Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis:
A Monthly Journal of the IDSA

Jan-Mar 2002 (Vol. XXVI No. 1)


China’s Nuclear Arsenal and Missile Defence
M.V. Rappai * , Research Fellow, IDSA



Over the last few years, major focus of the nuclear debate has been turned towars the United States’ proposal to erect a National Missile Defence (NMD) shield for itself. Of the existing nuclear weapon powers, China has been the most vociferous critic of this proposal. As and when this shield does become a reality, China will be the first to lose credibility as a deterrent against USA’s existing nuclear arsenal. Therefore, taking countermeasures against such a proposal is quite natural.

China’s approach towards non-proliferation mechanisms is steeped in realpolitik and its ability to manoeuvre them in its favour as a P5 and N5 power. Further, the Chinese leadership have been clear about the capabilities and limitations of nuclear weapons and treated them as diplomatic and political tools. The underlying aim is to preserve China’s status as a dominant player in the international system while checkmating other possible challengers. Such a pragmatic approach is of far-reaching significance to all nations, especially those that possess nuclear weapons themselves. It will also be in India’s long-term strategic interest to assess and take necessary corrective measures in its national security strategy, and make the composition of Indian nuclear strategy meet the desired goal.


From a historical perspective, one significant factor that altered the way human beings fought their wars is the influence of technology. In early times technological innovations helped mankind evolve new methods of fighting the enemy. Innovations of the use of catapults, fireballs, horses and stirrups to gunpowder-all have more or less changed the course of history and mankind’s parameters of development. However, the beginning of the twentieth century saw a constant quest by mankind to fight wars with the assistance of modern technology rather than relying on time-tested traditional weaponry. This, in turn, has tremendously changed man’s approach to technology itself. If, until then technology was helping to fight a war, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed a fundamental change. Nations states and leaders began to pursue technology to win wars. This has also radically changed the way we live and work.

At another level one can also argue that this constant search for technology emanates from the desire for absolute security. From Indian mythology one can cite examples of characters ranging from demons to gods who constantly searched for absolute security. To a great extent the need to perfect a foolproof missile defence system also formed a part of this constant search. According to late Mao Zedong, “to the present day, all weapons are still an extension of the spear and the shield. The bomber, the machine gun, the long range gun and poison gas are developments of the spear, while the air raid shelter, the steel helmet, the concrete fortification and the gas mask are developments of the shield.”

In other words, the need for security surfaces in the constant search for perfecting the traditional sword and shield. The flip side of this search for absolute security is that it generally creates more insecurity. As no nation in the world will remain untouched by these developments, it will be in our interest to study how India’s deterrence posture and nuclear capability can be preserved under this changing scenario. 1



With the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995, the nuclear weapon powers started to lull themselves into the belief that they had crossed a major milestone towards a nuclear weapons free world. On the other hand, it was very obvious to any discerning person that the Nuclear 5 powers and their allies were devoid of any noble intention about a nuclear free world. They were only trying to perpetuate their strategic superiority over the other hapless nations lacking any real means to protect themselves from a massive strike with their existing arsenals. Also, at normal times, these nuclear powers coerce other nations to accept their hegemonist designs without a whimper. The tragedy was not in their belief that they were going to transport humanity to the promised land of a nuclear- weapons-free world, but, the fact that a large section of the international media, mostly owned and controlled by the developed world, began to perfect and propagate the chimera of such a world. A number of experts and scribes in their payrolls as well as some well-meaning genuine disarmament zealots all over the world, also helped to further propagate this myth. The prospect of signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) elevated the pitch of this requiem to its crescendo.

However, soon, the world started realising that these two efforts further worsened the actual scenario. The existing nuclear weapon powers and their camp followers clandestinely took the issue of test ban to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and manipulated the passing of the resolution by a brute majority. With much fanfare and media hype, the Treaty was signed by all the P5/N5 powers. China was the second to sign the Treaty after USA. However, the very next day after it signed the CTBT in 1996, China’s Foreign Minister and respected senior diplomat Qian Qichen delivered a statement attaching certain conditions to China’s adherence to the treaty. In his statement he reiterated that, “all states refrain from developing or deploying weapons systems in outer space and missile defence systems that undermine strategic security and stability.” Since then, these two issues have become a continuing concern for China.

