Source: Getty

China’s Perceptions of India as a Nuclear Weapons Power

Given the substantial tensions concerning the unresolved Sino-Indian border issue, China’s perception of India as a nuclear weapons power is important not only for the future evolution of the international nuclear regime but also for the ongoing Sino-Indian security situation.

Published on June 30, 2016

This piece is part of a compilation bringing together Regional Voices on the Challenges of Nuclear Deterrence Stability in Southern Asia.

China does not believe that the common story of India’s nuclear program—that India developed nuclear weapons in response to China’s own nuclear program—is complete without also including India’s own aspiration to become a great power as a major motivation. China also believes that India’s domestic politics has always played an important role in determining India’s policy options, in the context of its interaction with other international actors, such as Pakistan and the United States. Therefore, if considering India’s capabilities and intentions statically, China does not see India as a security threat due to the capability (especially technology) gap and the no-war bottom-line intention threshold. However, if examining India’s capabilities and intentions dynamically, a multidimensional scenario of security challenges would be possible in the midterm with the evolution of India’s strategic interaction in the Asia-Pacific region, the enhancement of India’s conventional weapons capability, and the ascendance of the Tibet and border factors. To ameliorate this threat, the traditional nuclear logic based on counterforce targeting and flexibility should be transformed into a crisis-management-oriented, counter-deficit-targeted way of thinking. In this process, international efforts should be made to address the disconnection between India’s great power recognition and its nuclear weapons modernization; to encourage policy consolidation between the United States and China on strategic stability in South Asia; and, to increase trust, to foster cooperation on economic and development between India and China.


India is not internationally recognized as a nuclear-weapons state under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), even though it has acquired nuclear weapons. In 1974, India detonated its first plutonium device, which it called a “peaceful nuclear explosive”; in 1998, it tested its first nuclear weapons. Since 1998, both its nuclear program and missile arsenal have undergone impressive developments. Because India has not signed the NPT, however, its capability to produce nuclear weapons does not accord it international recognition as a nuclear-weapons state.

India’s status as an unofficial nuclear-weapons state is beginning to raise questions due to India’s increasing power and the changing geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. From a geopolitical point of view, if India is rising to become a great power, its existence outside the NPT regime will continue to marginalize it vis-à-vis the international nuclear regime. This situation will increase the power asymmetry between India and China, which might be detrimental to U.S. efforts toward rebalancing in Asia.

Given the substantial tensions concerning the unresolved Sino-Indian border issue, as well as the presence of the “Pakistan factor” in Sino-Indian security relations, China’s perception of India as a nuclear weapons power is important not only for the future evolution of the international nuclear regime but also for the ongoing Sino-Indian security situation. This study shows how China’s perceptions of India as a nuclear power have shaped China’s contingency plans for a nuclear-armed India, and what possible implications China’s perceptions might have for future international nuclear and security interactions.

This study starts from two assumptions. First, China has assumed for a long time that it does not need to respond to India as if it were a nuclear power. Second, even though India’s nuclear weapons are pointed at China, China does not regard India as a security threat in the present day. India could pose security challenges in the future, if its nuclear capability were to be combined with other factors, such as more aggressive intentions. Under these assumptions, the study tries to explain why China believes it does not need to respond to India’s nuclear arsenal. It also tries to outline situations in which China would decide a response was necessary, and describes what form that response might take.

Cataloging the Chinese Literature

Though India’s nuclear program is discussed widely inside China, the corresponding body of publicly available literature—mainly Chinese Social Science Citation Index journals and papers, Chinese academic books, and official Chinese newspaper reports—is sparse, partly because most of the Chinese audience is not interested in self-reflective work on China’s perceptions of other countries, and partly because the community of experts and scholars who focus on nuclear issues and on South Asia is a relatively small part of the overall international relations community in China.


