Despite the prominent role of nuclear issues in the Sino-Indian relationship—highlighted by the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal and China’s nuclear partnership with Pakistan—they remain one of the least-understood arenas of bilateral interaction. Carnegie’s Lora Saalman offered initial findings from a landmark conference, “China and India: Nuclear Doctrine and Dynamics,” held in June at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, which involved over 40 Chinese and Indian experts. Carnegie’s Ashley J. Tellis assessed implications for U.S. interests in Asia, and Carnegie’s Toby Dalton moderated.

China-India Nuclear Conference Takeaways

Saalman highlighted ten areas where China and India demonstrate common approaches in nuclear posture and practice. She argued direct engagement on tensions in Sino-Indian relations is essential, as existing bilateral meetings often avoid contentious issues that can stymie progress in the political and economic realm.

  • Similarities in Nuclear Posture: While convergence exists in both India and China’s rhetorical posture on nuclear policy—such as no first use, minimum credible deterrence, disarmament, and negative security assurances—Saalman explored points of disagreement. 

    1. No First Use: Both India and China have articulated policies of no first use for nuclear weapons. Yet, India remains suspicious of China’s pledge. Saalman relayed that a number of Indian academics have also suggested that given that India’s nuclear doctrine is in draft form, “no first use” remains an evolving concept, often complicated by concerns over a third actor–Pakistan. 
    2. Minimum Deterrence: Both India and China regard deterrence largely as a tool of coercion and de-emphasize it in their respective nuclear strategies. While both are adamant about maintaining small nuclear arsenals, questions remain in China over the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal enhancing India’s ability to expand its nuclear arsenal.

  • Parallels in Nuclear Practice: In terms of practice, Saalman said, China and India stand to gain by expanding dialogue on several rapidly expanding arenas.

    1. Ballistic Missile Defense: While noting that India’s missile defense program holds Pakistan as its primary target, Saalman argued that the China factor cannot be ignored. China has given prior missile assistance to Pakistan, and India aims to expand its intercepts from 2,000 to 5,000 kilometers in range, bringing more of China into range for both India’s offensive and defensive systems.  
    2. Civil Nuclear Energy: Saalman identified civil nuclear energy as generating the most agreement from Chinese and Indian experts at the conference. Given the two countries’ comparable civil nuclear ambitions, they could achieve progress by greater exchanges on safety and regulatory matters, program design, and lessons learned from Japan’s Fukushima accident, she argued. 

  • Space for Cooperation: Saalman outlined a number of steps that China and India could take to enhance understanding and cooperation on nuclear issues. 

    1. Agreements and Statements: Conference experts agreed that joint declarations on no first use, non-targeting or de-targeting weapons, and pledges not to attack nuclear installations could serve as models for the international community.
    2. Strategic Dialogue Mechanism: The establishment of a regular bilateral strategic forum would provide clarity on what constitutes an actual and perceived threat. 
    3. Joint Glossary and Studies: Collaboration on a Sino-Indian glossary or joint study on nuclear terminology would facilitate interaction and mitigate miscalculation. 
    4. Confidence-Building Measures: Experts suggested delimitations on ballistic missile defense and ballistic missile launch and deployments would provide  greater bilateral coordination.

Understanding Sino-Indian Relations

Tellis observed that the current nuclear relationship between China and India is fraught with asymmetries, which affect both current and future bilateral relations and manifest themselves at three distinct levels.

  • Unbalanced Public Interactions: The Chinese do not consider India to be of any significant consequence, Tellis argued. He described Beijing’s attitude as “neglect, bordering on disdain.” The opposite holds true in New Delhi, however, where China “looms large” as a security challenge. 
  • Hidden Strategic Decisions: Tellis explored behind-the-scenes developments between the two countries, noting that such insights are often the result of leaks or third parties, and thus should be treated with heightened skepticism. While Beijing  has adjusted to a nuclear India, it has done so by downplaying its strategic decisions in public and allowing the conventional power balance at the border to tip in India’s favor, Tellis said.  
  • Role of Outside Actors: India has long recognized that U.S. nuclear capabilities could help deter its rivals. This clearly changed after 1990, Tellis noted, as India sought its own nascent nuclear capabilities. He described China’s decision to cultivate security links with Pakistan as pure “realpolitik.” Saalman noted Pakistan and China are inextricably linked in the Indian security calculus, yet Chinese experts often miss this fact.

The Road Ahead

Saalman concluded that China and India have adopted similar positions on an impressive breadth of nuclear issues, even if they are often tempered by nuances. However, both convergence and divergence could serve as the foundation for joint studies by Chinese and Indian experts, cooperation to counter nuclear terrorism and illicit trafficking, and collaboration on best practices in civil nuclear energy, argued Saalman. 

  • Influence of the Media: Both Tellis and Saalman underscored the significant role that the Indian and Chinese media play in shaping perceptions. They explained that Chinese coverage of India is largely divided between soft cultural stories in the mainstream media and belligerent rhetoric in the blogosphere, but that the Indian media often highlights only the latter in its coverage.
  • Implications for the U.S.: Tellis argued that the continued uncertainties and asymmetries surrounding the Sino-Indian relationship will require the United States to maintain a robust nuclear capability. Both the Chinese and Indian definitions of “minimal deterrence” have a great deal of “elasticity,” he said, implying the potential for a rapid shift in nuclear dynamics should political relations between the two countries deteriorate.