Most of the Chinese functionaries dealing with non-proliferation issues used to point out the salience of “missile defence” as a major factor in the ongoing process of the non-proliferation debate. Usually, this is taken as routine rhetoric, yet the reality is that the Conference on Disarmament (CD) has not transacted any meaningful business in the last so many years. According to the accepted international opinion, both scholars and larger sections of public started believing that by incorporating China into various international institutions it can be manipulated to do the bidding of the majority. 2 On the other hand, one may assume that the real intention of China in joining these multilateral institutions was to gain legitimacy and enable itself to be in a position to manipulate these very institutions for its own benefit. Significantly, this is not only true for international nonproliferation regimes, it also applies to a vast number of multilateral economic and trade institutions including World Trade Organisation (WTO). 3

With the ascendancy of the Bush administration, predominantly manned by conservative cold war era fighters, the Chinese campaign against United States National Missile Defence (NMD) also got shriller. In a statement made by China’s envoy on disarmament issues, Ambassador Sha Zukang, in March 2001, clarified the approach of his country in clearer terms, “China will not allow its legitimate means of self-defence to be weakened or even taken away by anyone in anyway . . . the US NMD programme will hamper the international arms control and disarmament process and even trigger a new round of arms race.” Further, on the issue of proliferation of missiles he went on to clarify that, “NMD is not a solution to missile proliferation but will only undercut the very foundation of the international non-proliferation regime, and even stimulate further proliferation of missiles.” 4

As per the tradition of Chinese diplomacy and policy pronouncement plans, they are not given to issue statements without proper study and detailed deliberation at the highest levels. Further, Ambassador Sha Zukang is a seasoned diplomat, a suave and smooth negotiator, normally he does not beat around the bush. Hence, from his assertion three broad conclusions can be drawn:

  1. First, China is going to take necessary steps to strengthen her existing nuclear arsenal to defend any possible pre-emptive strike from an adversary. This means, both upgradation of existing delivery systems as well as acquiring and incorporating sophisticated technologies like MRV/MIRV 5 for countering the adversary’s missile shield.

  2. Second, as stated earlier, China’s commitment to existing non-proliferation regimes is only a tactical ploy to enhance its own strategic space. It became a party to the very mechanisms (NPT, CTBT, etc) it derided in unequivocal terms at the time of their inception only shows its pragmatic approach to non-proliferation.

  3. Third, Chinese leadership has never believed in the exclusivity of the ownership of nuclear weapons by a few selected developed nations as a tool for coercing weaker nations. This was one of the underlying reasons why the Chinese leaders wanted to acquire the weapons at any cost. Even though it has graduated to being a ‘status quo’ nuclear power in the traditionally accepted terms of international treaty system, it has not given up its option to disseminate weapons and the technology relating to its delivery systems to its allies.

Even today, China’s basic national security strategy is largely rooted in its ancient tradition of Master Sun Tzu and others, hence it will be essentially a pragmatic and cost effective one. This basic approach will mandate China to follow a nuclear policy as well as its orientation towards the challenge of NMD. Therefore, in all probability China is going to adopt a multi-pronged approach. It will invoke non-proliferation as a mantra to check India and other aspirants who are ready to bargain for a seat in the exclusive N5/P5 club, whenever its suits China. This issue as well as the overall change brought about by the September 11, 2001 terror attack on the mainland USA and other related issues will be discussed later.

China’s pronouncements regarding NMD have to be taken in their broader perspective. Most of the time it uses them as a tool to achieve its overall national security interests. Hence, many a time its posturing on missile defence is only an indication of its actual intent in the larger power game.


Nuclear Arsenal and its Modernisation

Out of the existing N5 nuclear weapon states, China stands apart in many ways. It was one of the last enterants to the club after it tested its first atom bomb on October 16, 1964. It was quick to assure the world of its ‘no-first-use’ and minimum deterrence posture. This posture suited the existing global environment. China was operating under pressure and was being treated as a pariah in the international circles while its economy looked weak.

“In developing nuclear weapons, China’s aim is to break the nuclear monopoly of nuclear powers and to eliminate nuclear weapons.” After it acquired the position of a ‘status quo nuclear weapon power’ it conveniently forgot some of its good intentions. Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, China also tried to project its weapons as a shield against imperialist forces of the world in the interest of the ‘toiling masses’. China has so far conducted 45 nuclear tests and it is estimated that it has about 400-500 warheads. It is also reported to have a stockpile of 1.7 to 2.5 tonnes of weapon grade plutonium. 7 China also relies on the highly enriched uranium route for its nuclear weapons programme.