In this study, the notion of “China’s view” does not refer to the official position of a particular organization like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, or the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association. Instead, it refers to the general positions of Chinese academic and strategic circles, as reflected in published Chinese literature.

The literature that does exist shows that there are a handful of standard arguments that Chinese scholars make about India as a nuclear power. Chinese writers broadly agree that India’s explanation for going nuclear—that the program was a response to China’s nuclear weapons development—is oversimplified. India’s reasons for going nuclear also have to do with its domestic politics and its great power aspirations. Table 1 summarizes this literature, which mainly explores nuclear India by focusing on either India’s capability as a nuclear state or its intentions as a strategic actor.

Table 1. Questions and Answers from the Chinese Literature
Is India a nuclear weapons power? It is not legally or internationally recognized as such.
Why did India develop nuclear weapons? Because of its sense of insecurity, and its aspirations for great power status.
Why is China mentioned as a reason for India’s 1998 nuclear bomb tests? Both to eliminate domestic opposition to the tests and to help legitimate the tests to the international community.
How does India’s nuclear program affect China’s judgment of the security threat posed by India? The program has had little impact on China’s view of nuclear deterrence, strategic stability, or security threats. It does not change China’s United States–focused nuclear thinking.
What impact did India’s nuclear test have on China’s security environment? First, it incited Pakistan to conduct nuclear tests. Second, it resulted in a more complicated security situation in South Asia.
Sources: This table is based on the available Chinese literature, including 51 academic journals and papers in the Chinese language written between 1987 and 2015, along with numerous articles in the People’s Daily between 1964 and 2016.

However, these same writers disagree on what has caused India’s sense of insecurity. One narrative suggests that if China is put into India’s shoes, it will be easier for China to understand India’s sense of insecurity. For a long time, India has worried about preparing for a two-front war with Pakistan and China. India’s security concern about Pakistan comes mainly from the difficulty that India faces in trying to gain the overwhelming conventional edge over Pakistan, especially given the close security cooperation between Pakistan and China. Given these concerns, India likely sees nuclear weapons as the lowest-cost way to solve its conventional balance problems and to enhance its strategic posture.

A second Chinese narrative suggests that India’s sense of insecurity is mainly a self-fulfilling prophecy. China has declared that its nuclear forces are oriented entirely toward the United States, and that “the mission of China’s strategic nuclear force is to ensure the United States is adequately concerned by its retaliatory strike capabilities.”1 How, these writers ask, could India still conclude that China is a security threat?

A third narrative suggests that it is not worthwhile to assess whether India’s insecurity is based in reality or not. Instead, it is more important to understand why such insecurity survives as a force in India’s domestic politics. Some of the Chinese literature argues that India’s sense of insecurity is a vehicle to override the existing opposition to the nuclear program within India’s domestic politics. According to Song De Xin, “For India, the development of nuclear weapons is inevitably in conflict with its non-nuclear policy in the diplomatic field. Thus, to clear this obstacle, security threats from China and Pakistan, especially the threat from nuclear weapons, have become the best excuse for India to legitimate its nuclear weapon development momentum and was somewhat bought by international community.”2

In general, China interprets India’s sense of insecurity as based partially in truth and partially in imagination. India’s concern about its own capability limitations are based in fact; but India’s concern about China’s malign intentions is baseless. Some argue that whether or not India’s sense of insecurity reflects reality, India still needs it to mobilize domestic support for developing its nuclear program.

Assessing China’s Perception

Despite disagreements about India’s intentions, Chinese calculations about India’s nuclear capability are broadly agreed upon. Chinese scholars did not realize until years after the beginning of their country’s nuclear program that China enjoys a clear technological advantage against India in the nuclear sphere, likely because India’s nuclear development started much later than China’s. Chinese scholars only came to this realization after reading the Western literature on India’s nuclear weapons. The long period of time between China’s and India’s nuclear debuts casts doubt on both the Western and Indian explanations for India’s nuclear development: that India’s bomb was developed in response to China’s acquiring nuclear weapons. If this was really the case, why did India wait so long? The Indian “peaceful nuclear explosion” occurred a full decade after China’s first nuclear weapons test, and India’s first nuclear weapons tests came more than 30 years after China’s.

