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India-China border tension and nuclear posturing May 9, 2013

Posted by aungsi in : Gordon, Sandy, India, Pakistan , trackback

Sandy Gordon

The standoff between China and India in Ladakh has been resolved, at least for now. After China set up five tents for 40 personnel 19 km inside what India regards as the line of control, India set up similar tents facing them.  Both lots of tents are now to be removed, but it is still unclear whether India is to remove any of the structures at Fukche and Chumar, as demanded by the Chinese.

The Chinese withdrawal only occurred after India had hardened its position on the impending visit of Indian foreign Minister Salman Kurshid to Beijing on 9 May and the reciprocal visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to New Delhi on 20 May. The Indian government was forced to harden its position by the strong public reaction to what was perceived to be its week-kneed response to the Chinese ‘incursions’.

A disturbing feature of the incident was the way it had been politicised on both sides, thus risking the protagonists being ‘locked in’ to their respective positions.

Analysts in New Delhi have been arguing for some time that China has adopted a tactic of creeping encroachment, taking a bit of territory here, a bit there, and turning what it keeps into reality on the ground. But even so, the Indians are surprised by the strength of the Chinese action and its occurrence on the eve of the two scheduled visits. The most widely accepted interpretation is that the hard line approach had something to do President Xi’s attempts to build his credibility with the military.

An interesting, and possibly connected, side development was that two weeks after the Chinese set up their tents, The Times of India reported a very strong statement by the convenor of India’s National Security Advisory Board, Shyam Saran, directed at Pakistan’s nuclear policies. Saran reportedly said that India would respond massively to any nuclear strike, and that “the label on a nuclear weapon used for attacking India, strategic or tactical, is irrelevant from the Indian perspective.”

The statement refers to Pakistan’s reported development of tactical nuclear weapons. According to Pakistan’s own statements, its supposed tactical nuclear weapons are designed to deter or interdict an Indian conventional strike. Unlike India, Pakistan does not have a ‘no-first use’ doctrine. The nuclear threshold in South Asia is thus significantly lowered by the presence of tactical weapons and Pakistan’s stated doctrine for their use.

Also, as pointed out by veteran commentator Manoj Joshi in the 2 June 2011 issue of India Today, such tactical weapons would be operationalised at army corps level and would consequently be far more decentralised than strategic weapons. The danger that they may fall into the wrong hands, including terrorist hands, is thus greatly increased.

But Pakistan has claimed to have such weapons since 2011, so why has the Indian warning come now, and why so strident?

The plutonium enabling Pakistan to miniaturise nuclear weapons is derived from the unsafeguarded nuclear reactors built by China and now operational at Khusab. The launchers and missile technology are also likely developed from Chinese originals. However, unlike the design of Pakistan’s strategic weapons, which were derived from China, it is unknown whether the design of its tactical weapons is indigenous or Chinese.

The statement by Saran could also be seen in the context of the intended use by Pakistan against any implementation of the Indian ‘Cold Start’ doctrine – a doctrine of a limited strike on Pakistan in the event of a Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attack on India. In the aftermath of the attacks on Mumbai of 26 November 2008, India felt unable to use Cold Start. After the attacks, China took up a threatening position with a view to deter any strike by India on Pakistan using Cold Start. India was also constrained by Pakistan’s nuclear umbrella – a point of even greater salience given the development of tactical weapons by Pakistan.

Indian commentators will now be waiting to see what India actually gave up to achieve its deal with China on the Ladakh border. New Delhi’s agreement to remove the Indian tents has already been criticised on the grounds that they will be removed from what is clearly Indian territory. If it also agreed to remove structures in Fukche of Chumar, the criticism will be even more strident and commentators will point out that this will only encourage future bad behaviour by China.

More broadly, the settlement on the India-China border may help propagate a more reasonable image towards China in relation to Beijing’s other disputes over the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands and the East and South China Seas.



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