While, it is very difficult to get any accurate data on nuclear weapons and stockpiles in open democracies, getting such information and being sure of the veracity of its sources in a country like China is close to impossible. Yet, odd statements from Chinese sources to the effect that it will be ready to consider serious strategic arms limitation talks when the major weapon powers reduce their number of warheads to the levels of one thousand, give some clues in this regard.

China’s efforts to develop her delivery systems can be assessed more predictably. As of now, it has a fairly advanced arsenal of delivery systems among the medium level nuclear weapon powers. Along with its decision to make nuclear weapons, China began to think about the possibilities of developing its own delivery systems. This effort resulted in the setting up of a dedicated small group under the leadership of Marshal Nie Rongzhen and famous Chinese Physicist Qian Xuesen on October 8, 1956. 8

One of the fundamental differences between China’s space programme and that of other countries, which have reached a certain level of development in their space programme, is noteworthy. On the basis of this difference it can be safely said that China first developed her missiles and then started thinking of converting those capabilities and knownhow into a successful space programme. Now China has emerged as a frontline competitor for launching commercial satellites in the global market. Recently, the Chinese space agency has revealed its intentions to introduce a new series of launch vehicles in the near future. This further proves the capabilities she achieved in recent times in her missile development programmes.

While we are looking into the nuclear weapons it will be useful to take a glance at the delivery systems of China. Even though China still possesses some old Russian Tu-52 bombers wired for delivering nuclear weapons, on a realistic basis it is unlikely that those will ever be used by China in an actual combat scenario. Hence it will be useful to concentrate on the missiles in their arsenal; 9 a list of the ballistic missiles is given in Table 1.

Table 1. China’s Ballistic Missiles

  System Year deployed Fuel/Basing Range km. Pay Load Kg. Warhead type Number deployed
Short range DF-15 1995 solid/TEL 200-600 500-950 dual 100-150
  (CSS-6 Or M9) capable
  DF-11 1995 solid/TEL 185-300 500 dual 100+
  (CSS-X-7 capable
  or M-11) 350kt
Medium range DF3/3A 1971 liquid/ 2650-2800 2150 1-3 mt 50-120
  (CSS-2) transportable  
  JL-I 1986 liquid/ 1700 600 200-300kt 12-24
  (CSS-N-3) SLBM  
  DF21/21A 1986 solid/TEL 1800 600 200-300kt 10-36+
  DF-25 1989 solid/TEL 1700 2000
Inter-Continental DF-4 1980 liquid/ 4750 2200 1.3mt 20-30
  (CSS-3) cave  
  DF-5/5A 1981 liquid/ 12000- 3000- 3-5mt, 15-20+
  (CSS-4)   silo 15000 3260 4-5 MRV  
  DF-31 tested solid/ 8000 700 200-300kt
      TEL     MRV/MIRV?  
  DF-41 solid/TEL 12000 800 MIRV?
  JL-2 solid/SLBM 8000 700 MIRV?

Source: Rappai, M.V., China’s Missile Modernisation. In Jasjit Singh, Ed., Nuclear India, IDSA. 1998. pp. 214-218


The above table clearly shows China’s intention to modernise and enhance its delivery systems. Its new series of DF-31, its submarine-launched versions JL-20 and DF-41 are aimed at any possible NMD deployment in the near future. However, to link the entire modernisation process of nuclear weapons and their means of delivery systems to the issue of NMD will not be correct. It is well known that China’s efforts to modernise the nuclear weapons in their quiver are closely linked to the overall plans of military modernisation in China. However, the missile defence debate has certainly accelerated this process. One immediate impact of this proposal is China’s quest for sophisticated technologies and the urge for the survivability factor. Various developments during the past debate amply prove this need. China’s search for its missile modernisation is reflected in its approach to procurement of technology and its application.

Unexpected breakdown of erstwhile Soviet Union was a real boon in this regard. According to different sources during the post-Soviet phase, China hired a substantial number of experts who had worked with different nuclear weapon establishments. According to various reports China was looking for scientists with a deep understanding of rocketry, guidance systems, specialised machine tool skills, etc. Apart from this there are also some Russian scientists who came through official exchange programmes. The efforts of these scientific and technical personnel have already started to reflect in the enhanced efficacy and accuracy of Chinese missiles.