Was this delay because of the powerful, antinuclear Nehruvian tradition in Indian domestic politics? Or was it because India faced difficulty in acquiring weapons-grade plutonium and was incapable of figuring out the weapons design? Nehruvian pacifism cannot be the explanation, because after Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi succeeded Lal Bahadur Shastri as prime minister, she approved the peaceful nuclear explosion in 1972. Some examples from the American literature also call this Nehruvian explanation into question. As George Perkovich explains, persuasion by a group of technocrats over the decade from 1964 to 1974 was vital to convince India’s political leadership to conduct a ‘peaceful’ nuclear explosion. 3

The second possible explanation was that India’s slow nuclear development was due to capability constraints, not strategy. According to a Chinese study published in 2007, “The reason why India did not follow up the 1974 test with additional tests is mainly that India needed more time to develop its nuclear explosive device, as well as more time to digest the 1974 test data.”4 However, according to Indian scholars, New Delhi’s scientists faced serious difficulties in running the Phoenix plutonium reprocessing facility during the 1960s, and had no fissile material to conduct a test. This is one possible explanation for Homi Bhabha’s requests that the United States help India build a Plowshare peaceful nuclear explosive device.5 Indian publications suggest a much larger role for strategy than Chinese authors commonly assume.

China’s assumption that India suffers serious capability limitations likely contributes to the fact that China has not responded to India’s nuclear arsenal. Even after India’s nuclear tests in 1998, China did not respond publicly, as it did after India’s 1974 explosion. A survey of the People’s Daily’s coverage of nuclear matters shows that China’s public discourse on nuclear issues was mainly about China’s no-first-use doctrine in the 1960s, its attempts to create a nuclear-free zone in South Asia in the 1970s, its peaceful use of nuclear energy in the mid-1980s, and then U.S. and Russian nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation initiatives in the late 1980s to 1990s. For almost 30 years, China seldom mentioned India’s nuclear program in a public forum.

Likewise, China has not felt pressure to respond to India’s nuclear weapons at the diplomatic level, given the fact that India has not signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, become a member of the NPT, joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group, or taken any other steps to be internationally recognized as a legal nuclear state. China holds that an official response is not appropriate in terms of reciprocity. For China, “It i s important to carefully choose the topics and format of Sino-Indian interaction to make sure that both sides feel that their exchanges is equal and does not harm their nonproliferation commitments.”6

Chinese assumptions about India’s limited capability and China’s judgment of India’s intentions drives China’s understanding that India is not a security threat. Regarding capability in particular, even if the number of missiles that India is pointing toward China is large, China still could handle the threat because it enjoys “the technology edge and . . . the right deployment methods of nuclear weapons,”7 not to mention that India and China have also formulated strategic stability on No First Use doctrine. 8

With regard to intentions, China does not think that India seriously intends to go to war—either nuclear or conventional—with China. This assessment is based on India’s strategic culture: “For a long time, India’s foreign policy was essentially defensive.”9 China assumes that India would be more cautious, and would not undertake any provocative action that might lead to war with China.

In short, China judges India’s capability by looking at the pace of development and the relative gap that exists between India and China on nuclear technology. China’s perception of India’s intentions is mainly anchored by the assumption that India and China would never get involved in a full-scale war, whether conventional or nuclear.

The U.S.-India Nuclear Agreement and Changes in Chinese Perceptions

In its first statement about India’s nuclear program, China responded to the 2008 U.S.-India nuclear deal by expressing its concerns about the violation of the international nonproliferation regime. India and the United States maintain, however, that the deal is exclusively about civilian usage and would not help improve India’s nuclear weapons capability. The deal did not contribute to changes in India’s intentions, nor did it change the number of states in Asia with nuclear weapons. The only thing that changed was the legitimacy of India’s nuclear program. Given these stakes, why did China respond so negatively?

