FIRST INDIA-CHINA NUCLEAR DIALOGUE : HUGE MISPERCEPTIONS
Author : C.Uday Bhaskar
Beijing, June 3, 2011
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
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 Saalman – 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 Ph.D 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
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
(This first appeared on the Jagran.com site on June 4, 2011. )