Meanwhile, the Chinese nuclear weapons establishment, being aware of the limitations of the Russian technology in this field, has also kept abreast of the sophistication achieved by western nations especially, the United States. How China obtained these technologies including certain specifications relating to the latest US warhead W-88 and others is common knowledge. As per a study done by National Intelligence Council for CIA ”by 2015 China will likely have tens of missiles targeted against the United States, having added a few of more survivable land-and sea-based mobile missiles with smaller nuclear warheads-in part influenced by US technology gained through espionage.” 10 China has had the technical knowledge to develop an MRVed missile, however, the new technologies obtained from weapon labs of USA have enhanced its ability to deploy them with more precision. On the basis of this technical capability China is now in a position to develop and deploy the latest generation multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs).

Capability of Chinese scientists in MIRV was further boosted by the help received from two US hi-tech companies in the mid-1990s. The almost sudden collapse of a Chinese Long March 3B (LM 3B) Rocket carrying a Loral satellite in February 1996, turned out to be a boon in disguise for their ballistic missile launch capabilities. A detailed investigation report of this failure conducted by one satellite expert from Hughes Corporation provided a series of useful data for improving Chinese technologies.

Recent reports in Hong Kong press pointed out that the PLA Navy is seriously working on improving its submarine launch capability. A series of tests conducted by PLA Navy submarine units and the Second Artillery troop in August 2001 was part of this drive. Even though the development of JL2 series of SLBMs may not be on a high priority list now, yet the US decision to go ahead with BMD deployment will further hasten these efforts.


Non-Proliferation v/s Proliferation

As noted earlier, China’s approach to the issue of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially the nuclear ones and their delivery systems are rooted in her pragmatic realpolitik approach to global issues. For Chinese leadership the entire argument of non-proliferation is also more or less linked to their arguments about “asymmetric warfare”. If one has to fight an adversary, who is technically more advanced and financially more strong, it would be foolish to adopt a strategy of frontal confrontation. In such a scenario the strategic interest of a lesser power can be better served by the ancient teachings of Sun Tzu, “All warfare is based on deception. Therefore, when capable of attacking, feign incapacity; when active in moving troops, feign inactivity. When near the enemy, make it seem that you are far away; when far away, make it seem that you are near.” 11 Mao in his own way internalised this thought process and amalgamated the same into his own military thinking. His thinking still reigns supreme as a basic tenet in the modern day strategic establishment of PLA.

According to Chinese strategic calculations, the nuclear weapons have a larger role to play for a long time to come. It remains a fact that China was the first nation to propose a “no first use” doctrine immediately after she exploded her first atomic weapon way back in 1964. On different occasions Chinese scholars and think-tanks have pointed out the significance of nuclear weapons for strategic and diplomatic manipulation. For them these weapons are significant political tools.

Chinese approach to non-proliferation institutions remained ambivalent at best of times, therefore, they joined these mechanisms only to enhance own manoeuvrability in the international arena. One typical example of this behaviour was its instantaneous decision to cancel all arms control related talks immediately after its embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, was bombed by the US warplanes. At another level, it raised doubts about the real intentions of the USA over its proposals on missile defence. Ever since, China has not allowed any serious arms control discussion to take place at the Conference on Disarmament (CD). In the last few years the CD has not transacted any serious business, all the moves on any initiative relating to measures like Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) and others have been successfully stalled on the grounds of missile defence and weaponisation of outer space.

On the issue of proliferation China comes across as one country which was a willing partner in proliferating both nuclear weapons and missiles. Its special relations with Pakistan and North Korea substantiate this trend. Apart from this, China used its missile sales to countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran to enhance its strategic reach to areas which are vital to its national interest. For China, Middle East is not only an area from where it gets part of its energy supplies, but is also a region that will remain where the big power interests in both political and economic arena will stay entangled for a long time to come. Further, in the last few years, China has once again started projecting its role as the champion of the developing world and with its entry into WTO this cause is likely to get prominence. This also suits its claim, at times, as the sole representative of developing nations in the P5 mechanism. In the normal course this serves as a sophisticated diplomatic tool for China.