In this case, a framework of static intentions and capability does little to explain China’s perceptions. Some Chinese research tries to explain the Chinese reaction to the U.S.-India nuclear deal by arguing that besides intention and capability calculation, China prefers to focus more on the risky dynamics and dangerous situations in which China is more vulnerable than before. 10 In short, the U.S.-India nuclear deal changed a lot more than it appeared to change. India is still not a security threat to China, but it has already posed other challenges to China through the nuclear deal.

First, the nuclear deal signaled a flagging U.S. obligation to the international nonproliferation regime when that regime conflicted with geopolitical concerns. As Ashley Tellis wrote at the time of the deal: “The administration’s own antipathy to nuclear arms control agreements such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, . . . coupled with its strong expectation of an eventual renewal of great-power competition, allowed both realist and neoconservative factions within the administration to take a more relaxed view of New Delhi’s emerging nuclear capabilities.”11 The Chinese literature has also highlighted this factor, noting that “the 2008 nuclear deal had relevance to the China factor in U.S.-India strategic relations in their joint efforts to realize the so-called balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.”12

A second challenge posed by the U.S.-India nuclear deal relates to the United States’ arbitrary violation of the current international consensus on nonproliferation. If the United States, as the leader of this international nuclear regime, holds to double standards about it, how could the regime keep its credibility?13 And if the regime’s credibility is decaying, it is not beneficial to China’s international image either, given that China put significant resources into transforming itself from a regime outsider to a contributor within it.

Regarding the 2008 agreement, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Liu Jian Chao, said, “Though each country is entitled the right to have access to peaceful uses of nuclear energy, the U.S.-India Nuclear Agreement should be consistent with the provisions of [the] international nonproliferation mechanism. At the same time, relevant nuclear cooperation should help to strengthen the international nonproliferation efforts.”14 This expressed China’s concern about the violation of nonproliferation obligations.

China’s response to the U.S.-India nuclear deal originates from its concerns about the changing dynamics of commitment to the international nuclear regime and the rising specter of geopolitical competition. Such competition might trigger an arms race, in which the decreased credibility of the international nuclear regime would diminish both the state’s motivations to comply with its nonproliferation obligations and its impetus for future disarmament.

According to the Chinese researcher Zhang Li, “China is not concerned about India’s civil and peaceful use of nuclear energy, but rather about the gray area between civil and military nuclear use—especially fissile material production—that is not regulated by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group technical control procedures.”15 This concern has also been echoed in the recent American literature, in the context that the Nuclear Suppliers Group may consider an application for India’s membership, and perhaps also Pakistan’s, by mentioning that “if transfers, particularly of dual-use goods, are made to non-safeguarded facilities or activities, how can Participating Governments have confidence that transfers will be consistent with the [Nuclear Suppliers Group] nonproliferation principle contained in INFCIRC/254/part 1/para10?”16

According to China’s calculations, the underlying inconsistent practices in dealing with international nuclear regime, plus geopolitical competition, will likely lead to an arms race that challenges current strategic stability, both on the subcontinent and in the broader Asia-Pacific region. Many in China believe that India’s programs to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile and a strategic nuclear triad have moved beyond the requirements of minimum deterrence. From a technical perspective, researchers in China argue that “before India has the capability to assure its prevailing nuclear weapon edge to deter potential enemies, it is unlikely that India would seriously negotiate with the U.S. or other countries on [the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty], the Australia Group, and [the Missile Technology Control Regime].”17

India will probably want to keep its flexibility to use nuclear weapons in a conventional war with another nuclear-weapons state like Pakistan. China sees this as basically a retraction of India’s no-first-use policy. It seems that since 2010, India’s no-first-use policy has evolved into a policy of “no first use against non-nuclear weapon states.”18 This commitment does not cover the possibility of a limited war against Pakistan in response to a terrorist attack, where India may consider using nuclear weapons to attack Pakistan’s nuclear facilities.

