India-China Relations and the Nuclear Realpolitik

M.V. Rappai, Research Fellow, IDSA


Time is a good healer; this aphorism can be as true in the life and relations of great nations as in the case of ordinary mortals. India and China, the two largest Asian nations, bound by common rivers and mountains are also the most populous nations of the world today. The long and winding land borders have destined them to live together. On the other hand, looking from a historic perspective also, the concept of nation is too narrow a definition to describe these civilisational and cultural giants, which originated and prospered since time immemorial and play a very vital role in the world. Therefore, their mutual relations and vibrations cannot be gauged from the narrow perspective of a single issue or a short time frame of events; rather, it has to be seen in the context of more complicated and time-tested civilisational links.

The Indian nuclear tests conducted in May 1998, have to some extent dampened the ongoing process of taking earnest steps towards improving the ties, which were under a cold spell due to various reasons. The winding down of the Cold War world order based on artificial geo-strategic divisions started crumbling in the late Eighties. Around this period India and China also started enhancing their efforts to revive and revitalise the age-old ties between these two great civilisations.

However, if India had not carried out its nuclear tests in May 1998, would this have led to any dramatic improvement in bilateral relations between India and China during the last one year? It may be too much to expect a dramatic change in bilateral relations between these two Asian giants with a mere change in government in New Delhi. Leaving aside the rhetoric, the fact remains that as of today, the relations are at their lowest point in the last ten years.

It will be a moot point to do a post-mortem of the verbal diatribes exchanged between the two sides during the post-Pokhran II phase. The future of this relationship is going to depend largely on the postures adopted by both sides in relation to their nuclear diplomacy. The Government of India has started an almost single point 'interlocution' with the USA and some bilateral talks at various levels with other key powers. As of now, no formal dialogue with China has started, hence, one can only make certain broad conjectures about India's nuclear policy towards China at this point of time. China being India's largest neighbour and a P5 power in the existing nuclear club, its diplomatic manoeuvres, especially in the area of nuclear weapon capabilities, are going to affect our nation's vital interests in a crucial way. As the above referred "broad conjectures" are not going to yield any objective result, this study is trying to rely mainly on the nuclear posture revealed by China in the post-Pokhran II phase.

The Chinese being the true disciples of a master strategist like Sun Zi generally follow a longtime gameplan entrenched in realpolitik. Here one should not forget that this realpolitik is amply mixed with deception as well diplomatic jugglery perfected over a long period of time to gain the desired goal with the air of a "Middle Kingdom" mental makeup. The Indian nuclear tests in May 1998 have resulted in a lot of soul searching in Zhongnanhai about China's own future role in the global nuclear diplomacy. Of late, the number of writings in this regard has gone up greatly. A brief glance through these writings reveals that the Indian tests and its overt assertion to go nuclear has compelled the Chinese authorities to go overboard and declare China's position as a "status quoist nuclear power."1

Ever since China declared itself as a nuclear power on October 31, 1964, it tried to project itself as a benevolent leader of the Third World which is ready to protect the interests of the downtrodden, backward countries lacking in technical capability and political prowess, to withstand the discriminatory international order. It seems that the Indian tests have largely upset its calculations on two major counts. Firstly, it sees a challenge in India going overt as a nuclear power—it thinks this will considerably weaken China's position as the sole leader of the developing world in the global arena. Secondly, the Indian nuclear tests have certainly compelled it to rethink its strategic perceptions. This does not mean any escalation in military activity by either side on their positions held on their borders or, as indicated in the high sounding suggestions from certain quarters, that the two big Asian powers are bound to be enemies and raise alarm bells immediately. On the contrary this will definitely compel China to take a fresh look at its options along its borders as well as in other spheres in dealing with India.

Another reason for China's alarmist reaction against India going nuclear is the by now "famous" letter written by the Indian Prime Minister to the US President immediately after the Phokran II series of tests. There is enough reason to understand this aspect. Even though China may never openly admit it, after the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union, it views the United States as not only the sole important competitor in the power-game but also the only powerful nation which can create impediments in its path to becoming a really significant pole in the emerging new world order.