According to a paper on “proliferation” prepared by the office of the US Secretary of Defence in January 2001, “In recent years, Chinese firms have provided some important missile-related items and assistance to several countries of concern, such as Iran, Libya and North Korea. China has also provided extensive support in the past to Pakistan’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, and some ballistic missile assistance continues.” 12 As a consequence of the ongoing problems in Southern Asia, the US Congress has decided to waive the entire weapon related restrictions from Pakistan, therefore, this can further boost the nuclear and missile capabilities of Pakistan. Further, China also can utilise this as a convenient excuse to supply what has been in the pipeline so far.

In order to enhance its strategic lebensraum, China is going to continue to use proliferation as a tool in its bargains with other big powers. This is the calibrated approach of China in the ongoing discussions and negotiations about various non-proliferation measures like FMCT, weaponisation of outer space, etc. therefore, its overall approach will be based on this pragmatic approach to contemporary balance of power, articulated through comprehensive national strength and multipolarity.


Response to NMD

Attributing China’s decision to modernise and tailor its nuclear arsenal entirely to the National Missile debate on USA will be taking too simplistic an approach. Yet, if we look at various aspects of the current Chinese efforts to improve its existing limited nuclear arsenal, the main focus has shifted from routine modernisation to categorically addressing the future possible threats contained in the US proposals on NMD and TMD. As argued earlier, it is taking a multi-pronged approach. With the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union, the Chinese leadership under a weather-worn pragmatist like Deng Xiaoping has decided to shift its focus totally away from a bipolar global system.

At one level it can be argued that this international outlook in its essence is a textual “balance of power” approach based on national interest. But it substantially deviates from the classical western teaching on the subject. If one can use one of his own favourite phrases “the Chinese characteristics”, it will be easier to explain his argument; it essentially is an approach based on “international relations with Chinese characteristics”. At another level it also can be argued that, his global outlook is still largely rooted in Mao’s “three world theory”. Being a quintessential pragmatist, for Deng these were mere slogans. His basic idea was to enhance China’s economic and political power to keep better control on the foreign policy initiatives. Hence he was very flexible in approaching the international system dominated by a group of western powers.

In order to understand China’s approach to NMD, this background is very essential. China fully understands that technologically and scientifically USA is the most advanced power in the world, therefore, China can achieve its goal of becoming a modern, prosperous and independent global player only by cooperating with the US. To achieve this ultimate aim it is ready to go along with USA, while not projecting itself as a camp follower and losing its credibility among its supporters, a number of developing and underdeveloped nations. Again, this is also tempered with China’s growing status as a major trading power.

During the early part of this year, while George W Bush was articulating his pet project of NMD and his eagerness to cut to size China in the foreign policy profile of the USA, China was more apprehensive about his real intentions. The technical failures of the first few experiments of Pentagon of its experimental kill vehicle and other delays coupled with the subsequent developments after Bush’s coming to power, have again emboldened the Chinese leadership. Now their approach is to influence the ultimate deployment of missile defence system in a way that preserves China’s own deterrence capability against USA.

One of the underlying approaches of Bush and his defence team consisting some of the veteran Cold War era warriors is to repeat their performance by offering the bait of competitive escalation of warheads and their delivery systems. This was a strategic ploy used successfully by USA in escalating the defence expenditure of the erstwhile Soviet Union. Chinese are well aware of this strategy and will avoid falling into this trap at any cost.

Owing to some of the latest developments in the field of changing security perception the world over, China has already gained substantial breathing time. The Bush administration’s approach to nuclear weapons is radically different from that of the almost evangelistic approach to non-proliferation of the previous Democratic party led Clinton administration. Due to their own domestic constituencies and their ambivalent approach to the ongoing stockpile stewardship programme, many a persons including Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are advocates of the renewed weapons tests. A recent New York Times news item further clarified this, ”a senior official said this week that in the future, a resumption by China of underground tests of its nuclear weapons might be accepted by the United States, which might also someday want to resume testing.” 13

These developments show that China will be more than willing to accommodate and live with an NMD developed and deployed by USA. In private, at least, some Chinese scholars have started articulating a position that China will not have any problem with USA setting up a very limited number of intercept sites for its proposed NMD. In other words, they are ready to live with it so long as it does not affect their penetration capability. Till now, the Chinese were grudgingly or happily living with a highly asymmetric nuclear equation, with the knowledge that they would be in a position to penetrate the US mainland with at least one warhead, which would do unacceptable damage to the USA.

