The Indian Ocean is one of the primary global trade and military passages, serving as a crossroads for powers within and outside of the region. Tensions between some of those powers are growing, as China has concerns over Indo-U.S. cooperation and Indian ambitions to control the Indian Ocean, while Indian scholars cite China’s far-reaching naval pursuits and “String of Pearls” strategy. Meanwhile, statements have begun to emerge from Pakistan that it will seek to counter India’s nuclear modernization in the naval realm. Within these complexities, nuclear capabilities play an increasingly large role. The Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy hosted the book launch of Carnegie Associate Lora Saalman’s edited volume The China-India Nuclear Crossroads. At the launch, experts from China, India, Russia, and the United States discussed the nuclearization of the Indian Ocean. 

China’s Role

  • Averting Arms Racing: Both China and India are in the process of modernizing their nuclear arsenals, stated one Chinese expert. He stressed that while China and India aim to replicate certain aspects of nuclear capabilities of other countries, they are seeking to meet their national security requirements, demonstrate competency, and enhance survivability, not to engage in war. An arms race is not inevitable, he argued, advocating mutual restraint. Yet, one Chinese expert noted that while China can use computer simulations to avoid nuclear testing, India may not be able to do the same if it pursues submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). 
  • Cooperating Without Competing: While some believe that Sino-Indian competition is inevitable, one Chinese participant noted that China has no plans to establish a military base in the Indian Ocean. A greater concern for China, in his view, is that India and Pakistan may be ill prepared to deal with nuclear safety or nuclear security threats, whether in the form of a nuclear accident or terrorist attack. Another Chinese expert advocated greater Sino-Indian cooperation to avert such incidents. An Indian expert added that given China’s and India’s relatively new pursuit of sea-based nuclear deterrence, a protocol for operating in maritime spaces and secure reliable channels of communication should be sought.
  • Being a Responsible Nuclear Power: A Chinese expert suggested setting benchmarks for what it means to be a responsible nuclear power. However, an Indian participant doubted China’s own level of responsibility, citing previous Sino-Pakistani nuclear cooperation and proliferation. One Chinese expert countered that he saw no reason for Beijing to provide nuclear weapons aid to Islamabad, as China already has a second-strike capability against India. He added that if China wished to contain India, conventional military aid would be preferable. Another Chinese expert claimed that India faces the burden of proof when it comes to nuclear responsibility, since it has been the driving force of Indo-Pakistan arms racing. He advocated New Delhi joining the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), to which an Indian expert replied that India is not the obstacle, as China has yet to ratify the treaty.

India’s Role

  • Applying Credible Minimal Deterrence: One Indian expert emphasized that maritime capabilities, such as ballistic missile nuclear submarines, allow a country to guarantee the no-first-use policy and second strike capabilities that underpin credible minimum deterrence. Another Indian expert stated that second-strike capabilities are stabilizing, for they enable a country to avoid the need to take an aggressive global stance. India will continue to build its sea-based deterrence, but in a “modest way,” he said. While India seeks a qualitatively advanced nuclear deterrent, this does not necessarily equate with large nuclear weapon numbers, he stressed.
  • Mitigating Nuclear Vulnerabilities: An Indian expert and a U.S. expert explained that while SLBMs and second-strike capabilities are inherently stabilizing, there remain vulnerabilities that demand stronger rules for maritime operations, including:
    • Lack of secure and reliable channels of communication and transmission; 
    • Advances in anti-submarine warfare;
    • Challenges of nuclear command and control with a dispersed nuclear arsenal;
    • Risk of accidents and difficulties in tracking, with the potential for escalation.

  • Seeking Mutuality, Not Equality: India seeks mutuality, not equality with China, in order to safeguard the Indian Ocean, one Indian expert emphasized. He advocated greater Sino-Indian coordination on oceanography, exploration of sea resources, and naval exercises. Yet he added that India harbors doubts over Chinese maritime intentions. One participant responded that if China actually had aggressive intent toward India, it would not deploy nuclear-capable submarines, but rather would set up nuclear-capable missiles in Tibet. 
  • Establishing Sea-Denial Capabilities: Another Chinese expert pointed to media reports on India’s “highly ambitious” pursuit of advanced technology weapons, including multiple nuclear attack submarines. He expressed concern that such efforts could provide India with the ability to deny China access to the Indian Ocean, as well as create leverage against Beijing in crises. He argued that such Indian ambitions might cause China to rethink its own sea-based capabilities, particularly as India would also be able to deploy its military far beyond the region and into the South China Sea, potentially triggering a Sino-Indian arms race.

U.S. and Pakistani Roles

  • Complicating U.S. Monitoring: A U.S. participant pointed to the monitoring challenges posed by the addition of sea-based nuclear forces. He cited U.S. physical presence as a requirement for underwater surveillance, increasing the potential for collisions and crises. One Chinese expert inquired as to the depth of Indo-U.S. naval cooperation and its implications for the U.S. regional presence. An Indian expert responded that Indo-U.S. relations have been recently estranged, particularly when it comes to military cooperation. Instead, he cited India’s desire to expand naval ties with China, while recognizing that Beijing might not be prepared to engage New Delhi in such activities as naval reviews, due in part to its relationship with Islamabad.
  • Defining Pakistan’s Operational Aims: A U.S. expert argued that given the fact that China and India have different operating zones, China is unlikely to ever be truly “operational” in the Indian Ocean, unlike Pakistan. With Pakistan’s creation of a naval strategic forces command in May 2012, its declaration of second-strike aims, and its stated plans to construct its first nuclear submarine by 2020, questions have emerged as to its intent, argued one Russian expert. Yet, he cited budgetary, organizational, and technological constraints, suggesting that such aims would likely require the help of external actors. One Indian expert noted that in the past China has provided nuclear assistance to Pakistan, expressing concern that Beijing might offer such aid again. A Russian expert argued that despite the oft-assumed destabilizing role of China’s support for Pakistan, without such aid, Islamabad would have difficulty surviving. Yet, he conceded that there are fields in which Sino-Pakistani transparency could enhance regional stability.