For the time being, let us analyse the changes in Chinese nuclear thinking. Ever since it signed and joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1992, it started seeing itself as an established status quo nuclear power. This has become more visible since it became a willing party to the indefinite extension of the highly discriminatory and unequal NPT regime in 1995.2 Knowing fully well its discriminatory nature and implications, China went along with the other major powers to reiterate its position as a world power and a member of the exclusive club of both the P5 and N5.

With India closing its nuclear option, the number of articles by Chinese strategists explicitly pointing out these non-proliferation measures linked to global nuclear issues have gone up considerably. Of late, some of the writings have also gone beyond the limit of the South Asian region. Therefore, a close understanding about the impact of India's nuclear capabilities on China's own nuclear strategy, India-China relations and the future prospects for total elimination of weapons—if at all possible—at the global level is required.

Wars have definitely altered the destinies of human beings and boundaries of nations. However, it is difficult to conclude from history how much the mere possession of a more ferocious weapon system or technology changed the course of nations and mankind. This may explain the whole matrix of deterrence and postures, in other words, the role of power play and polemics. It is natural for an adversary or even a peer competitor to dissuade his counterpart from possessing the same advantage. Hence, the approach of China towards nuclear weapons and the changes it brought about in its attitude, to a great extent, may explain this whole issue.

"The evolution of China's nuclear non-proliferation policy can be divided roughly into three stages: (1) emphasis on the national right to develop nuclear weapons (1949-1959); (2) acceptance of the non-proliferation norm and independence from the international non-proliferation regime (1959-1984); and (3) gradual integration with the international community (1984-present)." One may not fully agree with the cut off dates as proposed by Prof. Mingquan Zhu, but we have to accept the broader conceptual changes in China' non-proliferation agenda.3

The overall reaction of China to India's overt nuclearisation has clearly brought out its long term strategic calculations to protect not only its strategic advantage but also its eagerness to preserve the existing international order, however, lopsided it may be, as long as it suits its interest.

If one takes a broad look at the various writings and pronouncements that have emerged from several personnel who matter and from different institutions linked to policy and decision making in Zhongnanhai, a few distinguishing characteristics are visible. The first goal in this area is to strive with all its diplomatic might to legally bind the existing P5 nuclear powers, especially the USA and Russia and make an all-out effort to cap and roll back India's nuclear and missile capabilities. According to their calculations, this will be easier if they can see and project the whole issue as part of the ongoing problem of "South Asia" and its inevitable linkage with the "Kashmir flashpoint."

Possibly, the biggest hurdle for India in achieving its desired goal to play a meaningful role in the global power game as a nuclear state will depend much upon how it can counter the temptations of short term gains and manage its relations with other big powers in a useful way. In this context "two powers" vital to this whole process will be the USA and China. As India has not started any formal dialogue with China on this issue, let us take a broad look at some possible options.

At present, the global power balance is in a flux and in all likelihood it will continue in this state for some time to come. In the early Nineties, immediately in the aftermath of the Cold War era, it was felt that the world was moving towards a unipolar power structure. But as events unfolded, the supremacy of a single power appeared very short-lived and with many shortcomings.4 As of now, the world is definitely moving towards a multipolar power structure. In this scenario, China is focussing its diplomatic and military efforts to gain maximum advantage under such a system. Therefore, India has to keep a keen watch on this front and take all possible steps to gain full advantage of the future polemical designs of the big powers. Going overboard on the nuclear option has definitely given us an edge, but, if we do not zealously guard our interests, this will have a bad impact not only on our nation's image but will also adversely affect our strategic interests for a long time to come.

China's Behaviour

Immediately after the Indian tests on May 11, 1998, the Chinese reaction was on expected lines. However, the subsequent test of the low yield variety of nuclear weapons as well as the Indian Prime Minister's letter to President Bill Clinton changed this scenario entirely. From that time onwards China became the most vociferous nation among the N-5 to call for capping and a roll back of Indian nuclear capability.