China sees two main security challenges created by the evolution of India’s nuclear program. First, India’s enhanced civil nuclear capabilities may facilitate India’s nuclear weapons modernization, due to difficulties in verifying dual-use goods. Second, the slackening of India’s commitment to no first use might damage the basis for deterrence and violate the nuclear taboo by signaling to other non-NPT nuclear-weapons state that nuclear weapons might be an option during a war.

China’s Evolving Perceptions of India

In the current Chinese literature, there is very little discussion of the role that Pakistan has played in shaping China’s perceptions of India’s nuclear weapons program. This is an important input for the discussion of what shapes India’s sense of insecurity, and is also important for how China might consider India’s intentions. The role of Pakistan is also consequential for the debate on whether India’s nuclear weapons program is driven by concerns about security, domestic politics, or international status.

The security threat that India might perceive from Pakistan should be considered in the Cold War context where it arose, which might have exaggerated India’s feeling of insecurity. After China’s nuclear weapons test in 1964, war with Pakistan in 1965 further alarmed India. According to Joyce Battle, India “was angered by China’s outspoken support for Pakistan during the conflict, and disappointed by what it viewed as insufficient Western attention to its security needs.” She writes that “during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan . . . the U.S. provided massive levels of economic and military aid to its ally, Pakistan.” That “commitment has been questioned, because it has seemed to subordinate nonproliferation policy to other concerns.”19 During the Carter administration, the United States reversed the sanctions it had applied to Pakistan.

It is possible that Pakistan and China were just pretexts for India’s nuclear development, and that the program was actually pushed by the actions of the United States. As Stephen Cohen notes, “American policy…served as an accelerant as far as the nuclear decision was concerned. Washington seemed to be trying to foreclose some important Indian options, opening the way for the proliferation hawks to tests and weaponization. The options before recent governments have included a test with no weaponization, and the declaration of weaponization without testing, but the [Bharatiya Janata Party] did both.”20

In this sense, the intention for India’s nuclear program was not just to reduce its external security pressure but also to force the United States to recognize India as a major power. So the real target audience of India’s proliferation should include the United States in addition to China. This logic was basically about mimicry: Great powers all have nuclear weapons; India wanted to be a great power; and therefore India had to have a serious nuclear program, even if it made New Delhi less secure in many ways.

India’s changing nuclear trajectory at the beginning of the twenty-first century will have important effects over the medium term for India-China nuclear relations. This evolving trajectory has a number of mutually reinforcing elements, including an increasing international recognition of India’s aspiration to be a great power, India’s changing interactions with other major powers, and changes in the outlook of India’s leadership. Among these, the most important is the strategic interaction between India and the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region. In the future, the nature of this interaction will be an important signal by which China judges India’s intentions. From India’s perspective, what will be the criteria for being recognized as a great power? How does China factor into India’s criteria for being a great power? And how should the region accommodate India as a great power—geographically, economically, and institutionally?

In the 2015 U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, India and the United States stated their intention to “invest in making trilateral consultations with third countries in the region more robust.”21 One example of this investment is the ongoing India-U.S.-Japan trilateral maritime dialogue, to which Australia was recently added. Another feature of U.S.-India interaction, the Defense Technology Transfer Initiative, is also designed to shift from “securing rapid, supervised closure of outstanding defense deals to [transcend] the conventional buyer-seller relationship that had hitherto marked all bilateral military sales.” The transfer initiative offered “India the chance to participate in collaborative research and development on various new defense systems,”22 partly circumventing the complicated acquisition bureaucracy that plagues India’s defense sector.

