The Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy book The China-India Nuclear Crossroads brings together Chinese and Indian experts to examine the rivalry between their two countries in light of both historical and recent strategic developments. The book’s editor and translator Carnegie’s Lora Saalman moderated a discussion among senior and rising experts on China and India to evaluate recent developments in both countries’ land- and sea-based nuclear deterrents and the overall Sino-Indian deterrence relationship.

Ballistic Missile Development

  • Three Levels of Development: Gaurav Kampani, a doctoral candidate at Cornell University, suggested that the China-India nuclear dyad bore similarities to the U.S.-China nuclear dyad and traced ballistic missile development (BMD) within India along three levels:

    1. Political: India’s ballistic missile program is politically driven and aims at developing capabilities directed at China and Pakistan, argued Kampani. The need to develop a secure second-strike capability compels India to pursue solid-fuel, rail- and road-mobile ballistic missiles. Its April 2012 test launch of the Agni-V long-range ballistic missile is part of this trend.

    2. Technical: Kampani remarked that the current focus is on developing operable forces, where previously it had been on showcasing technological capabilities. He pointed out that reliability issues, high launch failure, and small batch size suggest that many of these programs have not yet progressed to the production, much less induction, phase.

    3. Operational: Successful missile tests, physical infrastructure, and hardware alone do not create operational capability, argued Kampani. He stressed that India must overcome its deficiencies in organizational and institutional capacities, inter- and intra-agency coordination, and standard operating procedures.

  • Debunking Myths: Wang Ting, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, sought to counteract some commonly held myths about China and India’s ballistic missile-related programs.

    1. India’s ICBM: Wang explained that with the successful test of its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in the mid-1990s, India could already be said to possess an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Thus, the launch of the Agni-V long-range ballistic missile did not mark a new and substantive progression. Whether or not the system is aimed at China, Wang observed that there has been relative silence on the launch in Beijing.

    2. MIRV Capability: Despite India’s trumpeting of the Agni-V’s ability to mount a multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle, Wang noted that this was unlikely given the size and design of the head of the missile.

    3. Conventional Antagonism: Border disputes between China and India elevate the importance of military parity for the latter, explained Wang. He argued that New Delhi recognizes it does not possess the capacity to offset a conventional military imbalance with China. India’s government believes that the Agni-V will grant the country a second-strike capability, enabling it to engage in greater conventional military antagonism, Wang noted.

    4. Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD): Wang pointed out several reasons that Indian BMD is unlikely to protect against Chinese ballistic missiles, including inadequacies in imaging radars. He added that China’s own ballistic missile capabilities, which allow complete coverage of India, would overwhelm such defenses. On China’s ground-based midcourse missile interception test, Wang suggested that China could defend against Indian missiles, but still questioned whether the 2010 test constituted a BMD or anti-satellite test.

Nuclear Submarine Development

Li Bin provided a “modeling” relationship as an alternative explanation for expanding nuclear programs in Asia. Li suggested viewing pursuits in such areas as nuclear submarines as a consequence of applied learning. He perceived that China bases its nuclear model on previous U.S. programs, and in turn, India applies Chinese nuclear developments to its own program.

  1. Nuclear Coercion: China and India do not have a nuclear deterrence relationship because neither country would consider using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against one another, according to Li. He added that China regards nuclear weapons as a paper tiger. Counter coercion serves as the primary basis for China’s arsenal, said Li, suggesting that it places more emphasis on the demonstration of its capability than the launch-ready deployment and mating of its systems.

  2. Symmetry and Asymmetry: China envisions an Indian threat as a third-tier priority after the United States and Russia, Carnegie’s Ashley Tellis emphasized. Alternatively, India perceives Pakistan and China as first order security priorities. Despite this fact, both China and India are similar in recognizing sea-based deterrents as the acme of advanced nuclear technology, while preserving land-based systems as the core of their nuclear deterrent.

  3. Survivability and De-mating: Developing a sea-based nuclear deterrent improves the survivability of nuclear forces in both China and India, Tellis said. While pressures on the land-based deterrent are greater in India than in China, he suggested that neither country will rely as heavily on nuclear submarines in their nuclear postures as does the United States. Tellis noted that for both countries, pursuit of nuclear submarines suggests that both will be hard pressed to retain their posture of de-mating of nuclear warheads from ballistic missiles.

Land-based and Sea-Based Deterrence

  • Invasion Deterrence and Maritime Deterrence: Carnegie’s Lora Saalman cited invasion deterrence (qinluexing weishe) to explain that, within China, ballistic missile developments like the Agni-V are often seen as enabling India to engage in more provocative conventional military actions along the border. She pointed to writings on maritime deterrence (haiyang weishe) to illustrate how some within China view the Arihant nuclear submarine as part and parcel to India’s efforts to control the Indian Ocean and to extend its reach into the Asia-Pacific.

  • Emboldening, Expanding and Changing: Saalman outlined how the development of the Agni-V ballistic missile and Arihant nuclear submarine impact India’s nuclear posture within Chinese discourse. She disagreed with the characterization that China and India lack a deterrence relationship, citing the importance of perceptions. For example, ten different forms of deterrence appear in Chinese writings to describe India’s intent, she said. This profusion of terms suggests that the Sino-Indian deterrence relationship may be ill defined, but it exists and it is changing. She emphasized that greater exchange is integral to clarifying China and India’s deterrence structure and to avoiding escalation from misinterpretation.

Copies of the book were available for purchase at the event.