In this area also, Chinese writings have ranged from outright denigration to diplomatic skullduggery. The Chinese reactions started with a subdued reaction on the very first day of the Indian tests; soon after the second series of tests, this mildness vanished totally. And with the leakage of the now infamous letter to the US president from the Indian prime minister, the reactions almost became a shrill campaign against Indian nuclear capabilities. The Chinese are arguing nothing less than a complete roll back. At least one Indologist working with an official think tank wanted India to be treated at par with Iraq of the Nineties; "What India is playing at present seems to be the risky game that Germany, Japan, and Italy played in the 1930s and 1940s and Iraq played in the 1980s and 1990s. On the issue of India's nuclear test and hegemonic behaviour in South Asia, the west seems to be repeating the mistake they made in the 1930s when they pursued an 'appeasement policy' and tried to 'shift the peril eastward.' If the fact that Japan's starting the '18 September incident in 1931,' Germany's sending troops into the nonmilitary zone on the Rhine in 1936, and Italy's annexing Ethiopia were actions not contained by an international effort, marked the beginning of the end of the Versailles—Washington Treaty System, then the mushroom cloud rising once again above South Asia is an open challenge to the forces that try to maintain the system of International treaties in the age of peace and development."5 This seems to be a case of either lack of knowledge about world history or a deliberate attempt to twist history to suit one's own purpose. There were other, more sane reactions.6 However, if one analyses a host of Chinese reactions to India going overtly nuclear, all end up with its status quoist global nuclear politics.

In more clear terms, China intends to preserve the existing hegemonic nuclear order: that only the P 5 powers can keep their nuclear weapons. In other words, it intends to keep the current "nuclear apartheid"7 regime intact. On the flip side this seems to be a bizarre situation wherein the junior-most member of an exclusive club, who gatecrashed into it by sheer will and persistence, now acts as its gate and conscious keeper. When China carried out its first nuclear test in the open atmosphere in the Lopnor test ranges, it violated the then "nuclear apartheid" regime based on the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT). In India's case, it has not violated any existing international treaty or convention, as India has all along avoided signing such unequal and unjustified regimes.

Even recently, ambassador, Sha Zukang, Director General, Department of Arms Control and Disarmament in Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reiterated the desire of China to legally bind the USA and Russia, to ultimately trap India in the existing non-proliferation regimes and finally finish its nuclear capability. According to him, "To this end, first and foremost, we must exert all our efforts to stop and reverse the nuclear development programmes of India and Pakistan. The Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests have presented the international community with both a challenge and an opportunity. In a sense, these events have become a litmus test to the effectiveness of the international non-proliferation regime. If the international community could take effective measures to stop or even reverse the two countries' nuclear development programmes, the authority and vitality of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime will be immeasurably enhanced. To achieve this, two things are important. First, the international community should have sufficient patience and perseverance, and should not lose hope because of the lack of progress in the short run. Second, the international community, especially the major powers, must have a consensus view and take concerted action in this matter. A robust international non-proliferation regime is in the interests of all countries. If any country seeks to exploit the South Asian situation to obtain unilateral short-term political, economic or strategic benefits at the expense of the other countries and international solidarity, and in all disregard of the serious consequences the South Asian nuclear testing has had on the international non-proliferation regime, it can only further undermine the already badly damaged international non-proliferation regime, and in the end, the long-term interests of that country will also be jeopardized. It is a direct violation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1172 to negotiate, or even to discuss, with India on India's so-called minimum nuclear deterrence capability. It is also unhelpful to publicly support India's permanent membership in the UN Security Council soon after its nuclear tests. It is obvious that these actions will not help in repairing the damage caused by the South Asian nuclear tests to the International nuclear non-proliferation regime."8

The above "benevolent" statement from a respected expert on global disarmament issues smacks of insincerity and hollowness regarding the ground reality. This is almost akin to the old saying of a "kettle calls the pot black" or the "sinner holds forth about virtues." As mentioned earlier, China is the last entrant into this exclusive nuclear club; secondly, its position as a P5 power in the UN Security Council has definitely given it a distinct advantage in preserving its paramount position as a nuclear power. But if one looks back to the second half of the Sixties, one may better understand how the whole argument of the current Chinese establishment is hollow and full of double-speak. At the worst it smacks of pure deviousness, in order to keep its own strategically advantageous position.

