multiple maneuverable or independently-targetable warheads at sea. And if at sea, then perhaps on land. With more warheads, plus improved guidance capabilities, counterforce options could become more interesting. A second test is whether China and India will go beyond technology demonstrations toward limited ballistic missile defense deployments.
China and India appear to be in no hurry to resolve their border dispute, with the occasional Chinese patrol setting up camp on the Indian side of their disputed border. Overlapping interests could produce friction elsewhere, particularly at sea. Competitive sparks would not be new. At every crucial juncture in the past – after their border war in 1962, after China tested atomic and hydrogen bombs in 1964 and 1967, after New Delhi acquired nuclear weapon capabilities in the late 1980s, and in 1998, when it tested these devices – India and China adopted a level of forbearance that would have been inconceivable to U.S. and Soviet strategic planners. The Asian way has been different: so far, Beijing and New Delhi have managed to steer clear of the Bomb’s siren song, sung in the key of prompt counterforce capabilities.
Nuclear restraint between Asia’s rising powers will be tested in the coming decade. How much of the “Asian way” can be sustained with advancing warhead designs and ballistic missile defense technologies? How much will Beijing and New Delhi gear up the pace of their nuclear competition, with spill-over effects on Pakistan? An accelerated competition between China and India would also reinforce the reluctance of Moscow and Washington to further reduce their nuclear forces.
Much is riding on the resilience of Beijing’s and New Delhi’s uncommon strategic restraint.