C Uday Bhaskar

It is one of those paradoxes of the troubled India-China bi-lateral relationship that the two sides have had little or no formal contact or dialogue on the very complex and contested nuclear issue despite the centrality of this capability in their strategic and security policies.

China became a nuclear weapon power in October 1964 and joined the US led NPT in 1992 – after the end of the Cold War.  India in keeping with its  hesitant, ambivalent approach to the nuclear issue was indeed very concerned about a nuclear weapon neighbor in China – that too just two years after the 1962 war – and a few months after Pandit Nehru had passed away in May 1964  – in many ways a leader who was broken by the humiliation of 1962.

However, it took India a good 10 years to make its first nuclear policy move – the 1974 Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE).  But this was exactly what it was – a PNE – and India did not weaponize this nascent technological demonstrator. This decision of ambivalence was very intriguing to the world – since till then there was no such precedent. Critics interpreted this as part of India’s deviousness – and that Delhi was hiding its true intentions and misleading the global community. The latter, led by the USA wanted to impose the NPT on India and make it a permanent non-nuclear weapon state – an NNWS. This was a case of disarming the unarmed – but it was part of the realpolitik compulsion of the Cold War, and many misperceptions about the Indian nuclear intent were promoted.
In the interim, China  enabled Pakistan to become a nuclear weapon state (May 1990)  and the USA chose to turn a blind eye due to its perceived security interests apropos the former USSR and the Afghanistan occupation.  Subsequently India declared itself a nuclear weapon power in May 1998 and Pakistan also followed suit. South Asia had become nuclearized – though Pakistan had acquired the capability in a covert manner in 1990.

Since that  development a good 20 years ago, the Pakistan military has progressively used its nuclear weapon capability to promote terrorism / infiltration against India and this includes the Kargil War of  1999 and finally culminated in the November 2008 Mumbai attack. The nuclear weapon had become the shield to wage the proxy war and inhibit India from a robust response.

More recently with the July 2005 India-US civil nuclear accord, India was able to emerge from the quarantine that had been imposed on it by the global community. And when this matter came up for the final review/decision by the NSG in September 2008, it was predictable–but disappointing- for Delhi that Beijing chose to play a less than positive role in relation to the support to India.  Considerable dismay was expressed in Delhi – but again – this matter has never been addressed in a substantive manner.  This complete absence of any communication between the two Asian giants on a critical issue stems from the fact that China does not discuss the nuclear issue with India at the official level and is unable to accept the reality of May 1998 and India’s nuclear status. 

Even at the Track II level, there has been no substantial engagement between India and China on the nuclear issue and the only interaction has been at the infrequent and restricted, multi-lateral forum that  brings together retired participants from these countries, with  an occasional  Pakistani view  brought in.

Thus it was very gratifying to be invited to the first ever dialogue on the nuclear issue between China and India in Beijing this week (June 2-3). Entitled “China and India's Nuclear Doctrine and Dynamics”, the event was hosted by the Carnegie-Tsinghua University’s Centre for Global Policy - and put together single-handed by Dr. Lora Salmaan – a US scholar resident in Beijing.

I was one of about 20 Indian participants that included Dr VS Arunachalam, the former DRDO Chief, Admiral Arun Prakash, former Naval Chief and an eminent group which included  experienced analysts, academics and younger scholars doing their PhD on nuclear issues or China. The Chinese participation was equally illustrious and included some of their better known names in matters nuclear and military.

India’s central concern about China’s nuclear initiatives – the long and uncritical support to the Pakistani WMD program and the latter’s sponsorship of terror – was conveyed to the Chinese participants with candor and appropriate objectivity. It was also pointed out – by speakers from both sides – that there were many areas of correspondence between the two states, including the commitment to No First Use (NFU)  and the modest nuclear inventory they have acquired, as also the need to pursue safe nuclear energy as an option to obviate the global warming threat.

For me as an analyst, the more  encouraging aspect was the fact that our Chinese interlocutors who expressed ‘surprise’ at the directivity with which the nuclear issue was packaged by the Indian speakers, did not shy away from the facts that were being presented. Yes, they did indicate that they were not as aware of the fine-print and offered their own perspective on the matter – say for example Pakistan. 

It was instructive that one word which came up repeatedly was ‘responsible’ power. At the deliberations, Indian and Chinese participants almost uniformly felt that the ‘other’ was not being ‘responsible’.  Clearly there was a sharp divergence about the definition of ‘responsible’.  Yet, every Chinese speaker reiterated  Beijing’s unwavering commitment to NFU and disarmament – and despite some reports to the contrary, a serving  PLA  General stated that China had no tactical  nuclear weapons – and never had  plans to use this capability against India apropos the disputed territorial issue. 

The nuclear domain is complex and has many challenges and opportunities and the Carnegie-Tsinghua initiative is to be commended. One hopes that such interactions will become more frequent, now that the taboo has been broken. Many huge misperceptions on both sides need to be corrected.