But if one looks at this from the Indian perspective, it appears that we also have not done our homework properly before jumping onto the international non-proliferation bandwagon. It is high time we realised that disarmament must still be our long-term goal.9 Non-proliferation is only going to help the nuclear haves in preserving their strategic fiefdoms.

Need For A More Pragmatic Approach

Under the current circumstances, it may not be easy to initiate a dialogue with China on nuclear issues. As of now, the bilateral relations have deteriorated to such an extent that even the existing Joint Working Group (JWG) meeting has not taken place. This meeting should have taken place some time in the second half of last year. Till now, no concrete steps have been taken to hold even the preparatory level talks.

One reality seems to be that China will not turn around and immediately agree for a dialogue on nuclear issues, even under the existing framework. Secondly, according to the traditional Chinese psyche of 'power play' and respect for power, even if it is willing to talk at a future date, it will not be keen to include the nuclear aspect as a strategic edge in favour of India. However, both these Asian giants have to come to grips with their respective nuclear capabilities and prowess at a future date. In order to attain such a stage, India has to calculate boldly and develop its nuclear capabilities to its full extent where China will have to take note of its capabilities from a strategic perspective. To achieve this, India has to develop a missile capability either matching or superior to that of China's existing arsenal. This development in no way suggests an escalation cycle as followed in the Cold War era between the two big powers. Essentially, the capabilities must be mutually deterrent to each other at any given time in the future.

On the other hand, India has to play its nuclear card at the international level deftly to finally get the status and equal treatment as the sixth nuclear power10 in the world. Some may point out that this is an unattainable goal. Here one must remind the world that when China tested its first nuclear device at Lopnor, it was also more or less in India's present state. But, deft handling of the situation by the Chinese leadership played a key role in this aspect. India also has to learn this lesson and manipulate the global system in its favour. Continuing with dialogue at appropriate levels is a basic need for this; yet our nuclear status cannot be a negotiable point at any future date.

The Pakistan Factor

Any meaningful dialogue between India and China at any future date has to take into account the nuclear reality of Pakistan. In this regard, first of all, the Pakistani nuclear capability has to be assessed and addressed properly. Further, this also has to be linked to the border issue, especially the area ceded to China by Pakistan beyond Siachen. This area still belongs to India—even if one follows the 1949 India-Pakistan agreement, the term used in it is that the ceasefire line will be extended to the terminal point, NJ-9842, and "thence north to the glaciers."

Following India's nuclear tests, Pakistan also tested its own weapons: this in a way has established a certain parity, therefore, a dialogue can be initiated with Pakistan also. However, the ground realities do not tally with this superficial equation. It is necessary for the international community to ascertain the real capabilities and politico-strategic equations behind Pakistan's nuclear capabilities. In this regard it is necessary to properly take stock of not only the Sino-Pak nuclear cooperation but also to verify the clandestine assistance Pakistan received from various other NPT signatories in the Eighties and early Nineties. Secondly, the aid provided by China, especially since 1992, when it formally became a part of the NPT, must be accounted for, and the legal status of such aid must be verified, before considering the legal implications of Pakistan's nuclear status.

India must launch a diplomatic offensive to project that its nuclear capability and status are certainly not only superior but also substantially different from those of Pakistan. Pakistan's nuclear capability and programme is entirely linked to one nation, that is India. Whereas, when India launched its nuclear research even before Independence, it was with a view not only to gain strategic depth but also a sustainable scientific role to develop its economic well being and the living standard of all the Indian people.

One problem with the newfound bonhomie with Pakistan is that it smacks of insincerity and artificiality in its overall atmospherics. The whole process of the talks seems to be pushed at somebody's behest. Under these circumstances one cannot be sure about the future outcome of such sudden bonhomie by a weak government led by a right wing party with an inborn ideological prejudice against the creation and basic existence of Pakistan itself. Further, if one goes by some recent Press reports, this instant "camaraderie" shown by India has not been taken in the right spirit.