However, their approach to TMD (in the US scheme of things these distinctions are becoming less important) is going to remain more vehement and politically motivated. This is not really linked to their worries about technical capabilities. Rather it pertains to their approach to Taiwan as well as their long term worries about a militarily independent and strong Japan. The sudden increase in the numbers of deployed short range ballistic missiles like DF-11 and DF-15 shows this concern. Still as there is less likelihood of an open war over Taiwan, these missiles will further add to Indian worries. Further, China is also carrying on with its own research and development on missile interception capability. At least three tests have come to the public notice. It is also known that China has a fairly advanced research programme on lasers and their ability to use them as interceptors in the outerspace.


Impact of Terror Tuesday

The horrendous attacks on September 11, 2001 on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in USA have really churned the world opinion unprecedentedly. It has given a further fillip to the discussion on the use of asymmetric warfare as a strategy. Terrorism in its different forms in many other countries, including in our own, has claimed more lives than the casualties in the twin tower tragedy at ground zero and Pentagon. But the impact of this tragedy, carried by live, dramatic visions of civilian aeroplanes hitting the majestic steel structures and accompanying human tragedy have taken terrorism to the drawing rooms of families around the globe. These overly grotesque pictures shown by the television networks repeatedly have stirred the minds of the young and old alike. To a great extent this attack has spread unprecedented phobia and panic among the people and the real repercussions of these events are going to reverberate for a long time to come.

The possible long-term fallout of these incidents on various age groups of people and different business sectors are going to affect the economies of nations all over the world. What an impact it will create on the expenditures of nations, big corporations and individuals will also in turn affect the defence expenditures of nations. This aspect needs a closer look.

In relation to the debate of nuclear weapons and missile defence, this event has added at least two new dimensions. First, the planned deployment schedules are bound to go haywire due to various reasons. At least in the short term the US administration and its various other agencies are going to pay more attention to the immediate problem-the homeland security. Internal security of the states which was hitherto taken as an accepted reality resulting in complacency have undergone a change. Secondly, the fund allocation for the project is likely to be reduced. The impending recession may not affect the overall outlay for the defence expenditure, but the priorities are certainly bound to change.

Now, let us first see what will be the impact of September 11, 2001 attacks on the missile defence debate. As the technologies are still under development and possible deployment dates and, even the targets are still far away, the reactions from various quarters within the USA have to be taken at their face value. Further, the smooth passing of the current financial year’s budget allocation without much of a debate has to be seen in the context of the eagerness of the members of the Congress to support the administration in its fight against terrorism. Yet, whatever statements come from the president and other officials show their willingness to pursue the MD programme. In his recent press conference, President Bush stated, “In terms of missile defence, I can’t wait to visit with my friend, Vladimir Putin, in Shanghai, to reiterate once again that the Cold War is over, it’s done with, and that there are new threats that we face; and no better example of that new threat than the attack on America on September 11.” 14

This sentiment was further reiterated by Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, in an exclusive interview, “this is no longer a fantasy dream of technology. We are entering an area where this is a practical application. I have got a lot of confidence in our ability, if we continue down this path, to actually have a practical missile defence capability against all ranges of missiles.” 15

However, the wider debate in USA after the September 11 incident does not reflect this confidence. According to Noam Chomsky, a well-known critic of US foreign policy, these “events reveal, dramatically, the foolishness of the project of ‘missile defence’. 16 Currently, not only he but many others including some influential US politicians have begun to have second thoughts about the efficacy and diplomatic use of missile defence system for the overall interest of USA.

At another level, the terror attacks on USA have initiated a far more serious debate on the whole concept of deterrence and nuclear weapons themselves. Being a nuclear power, India has to follow closely and learn lessons from it and suitably incorporate some of these elements into the nation’s overall security and nuclear strategy. This debate, on the use of nuclear deterrence against a possible chemical or a biological attack, even the possibility of using nuclear weapon for a pre-emptive strike in order to deter the above threats was going on in USA for the last few years. The terror attacks have added a new urgency to this whole debate. It will call for a range of adjustments in the existing nuclear arsenal of USA. As some feel, “that we need to regain some capability for some low yield nuclear weapons and particularly earth-penetrating low-yield weapons.” 17

One of the immediate fallout maybe that, in the near future, USA is likely to go for a series of tests aimed towards this end. China is looking for this chance to finish its job of refining its own arsenal. This can provide a window of opportunity for India, therefore, it is time to carry out the necessary tests required for making India’s nuclear deterrent a potent one against any possible adversary.


