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In May 1998, India and Pakistan conducted the twentieth century’s last nuclear tests.

The events of May 1998 were seminal insofar as they created a triangular matrix of nuclear weapon states in South Asia – India, China and Pakistan – which shared not only disputed territorial borders but also deep historical animosities vis-à-vis one another. However, the India-China nuclear equation is much more stable than the India-Pakistan nuclear dyad. India and China have never issued a veiled or overt nuclear threat to each other. Nuclear blackmail does not figure in their military strategies vis-à-vis one another.

On the other hand, all military crises between India and Pakistan have suffered from a nuclear overhang. If Pakistan’s penchant for nuclear risk-taking is apparent in its nuclear doctrine of full spectrum deterrence, India has been equally vocal in calling Pakistan’s bluff. It stands to reason, therefore, that the India-Pakistan rather than the India-China nuclear dyad is a nuclear flashpoint.

The difference in these two nuclear equations is not simply a matter of their nuclear and military strategies. It is equally a product of their unique nuclear histories.

India’s nuclear history disproves the linear model of nuclear weapons proliferation where insecurity vis-à-vis a bigger and hostile nuclear power is the principal source of a state’s motivation to pursue nuclear weapons (as was the case with the Soviet Union, China and to a certain extent both the United Kingdom and France). Pakistan rather than China was the most important reason for India to go nuclear.

India’s reactions to the Chinese nuclear threat in the 1960s and the Pakistani nuclear threat in the 1980s were markedly different. The Chinese nuclear test in October 1964 presented India with its first nuclear adversary. It took India a decade to conduct its first nuclear test in May 1974. However, by that time, Indian decision-makers were convinced that China “will not use nuclear weapons against India.” After the ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ of 1974, Indian decision-makers abstained from weaponizing its nascent nuclear weapons capability nor did they seek a nuclear weapon status. Until the mid-1980s, India practiced a policy of ‘nuclear refrain.’

As the Pakistani nuclear program matured into an existential threat, India prepared for ‘catalytic’ response. In 1988, India decided to acquire a deliverable nuclear arsenal. Within a decade, it had not only operationalized the first leg of its nuclear delivery capability based on fighter aircrafts but had also declared itself a nuclear weapon state with a series of nuclear tests in May 1998.

This ‘differential response’ can only be understood by taking into account not only the variation in India’s perceptions of the Chinese and the Pakistani nuclear threat, but also the methods which Indian decision-makers employed to counter them.

China’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon capability did not fundamentally threaten Indian security as was the case with Pakistani nuclear weapons.

First, rather than perceiving Chinese nuclear capability as a direct threat, New Delhi situated China’s quest for nuclear weapons in the great power nuclear rivalry of the Cold War. The threat perception vis-à-vis Pakistan was entirely different: Islamabad’s nuclear drive was considered as an existential threat given its historical penchant for revisionism in South Asia.

Second, in the aftermath of the 1962 War, India learned that a robust conventional defense against China would help preserve the status quo on the border. Nuclear weapons were not essential for maintaining this territorial status quo. Even today, Indian military strategy vis-à-vis China remains largely conventional. Pakistan, on the other hand, had consistently challenged the territorial status quo even when though it was a relatively inferior military power in the India-Pakistan dyad. In New Delhi’s calculus, therefore, nuclear weapons in Pakistani possession would have only exacerbated the latter’s inclination for a military resolution of the territorial conflict.

This difference in New Delhi’s threat perceptions of China and Pakistan is borne out in various military crises on the Sino-Indian and Indo-Pakistani border. Neither China nor India have ever issued a veiled or overt nuclear threat to each other in any of their military crises along the Himalayan border; it has remained purely conventional. However, since the Brasstacks crisis of 1986-1987, Pakistan has always leveraged its nuclear arsenal to influence any Indian decision to pursue conventional operations across the border.

India’s threat perceptions of Chinese and Pakistani nuclear capability differed substantially, and so have the methods which India employed to counter them.

Against China, India primarily relied on implicit nuclear security guarantees from the two great powers during the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union. New Delhi’s calculation was simple but profound: any use or threat of use of nuclear weapons by Beijing against India involved a risk of nuclear retaliation from the great powers. This minimal risk rather than absolute credibility of great power response was sufficient to deter the Chinese decision-makers. This assumed both rationality and restraint on Beijing’s part.

India’s historical experiences vis-à-vis Pakistan however betrayed both these assumptions. Pakistani nuclear capability was solely directed against New Delhi. Given its penchant for risk-taking, it also posed a fundamental threat to the Indian state. Therefore, to deter Pakistan, an indigenous nuclear capability was a must.

India’s threat perceptions vis-à-vis China and Pakistan explain the gradual evolution of India’s nuclear weapons program in the first two decades after the Chinese nuclear tests in 1964 and the catalytic response to the Pakistani nuclear program thereafter. Not all nuclear adversaries are the same after all.

Two decades after Pokhran-II, New Delhi’s nuclear policy is still coming to terms with two different kinds of adversaries on its frontiers, despite occasional talks of a ‘two front’ war.

Harsh V. Pant and Yogesh Joshi are co-authors of a forthcoming book, Indian Nuclear Policy, by Oxford University Press. This piece appeared previously on the website of the Observer Research Foundation. 

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