This move for reconciliation is being pursued as a weakness by both Pakistan and China. Immediately after the recent talks between the US Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, and Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmad, the Pakistan Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, stated that, "nobody can now finish Kashmir's freedom struggle. The sooner India understands this, the better and now nobody can stop this freedom." He immediately buttressed this claim by brandishing Pakistan's nuclear and missile power; while addressing the soldiers in Pakistan occupied Kashmir, he said, "Pakistan is an atomic power and your spirits are much higher than before. We are not only an atomic power but Ghauri and Shaheen missiles are also evidence of our impregnable defence in the world."11

More or less the same sentiments were reiterated by Pakistan Foreign Minister, Sartaj Aziz at a luncheon briefing for the visiting Indian parliamentarians at Islamabad.12

India's Nuclear Future

Whatever maybe the manner of interlocutions and the accompanying realpolitick, India's bottomline must be very clear that the nuclear weapons are here to stay as long as any other power's last weapon remains in the world. In other words, a clear linkage has to be made with global disarmament. The latest statements emanating from Washington proves the point that the talks with the USA till now, after the eighth round of talks at New Delhi, have also not gone beyond fixing the 'menu' and agenda for the next round.13

If India has to retain its nuclear deterrence capability, Indian diplomacy has to be revamped and a new focus given. India must offer a universal offer of talks with certain bottomline benchmarks, such as our minimum deterrence capability is not negotiable and cannot be a part of any agenda. Any negotiation in the future must start from a clear understanding that India is a nuclear power and its defensive capabilities are its own concern, and no compromise on this account is possible.

Nuclear weapons are not meant for any specific warfighting theatre. Therefore, the question of equating or striking a strategic balance with any particular neighbour is ridiculous. India's main security concern is to protect its territorial integrity and the well being of all its citizens under the existing secular, democratic, federal set-up. This fundamental issue also cannot be subjected to any negotiation.

The prime minister of India has already come out with a broad policy statement on India's nuclear doctrine. Two basic pillars of this policy are no-first use and minimum deterrence.14 Moreover, no government at Delhi can take any vital political decision without the proper mandate of the Indian people in the representative form of the Indian Parliament at the least. The nationwide debates on the CTBT and other issues in 1996 clearly prove that the common masses of India are well aware about the happenings around them. One problem with the current round of nuclear related interlocutions and prolonged efforts by a weak government, under a right wing political coalition, to patch up with Pakistan is seen as a weak posture. The aura created by unnecessary unilateral secrecy in these talks is also taken as submission on the part of the current regime. Large sections of the public feel that India is being pushed hard by the big powers for a quick settlement and total sellout on the nuclear issues.

Common Ground With China on Nuclear Issues

As mentioned earlier, at the moment China may not be very interested in starting a dialogue with India on the nuclear issues. However, if we can show over a period of time, that the Indian nuclear position is retained with adequate numbers of warheads and the necessary delivery systems, then China will definitely turn around and be ready to talk.

India and China are two nuclear powers which have the maximum common interests on a host of international issues, including nuclear weapons. Both these nations are against any kind of nuclear blackmail in the international arena and both agree on the 'total elimination of nuclear weapons' as their ultimate goal. However, right now they are destined to be at odds on these very issues. The basic reason for this, of course, is that now China sees itself as a part of the global "nuclear haves" by virtue of its membership in the exclusive N5 club. Here India has to challenge this and prove that India's nuclear position is as valid, if not superior to that of China. Further, India is also a nation of one billion people, which can independently formulate its foreign policy. Moreover, till now, India has not been a party to any of the unequal nuclear regime and it has not violated any international treaty.

Further, India must play its position as a big nation with large population in more clear terms. Even though China now acts like a custodian of the international non-proliferation efforts, it is time to remind the international community that it has not yet joined the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) formally, only issued a statement of intent. If the free democratic world can accept this assurance, they must also accept the solemn pronouncements of the largest democratic country in the present day world.15


Any signal from the Chinese side to revive normal relations must be taken seriously and reciprocated in all sincerity. However, there is no need to project that India is overtly keen to push for normalisation, as this can be interpreted as weakness and succumbing to pressure from the Western powers, especially the USA. Such a posture is not going to help India in the future. Adequate importance must be given to include the nuclear issue on the agenda of any future bilateral talks. An immediate positive response cannot be expected under the current international situation. Yet it will be useful to make the Chinese understand the necessity of such a dialogue. In this context, India's willingness to sign the CTBT must be reconsidered and calibrated properly.16 If India were to sign the treaty without adequate preparation, and down the line, after one or two years, if China is in a position to get its way in the CTBT Office and ask for a challenge inspection on Indian facilities as per Article IV of Verification provision [d] on site inspections,17 then the Indian position may not be much better than Iraq's is today. In this context, one has to bear in mind the future equations and possible polemics between the big powers, especially the USA and China, and their impact on India in any given scenario.