Lessons for India

The evolving debate on missile defence systems around the world provides a chance for India to take a fresh look at its nuclear weapons and its linkage with the overall national security strategy. The experiences of nation states ever since the World War II have adequately proved that these are not mere weapons that adorn the military arsenal of a nation, like any other heavy artillery pieces exhibited in parades. They are basically political and diplomatic tools to achieve the desired strategic goal of a nation to enhance its own national interest.

Hence it helps to have a look at what others think about India’s deterrence capability. According to Sun Tzu knowing one’s enemy is as equally important an element as knowing one’s own self. China being India’s immediate neighbour and an experienced nation with adequate deterrence capability with nuclear weapons, it is important for India to know what they think about India’s nuclear weapons. Their official military mouthpiece assesses that, “to really form a nuclear deterrent force, India must not rely merely on its successful nuclear tests but should also possess two conditions; the first is making warheads smaller and the second is improving carrier systems and auxiliary facilities.” 18 This is a reasonable argument, more or less similar to the sentiments expressed by some Chinese scholars in their private conversation. This gives a clear message, that merely carrying out a few tests does not form a sufficient deterrent force.

As there is little information about Indian efforts to improve upon the nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, let us take the Chinese argument at its face value. Regarding the nuclear weapons and their deterrence posture, India has made two major mistakes, the first, not adequately using the nuclear weapons as a diplomatic and political tool in its dealings with other nations, second by focusing solely on its small western neighbour, Pakistan. A country of India’s size, depth and power can easily deter it by its conventional capabilities. Therefore, a rethink on the articulation of Indian nuclear weapons in terms of Pakistan as well as signing nuclear related CBMs with that country may be needed. India should have waited patiently and prepared its ground for China to take note of its deterrence capability and initiate a nuclear dialogue with it. This way India could have gained a larger leeway in its bargains with both Pakistan and China. One major flaw in carrying on with the nuclear related discussions with Pakistan was that this undermined India’s strident public posture in advertising the fact that Pakistan is only a cat’s paw in China’s nuclear posture. At another level India also needs to take note of the fact that whatever information on Indian nuclear installations India passes on to Pakistan is readily available to China as well as other allies of Pakistan.

The ongoing interlude of nuclear debates at the international level, gained mainly through the NMD debate and the unprecedented attention of the USA on the terrorism issue can be utilised to India’s tactical advantage. In this interregnum India must finish its agenda of improving required strategical improvements in its nuclear arsenal. It must store adequate fissile material, improve its weapons and delivery systems.



Since the genie of NMD is out of the bottle, it is far better to be prepared to deal with it rather than wish it away. Even within the USA’s scientific community, there is no agreement on the efficacy of this system. There are consistent doubters like Ted Postol and others. However, the defence establishment is bent upon putting together a missile defence system for USA and its allies. Among the Pentagon establishment and its linked lobbies in military industrial complex as well as at the congressional level also there are many advocates of this system. If one looks at it objectively, this proposal by itself is not jeopardising India’s national interests directly. Under these circumstances it is better for India to deal with it as it comes and articulate reactions on the basis of a well-thought out strategic perspective.

Having stated this, India’s long-term strategic interest remains dependent on whatever is happening in its periphery. The Chinese approach to NMD is not at all giving any comfort to the Indian security. China has already built enough missiles and nuclear warheads to deter India for the present. Therefore, India’s efforts to make a counterforce to those weapons have already become that much more complicated. This calls for India to make a credible deterrence capability against any possible future threat from China. It should not be in a position to subject India to nuclear blackmail in the future. India has to adopt a more aggressive diplomatic posture in its dealings regarding nuclear deterrence and the entire issue of non-proliferation mechanisms.