All these initiatives support India’s great power aspiration, and also make India more technically capable. This capability growth is amplified by what Ashley Tellis describes as a new intention for India’s leaders: “Modi’s ambition to make India a great power will mark the beginning of a third epoch in Indian foreign policy, when its weight and preferences will determine outcomes in the global system.”23

At the same time that China is undergoing military modernization, India is growing its conventional military capability in response.24 How should China perceive India’s growth in military capability, and the changing intentions that spurred it? Now, India is building a nuclear triad that consists of strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. According to India’s own evaluation, it already possesses a fully operational triad.25

In early 2016, India’s indigenous nuclear submarine, the 6,000-ton INS Arihant, was completing its final trials in the Bay of Bengal. Though the Arihant signals an important step in India’s military growth, the submarine’s design lacks the technical sophistication to move underwater undetected by its adversaries.26 This actually might increase risk and uncertainty in deterrence between India and China. As a result, some in China advocate conducting bilateral nuclear talks between India and China, arguing that “now it’s the right time to conduct China-India nuclear talks and communication, considering the rapid development of India’s nuclear power as well as the long-absence of official or track 2 channels for nuclear communication, and the following possible nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan. All these will have direct security impacts on China’s security environment, and China needs to seriously reconsider how to keep the stability of bilateral nuclear relations with India on the basis of redefining national interests.”27

Finally, the changing dynamics of strategic stability in the Asia-Pacific region suggest new trends in India’s and China’s interactions related to border disputes and to Tibet. How do India’s unconventional acts in Tibet and on border issues, such as setting aside a contingency force for military action in Tibet, influence China’s broader judgment of India’s intentions? What impact would a crisis in this domain have on broader strategic stability between India and China? To what extent is the border dispute related to the maritime capability competition between China and India? Some Indian literature argues that the two issues are integrally related, saying, for instance, that “Delhi must also more vigorously debate the potential options that the navy can generate in deterring the land-based threats from China and Pakistan and in countering the growing collaboration between Beijing and Islamabad in the waters of the subcontinent.”28

The salience of the Tibet and border dispute issues has increased under the Bharatiya Janata Party government. In May 2014, Narendra Modi invited Lobsang Sangay, leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile, to his inauguration. In 2015, Modi traveled to Arunachal Pradesh and announced increased investment for infrastructure building in territory claimed by both India and China. And before Indian president Pranab Mukherjee visited China in 2016, the Indian media reported that China had deployed more troops near the Indian border.29

The United States has tried to maintain an unbiased approach to the India-China territorial disputes, writing in the Department of Defense’s Annual Report to Congress that “China and India continue to accuse each other of frequent incursions and military build-ups along the disputed territories.”30 China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to this particular characterization by saying that “China and India agreed to speed up the negotiation on the framework of border resolution, and make joint efforts for an early solution to this problem left over from history.”31 This indicates how India’s domestic policy has influenced China-India interactions on the issues of border disputes and Tibet.


China does not believe that the common story—that India developed its nuclear weapons in response to China’s nuclear program—is complete without also including India’s own aspiration to become a great power as a major motivation for the Indian nuclear weapons program. India’s domestic politics has always played an important role in determining its interactions in foreign affairs, especially with Pakistan and the United States.

China still does not regard India as a legal nuclear-weapons state. At the same time, China does not regard India as a security threat. China has identified a major gap in military technology between India and itself; and because of this gap, China does not believe that India has the capability to threaten it. Further, China’s assessment of India’s thresholds for fighting a war suggests that India also has no intention to threaten China. For reasons of both reciprocity and its own security, China does not think it needs to respond to India’s nuclear program either militarily or diplomatically.

However, in examining India’s conceivable future capabilities and intentions, many uncertainties emerge, and the possibility arises that India might pose major security challenges to China. India’s future intentions are hard to identify accurately, but recent evidence suggests that its old starting point of Nehruvian pacifism is defunct. Even India’s capability needs to be reexamined in light of its new strategic interactions with the United States and U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region.