Maintaining good neighbourly relations with China is in India's interest, but this cannot be separate from our long-term strategic goals, which definitely include settling the India-China border problem amicably and retaining a respectable position in Asia and the world at large. This calls for maintaining an adequate deterrence posture with enough supply of weapons and delivery systems.

At the global level, India can still argue and maintain its moralist approach to the nuclear weapons. This needs a carefully thought out diplomatic and public relations exercise. In other words, efforts for setting an agenda for total elimination of all nuclear weapons in a time bound manner is urgently required, and this goal must be avowedly pursued at all international fora.



1. For details see M.V. Rappai, "China: A Status Quo Nuclear Power," The Hindu, June 18, 1998.

2. See K. Subrahmanyam, "Indian Nuclear Policy—1964-98 in Jasjit Singh, ed., Nuclear India (New Delhi: Knowledge World, 1998) p. 50 -51

3. Mingquan Zhu, "The Evolution of China's Nuclear Nonproliferation Policy," The Nonproliferation Review, Winter 1997; also see Sujit Dutta, "China And Arms Control," in Jasjit Singh, ed., Asian Strategic Review 1996-97, (New Delhi, IDSA, September 1997) p. 155-178.

4. Terence Taylor, based on a speech delivered at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, January 30, 1999. He argues for a 'diffused power pattern,' but the change in the global power pattern after the end of the Cold War is a very complex and fast evolving one.

5. Zhang Wenmu, "Issue of South Asia in major Power Politics", The PRC owned Chinese daily 'Ta Kong Pao', September 23, 1998. Translated version FBIS Chi-98-293.

6. Frontline, September 25, 1998 cover story; also see some articles in the International Strategic Studies, CIISS, Beijing January 1999

7. Jaswant Singh, "Against Nuclear Apartheid," Foreign Affairs, September/October 1998, vol. 77, no. 5, p. 41-52.

8. Sha Zukang, Director General, Deptt of Arms Control and Disarmament, China, "Some thoughts on Non-Proliferation', paper presented at the 7th Carnegie International Non-Proliferation Conference, January 11-12, 1999. Washington DC.

9. See Maharajakrishna Rasgotra, "Rajiv Gandhi's Legacy: Some Facts," The Hindu, February 17, 1999.

10. Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, "India: The Sixth State with Nuclear Weapons," in Jasjit Singh ed., Asian Strategic Review 1997-98, (New Delhi: IDSA, November 1998).

11. The Asian Age, (Reuterstory from Kotli, Pakistan), February 7, 1999.

12. The Hindu, February 13, 1999.

13. Strobe Talbott in his speech to the "Overseas Writers Group" after his return from the 8th round of Indo-US talks in New Delhi, clarified that according to the US position India's minimum nuclear option is 'ZERO'. On February 9, 1999 the State Department spokesperson also reiterated this view.

14. Paper laid on the Table of Lok Sabha (Lower House of Indian Parliament), dt. May 27, 1998.

15. China generally viewed all international treaties, especially treaties for non-proliferation etc. as "unequal treaties." This ingrained psyche has not fully changed; even while it signed the CTBT it has added riders like deployment of TMD systems in the vicinity, etc.

16. Veteran British Labour leader Michael Foot has openly advised India not to sign the CTBT (See interview in Outlook, February 22, 1999); Ms. Arundhati Ghose, India's former Ambassador to Conference on Disarmament also strongly upholds this view. (Frontline, July 3, 1998) p. 31-32.

17. For a full text of the treaty, see Arms Control Today, August 1996.