Two successive reports submitted to the United States Congress in November (2021) as mandated by the relevant U.S. Act have highlighted some key developments in China’s Nuclear posture over the past one year or so.
The Annual Report to U.S. Congress on the “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” [Pentagon Report] for the year 2020” by the Department of Defence popularly known as the Pentagon mainly covers developments in the field of defence and the People’s Liberation Army. Nuclear capabilities have been given much salience in the Report.
The second report is by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission [USCESRC Report] is more broad based and includes a wide range of issues from economy and trade to political developments.
However a section of the report extensively covers developments in the Nuclear posture of China.
A combined reading of the two Reports provides a perspective on China’s projected nuclear posture as perceived by the United States strategic community including policy makers, practitioners and analysts.
A synthesis of the same should denote implications for India and are discussed herein.
Central Theme of China’s Nuclear Posture
Transformation and modernization of nuclear forces has been underlined in the two Reports which includes a concerted effort to, “expand, modernize, and diversify its nuclear forces since first acquiring nuclear weapons in the 1960s,” as per the USCESRC Report. This includes “a nuclear triad; fielding new, more mobile, and more accurate nuclear weapons systems; and significantly expanding its stockpile of nuclear warheads”. Corresponding capability enhancement in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and Command and Control systems have also been highlighted.
The sum total of the transformation is to transition from a minimalist nuclear posture to a competitive one of, “limited deterrence,” given China’s status amongst the global nuclear primates. The main direction of the transformation is to attain parity with the United States and Russia but there would be an impact on other key rival states as India as well.
China is expected to, “use nuclear weapons to prevail in wars,” to achieve “their expanding political interests,” particularly through development of precision low yield weapons.
The new capabilities can be employed as per the USCESRC Report by a “risk-tolerant Chinese leadership,” that would be “emboldened to employ either for threats or for limited use during a regional conflict”.
There is also a risk of accidental nuclear escalation while not directly comparable but an analogy can be drawn from a scaled up “Galwan incident,” in June 2021 when Indian and Chinese troops were engaged in an unprecedented clash through use of non lethal force that caused 20 fatalities to the Indian Army.
Discussion on Implications for India
From the Indian perspective a qualitative and quantitative improvement in China’s nuclear potential would imply considerable capability asymmetry in terms of a diversified, reliable, survivable and highly accurate delivery systems that are being acquired by China along with increased number of nuclear warheads.
Given that both countries India and China so far follow the No First Use doctrine, a nuclear exchange is not envisaged however doctrines are not dogmas thus there could be a shift in actual usage.
A relevant facet is the Launch on Warning or LOW posture that the two Papers have envisaged for China.
Another key development is possible introduction of low yield or battlefield nuclear weapons which could be used even in a possible Line of Actual Control (LAC) scenario.
The USCESRC Report in fact suggests that China may be going in for a limited nuclear first use with a view to, “leverage their nuclear forces to accomplish Chinese political objectives beyond survival, such as coercing another state or deterring U.S. intervention in a war over Taiwan”.
Such a scenario could envisage, “limited first use of low-yield, more precise nuclear weapons against select conventional military targets in the Indo-Pacific region”.
In a different context an assured second strike capability or retaliation is also envisaged for China with creation of a nuclear triad and a shift from the minimal deterrent suggesting,” self-defensive nuclear strategy,” with “no-first-use policy,” and “negative security assurances”[i] with peacetime readiness status of separation of “launchers, missiles, and warheads”, to a higher level of readiness and limited deterrence.
The USCESRC Report alludes that such a posture will raise doubts or casts “nuclear shadows” over “China’s disputes with its neighbors, many of whom are U.S. allies and partners. Improved nuclear capabilities could encourage Chinese leaders to coerce or initiate a conventional conflict against U.S. allies or partners in the region if they believe their nuclear capability would deter the United States from intervening”.
In a typical LAC scenario thus India could be deterred from resisting Chinese conventional pressures in the belief that the enhanced nuclear capability will prevent the United States from intervening.
This premise outlined in the USCESRC Report is subject to debate.
While India is expanding partnerships with global powers as leverage vis a vis China, New Delhi is well aware of limitations of intervention by strategic partners who are unlikely to be embroiled in a border dispute between Asia’s two largest states nee adversaries.
There could be some concerns in states to which the United States is providing Extended Deterrence based on bilateral treaties, however with an independent nuclear deterrent this may not be relevant for India
Possible relinquishment of the NFU by China has also been discussed in the USCESRC Report as the PLA like other militaries has been hankering for discarding the “no-first-use policy,” however so far the principal authority for use of nuclear weapons in China the Politburo Standing Committee has been resisting such a change and this is expected to continue in the near term.
Another significant mention of India in the USCESRC Report denotes that the Chinese analysts do not consider the nuclear option in the case of New Delhi and have remained limited to the conventional one. As the USCESRC Report states, “ Continued border tensions with India, a neighboring nuclear power, underscore the potential for escalation to nuclear use in a crisis, though Chinese analysts remain dismissive of that possibility and of Indian nuclear capabilities in general”.
This should however give cold comfort to the strategic planners of the Nuclear Executive Authority and the Strategic Forces Command in New Delhi given the propensity of China to surprise ,
Another relevant facet for India is continuing support to Pakistan and due for high level of scrutiny “export dual-use technologies to Pakistan that could further its nuclear and missile programs,” through Chinese state owned enterprises.
Capability enhancements in the nuclear dimension as highlighted in the two US reports are well known and thus need to be closely followed in India while not falling into the trap of a nuclear arms race.
Importantly tracking a shift in doctrine such as NFU LOW or use of low yield weapons has to be carried out through development of strategic intelligence on markers and triggers that could signal the same, a presumed grey area in India.
What challenges the China Pak collusive axis could pose through proxy options being developed for Pakistan also assumes significance.
Developing a credible second strike capability resting in Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles needs to be give priority as at present as per the USCESRC Report, India’s “current sea-launched ballistic missiles cannot yet range China’s east coast”.
[i] A negative security assurance is a declaration that a country will not use nuclear weapons against a nonnuclear weapon state. A positive security assurance is one in which a nuclear weapon state pledges it will come to the aid of a nonnuclear weapon state if that state is the victim of a nuclear attack as per USCESRC Report.