China’s perception of the threat posed by India in the medium term depends on three factors, which all have uncertain trajectories: foreign support for India’s great power aspiration, the enhancement of India’s conventional military capability, and the character of China’s interactions with India with regard to border disputes and Tibet. According to Daniel Markey, “Multiple China-India disputes sparked at nearly the same time is a realistic, if unlikely, scenario during the next twelve to eighteen months. . . . Specific warning indicators of worsening land-border tensions would include . . . unilateral revision of the ‘rules of the road’ for tactical military operations . . . and new military construction projects or deployments along the border, whether of troops or hardware.”32

Of course, low-intensity armed confrontations are totally different from full-scale war. But an escalation of tensions between India and China triggered by border disputes is plausible, especially in conjunction with escalation between India and Pakistan. A recent paper by Toby Dalton and George Perkovich suggests that “China is unlikely to intervene with its own nuclear forces, especially if India had not initiated the use of nuclear weapons in the conflict…. Beijing’s stakes in a potential Indo-Pakistani nuclear conflict will grow significantly.”33 This also explains why China is seriously concerned about the possibility of India reneging on its no-first-use pledge. As long as nuclear weapons are an option, the prospect of a conflict remaining “limited” can never be guaranteed.

Based on the above dynamics, the nuclear future of the Asia-Pacific region will be much more complicated than past and present capabilities and intentions suggest. In the multidimensional threat scenario that is likely to arise in the future, the traditionally dominant nuclear logic of flexible response and counterforce targeting might become less useful. Instead, a crisis-management-oriented, counter-deficit-targeted logic might be more constructive for developing a framework of nuclear cooperation and de-escalation.

A joint international effort is needed to disconnect India’s great power aspirations from its nuclear weapons development. India needs much more than military capability to become a great power. It also needs to cultivate economic strength and flexibility and to focus on sustainable development in order to create the capacity necessary to become a great power and act as a great power.

China and India have recently formed a closer development partnership, which can be used to enhance both countries’ economic development, and also to ease India’s sense of insecurity. Though economics and nuclear weapons are two separate issues, cooperation on economics will make it more difficult to mobilize the public perception that China threatens India if ordinary Indians see their lives getting better as their country does business with China. Economic cooperation makes the “China threat” harder to sell on the Indian market, because it signals China’s benign intentions, and would help to increase trust over time.

Finally, the United States and China should coordinate their policies in order to maintain strategic stability in South Asia. For one, China and the United States should coordinate as to whether India or Pakistan is the core of their respective South Asia policies. Subsequently, they should reach agreements on how to respond in the case of another India-Pakistan conflict. This kind of cooperation will help contain regional crises in South Asia and prevent interested powers like the United States and China from making crises worse through uncoordinated action.

Xiaoping Yang is a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an associate at the National Institute of International Strategy of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.


1 Yang Yi, “Bridging Historical Nuclear Gaps,” in The China-India Nuclear Crossroads, ed. Lora Saalman (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012), 22.

2 Song De Xin, “Cong Yindu Qiquan < Quanmian He Jinshi Xieyi > Kan Qi He Zhanlue” [A closer examination of India’s nuclear strategy from its refusal to join CTBT], Journal of South Asia Studies, no. 1 (1997): 14–15.

3 George Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999).

4 Xia Liping, “Lun Yindu De He Zhengce Yu He Zhanlue” [India’s nuclear policy and strategy], South Asia Studies, no. 2 (2007): 15.

5 Rajesh Rajagopalan and Atul Mishra, Nuclear South Asia: Keywords and Concepts (New Delhi: Routledge, 2014), 12.

6 Li Bin, “Revisiting No First Use and Minimum Deterrence,” in The China-India Nuclear Crossroads, ed. Lora Saalman (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012), 47.