China’s efforts in the short term will be to project India as the villain in the world: “ . . . if India further arms its troops with nuclear weapons, Pakistan will be certainly able to adopt corresponding measures and the South Asian region will once again get into the mess of nuclear arms race.” 19 To counter this it will try to appeal to the international community to cap India’s nuclear capabilities at the current levels. The same article exhorts, “If India insists on preparing to establish nuclear armoured troops in an effort to act as the overlord of the region with its nuclear arms, such efforts will undoubtedly give a head-on blow to the international community’s arms control and disarmament efforts.”20 These matters need the urgent attention of Indian policy-makers. One main lacunae in the Chinese logic is that they are not taking into consideration the fact that India is already living in a highly nuclearised environment. It is neither a party to any nuclear non-proliferation mechanism, nor does it enjoy the nuclear umbrella of a big power. Therefore, it has to protect its own interests all alone.

Due to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, the peripheral situation has already undergone a sea-change in the last few weeks, wherein Pakistan has once again become a frontline state for the USA. During the 1980’s when Pakistan enjoyed the same position, the USA conveniently looked the other way when Islamabad acquired its nuclear capability clandestinely. Even after that the US has not done anything substantial to dissuade China from giving nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan. The history has taken a full circle and we are yet again in for a long haul in the Afghanistan quagmire. China is still a partner of the USA in this struggle against terrorism. Therefore, the chances are that Pakistan will continue to get required supplies for its nuclear and missile manufacturing facilities without any hindrance.

This has further complicated the job of Indian policy-makers and diplomats. Luckily, India has also “volunteered” to be a partner of the USA this time. Therefore, its effort must be to complete successfully the remaining work on developing a robust nuclear capability during this interregnum. At the diplomatic level, India has to understand that all the non-proliferation regimes are frayed at their edges and if they are collapsing under their own weight let it be so. Not only that India’s effort should be to position itself at a level where it can take advantage of the situation when these tectering old structures give way on their own. Meanwhile India must be ready to take part in a new round of global disarmament measures, where it has a better stake and say.

At the same time it will be in India’s interest to pursue a policy of good neighbourliness with China to be in a position to deal with it in an equitable manner at bilateral and multilateral levels.



The author express his thanks to his colleagues Sujit, Uday, Srikanth, Shankari, Sanjana, Deva, Keshav, Arpita and Mukta for their suggestions and help.



Note *:   M.V. Rappai is a Research Fellow at IDSA who has specialised in Chinese studies, particularly its military strategy. He has published extensively on this subject and travelled widely in China. Back.

Note 1:   Manpreet Sethi, Ballistic Missile Defences: Implications for India, Strategic Analysis, Vol.XXV No.6 September 2001. Back.

Note 2:   Sujit Dutta, China and Arms Control in Asian Strategic Review 1996-97 edited by Air Cmde (Retd.) Jasjit Singh and Michael D. Swaine and Ashley J. Tellis, Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy: Past Present and Future, RAND Corp. 2000, P. 133 – 140. Back.

Note 3:   It will be useful to note that during their bilateral negotiations USA has allowed to create a new agricultural subsidy structure specific to China at 8.5 per cent, whereas for all other nations it still remains as 5 and 10 per cent for developed or developing countries respectively. Back.

Note 4:   Xinhua News Agency item carried by FBIS-CHI-2001-0314 also see FBIS-CHI-2001-1009. Back.

Note 5:   A MRV system releases multiple RVs along the missile’s linear flight path, often at a single target; a MIRV system can maneouver to several different release points to provide targeting flexibility. Back.

Note 6:   China’s stand and Attitude on the Nuclear Issue, New Star Publisher, Beijing 1996 P 16-20. Back.

Note 7:   Arms Control Reporter-2001, P.612 H5. Back.

Note 8:   Opinion, at dt. 22 September 2001, also see John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai China Builds the Bomb, Stanford University Press 1988. Back.

Note 9:   Missile Threat 2015. htm at Back.

Note 10:   General Tao Hanzhang, Sun Tzu: The Art of War, Wordsworth Reference, Denmark, 1995, p 101. Back.

Note 11:   Office of the Secretary of Defence, USA, Proliferation: Threat And Response, January 2001 P.17. Back.

Note 12: dt. September 2, 2001 Back.

Note 13: October 11, 2001. Back.

Note 14:   Jane’s Defence Weekly, September 26, 2001. Back.

Note 15: Back.

Note 16:   International Herald Tribune, Bangkok October 6-7, 2001. Back.

Note 17:   Jiefangjun Bao (Liberation Army Daily) dt. September 3, 2001, for translation see FBIS-CHI-2001-0904. Back.

Note 18:   Ibid as note. 17. Back.

Note 19:   Ibid as note 17. Back.