7 Li Bin, “Xiangbi Shuliang Zhiliang Caishi Wangdao” [Compared to numbers, quality is the king], Paper, April 2, 2016,

8 Yao Yunzhu, “Linking Strategic Stability and Ballistic Missile Defense,” in The China-India Nuclear Crossroads, ed. Lora Saalman (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012), 71.

9 Ashley J. Tellis, “India as a Leading Power,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 4, 2016,

10 Li Bin, “Chinese Thinking on Nuclear Weapons,” Arms Control Today, December 2015, 11.

11Ashley J. Tellis, “India as a New Global Power: An Action Agenda for the United States,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005, 13.

12 See Zhang Li, “Yindu Meiguo Weirao Minyong He Hezuo De Liyi Guanlian” [The overlapping and related interests in U.S.-India civil nuclear cooperation], South Asia Studies Quarterly, no. 2 (2006): 24–28.

13 Zhu Li Quan, International Security and Arms Control (Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Press, 2011), 266.

14 Xinhua, “China Hopes U.S.-India Nuclear Cooperation Abides by Non-Proliferation Rules,” People’s Daily Online, July 29, 2006,

15 See Zhang Li, “Yindu Meiguo Wei Rao Minyong He Hezuo De Liyi Guanlian” [The relevance interest analysis on U.S.-India civilian nuclear cooperation], South Asia Studies Quarterly, no. 2 (2006): 23–29; Rong Ying, “Cong Yindu Jiaru He Gongying Jituan Wenti Kan Meiyin Guanxi” [The waiver of NSG on India and its influence to U.S.-India relations], Peace and Development, no. 4 (2011): 35–9.

16 Mark Hibbs, “Admitting Non-NPT Members: Questions for the NSG,” Arms Control Wonk (blog), May 15,2016,

17 Li, “Relevance Interest Analysis,” 69.

18 Shivshankar Menon, “The Role of Force in Strategic Affairs” (speech at the National Defense College, New Delhi, October 21, 2010),

19 Joyce Battle, India and Pakistan: On the Nuclear Threshold, National Security Briefing Book No. 6 (Washington, DC: National Security Archive at George Washington University),

20 Stephen P. Cohen, “Nuclear Weapons and Conflict in South Asia,” Brookings Institution, November 23, 1998,

21Office of the Press Secretary, “U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, press release, The White House, January 25, 2015,

22 Ashley J. Tellis, “Beyond Buyer-Seller, the Thing Is, Can DTTI Deliver?,” Force, August 2015, 6–10.

23 Tellis, “India as a Leading Power,” 1.

24 Jordan Wilson, “China’s Expanding Ability to Conduct Conventional Missile Strikes on Guam,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, May 10, 2016.

25 See Ajey Lele Parveen Bhardwaj, “India’s Nuclear Triad: A Net Assessment,” IDSA Occasional Paper No. 31, Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, April 2013.

26 Brendan Thomas-Noone and Rory Medcalf, “Nuclear-Armed Submarines in Indo-Pacific Asia: Stabiliser or Menace?,” Lowy Institute, September 4, 2015,; Nc Bipindra, “India Nears Completion of Nuclear Triad with Armed Submarine,” Bloomberg, February 25, 2016,

27 Tong Zhao, “Zhongyin He Dui Hua Zhengdan Qishi” [It’s the right time to conduct Sino-India nuclear talks], China Social Science Net, March 29, 2016.

28 C. Raja Mohan, “Maritime India Versus Continental Delhi,” Indian Express, February 9, 2016,

29 See “China Has Posted More Troops Near Indian Border: Pentagon,” Hindu, May 14, 2016,

30 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, 2016),

31 Hua Chunying, “Regular Press Conference,” press conference, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, May 23, 2016,

32 Daniel S. Markey, Armed Confrontation between China and India (Washington, DC: Council on Foreign Relations, 2015).

33 Toby Dalton and George Perkovich, “India’s Nuclear Options and Escalation Dominance,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 19, 2016,