In February 2016, Indian military officials confirmed media reports that the country’s first nuclear-armed submarine, the INS Arihant, had successfully completed sea trials and is ready to be deployed. After obtaining an indigenous sea-based nuclear capability, India will have successfully achieved a full nuclear triad (land-based ballistic missiles, bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles). Recently, India has made impressive progress in developing long-range, land-based missiles that can reach most parts of China. Last January, India successfully tested the Agni-V ballistic missile from a mobile platform, which has a range of up to 5,000 kilometers and which can reach all of China from central India. Furthermore, India has started developing the Agni-VI intercontinental ballistic missile, which reportedly has a planned range of 8,000 kilometers and may be able to carry multiple warheads.

For decades, the principal goal of China’s nuclear-weapon program has been to develop and maintain a reliable second-strike capability vis-à-vis the United States. There have been periodic nuclear dialogues between Washington and Beijing for decades. By contrast, it appears that India has barely, if at all, featured in China’s nuclear planning. Moreover, China has been unwilling to hold talks with India on nuclear matters (aside from civilian nuclear energy cooperation) for multiple reasons. For one thing, India’s capability to conduct nuclear strikes against China has been very limited until recently. Thus, China did not see India’s nuclear capability as a major security concern. For another, Beijing worries that a nuclear dialogue with New Delhi could be misconstrued as Chinese approval of India’s illegitimate possession of nuclear weapons outside the parameters of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or misinterpreted as an acknowledgement of India’s status as a de facto nuclear-armed state. Aside from this, China may also worry that opening such talks with India would raise concerns in Pakistan. 

In fact, due to the sensitivity of nuclear issues, China and India rarely conduct even unofficial “Track 2” exchanges or discussions on these matters. Typically, Chinese and Indian scholars and retired officials only engage one another at very occasional multilateral academic discussions. 

Tong Zhao
Tong Zhao is a fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.
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Meanwhile, India has been improving its nuclear capabilities very quickly, which in turn affects Pakistan’s nuclear calculations and thus influences the overall regional security environment in South Asia. These dynamics affect China’s security interests. It is time, therefore, for China to seriously consider how to formulate a stable nuclear relationship with India in the service of China’s long-term interests in the region.

The Rationale for a China-India Nuclear Dialogue

For a variety of reasons, there is room for adjusting China’s current policy of not holding nuclear talks with India. First, India’s possession of nuclear weapons and its continued efforts to improve them are realities that won’t easily be changed. China’s continued refusal to tacitly acquiesce to India’s status as a de facto nuclear-armed state won’t reduce the potential challenge that India’s rapidly improving nuclear capabilities pose to China’s security interests. Conversely, if China were to tacitly recognize India as a nuclear-armed state, it would not confer on India the legitimacy that comes from membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Thus, having a nuclear dialogue with India would not deviate from China’s current nonproliferation policy. In addition, most members of the international community have gradually acquiesced to India’s nuclear-weapon capabilities. For Beijing to start a nuclear dialogue with New Delhi will not undermine the international nonproliferation regime. 

Second, conducting nuclear talks with India would not imply compromise by China on any existing policies. Quite the opposite—one purpose of such discussions would be for China to clarify its position and dispel the misconceptions that the outside world (and especially India) have about China’s nuclear policies. Even more importantly, China could use such talks to place pressure on India and urge it to fully consider Beijing’s interests as New Delhi continues to develop its nuclear capabilities and formulate its nuclear policies. 

At the same time as holding nuclear talks with India, China should also maintain effective channels of communication with Pakistan.  Beijing should reassure Islamabad that it was keeping Pakistani security concerns fully in mind when conducting such discussions with India in order to safeguard rather than undermine Pakistan’s interests.  

In fact, talks between China and Pakistan could be useful because the two countries have a dearth of common understanding on nuclear stability issues. As the nuclear capabilities of India and Pakistan grow, along with the influence that their nuclear arsenals have on regional stability, it is imperative that China open nuclear talks with both of these countries.

In the opening phases of engagement with India, there would be no need for China to talk with it in an official diplomatic capacity—regular academic and Track 2 dialogues, backed by the governments, should first test the water. Chinese and Indian experts currently have almost no direct exchanges on nuclear topics, and a dialogue would allow for the formation of new people-to-people relationships. If this sort of unofficial dialogue bears fruit, talks can progress to Track 1.5 or official levels. Moreover, if China does not wish to use the term “nuclear dialogue,” it could use a less sensitive label, such as a strategic stability dialogue. After all, the most important aim of a China-India nuclear dialogue would be to safeguard common interests and avoid the negative consequences that a needless nuclear arms competition would have on bilateral and regional strategic stability.

In 1988, India and Pakistan signed an agreement that established some confidence-building measures and contained a pledge not to attack each other’s nuclear infrastructure. In 2005, the two countries signed a further agreement that requires them to notify each other about ballistic missile launches. If longtime rivals like India and Pakistan could manage to agree on such useful measures, then Asia’s two major nuclear-armed neighbors—China and India—should also be able to agree on necessary measures to facilitate communication and confidence building on core nuclear and security issues.

The Practical Significance of a China-India Nuclear Dialogue

In important ways, Indian officials and scholars alike have long misunderstood China’s nuclear strategies, policies, and strategic intentions. India, for example, does not believe China’s unconditional no first use policy and does not understand the rationale behind China’s nuclear modernization programs. India is skeptical of China’s claim that it only seeks to develop a nuclear retaliatory capability at the minimum necessary level, and it does not accept that China has no intention of threatening India with nuclear weapons. To no small extent, India’s distrust of China’s nuclear policies has driven India’s nuclear weapons development. A regular bilateral dialogue is the only way to gradually reduce misunderstanding and build confidence. 

Until recently, India’s nuclear-weapon capabilities were very limited and did not affect China’s strategic planning in any substantial way, so China could avoid paying them much heed. However, India’s nuclear capabilities are undergoing rapid development. Important Chinese targets are already within range of India’s ballistic missiles, and India is taking steps to develop both missiles with multiple warheads and sea-launched nuclear missiles. In addition, New Delhi is advancing by leaps and bounds in domains related to nuclear weapons, such as nuclear-powered submarines, missile defense, anti-satellite capabilities, space technology, and hypersonic cruise missiles. India has also taken steps to expand its capacity to produce fissile material. These developments put India in a position to quickly enlarge its nuclear arsenal, should the need arise. They are quickly narrowing the gap between India and China and beginning to affect China’s nuclear procurement plans. When it comes to protecting its nuclear deterrent and maintaining regional stability, China needs to engage in dialogue with India.

Since China and India almost never engage on nuclear issues, even some basic questions need answering. Should China and India pursue minimal capabilities of mutually assured destruction to serve as the basis for stable bilateral nuclear relations? If so, what would constitute such capabilities? Haven’t the two countries already achieved them? What is the best way to foster strategic stability and mitigate nuclear competition, given the small size of both counties’ nuclear arsenals? Without developing a common understanding of these basic but critically important issues, the two sides could fall into a trap of continuously strengthening their nuclear capabilities but failing to achieve stable nuclear relations, which then triggers a series of counterproductive competitions across all military domains related to nuclear weapons. Due to the interrelated ties between China, India, and Pakistan on nuclear issues, negative interactions between China and India would further intensify the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan. 

If a China-India nuclear dialogue can contain negative interactions between those two states, it could, therefore, also serve to stabilize nuclear dynamics in South Asia as a whole.  For some time, the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan has been a major threat to regional stability in South Asia. As China’s One Belt, One Road initiative is implemented, Chinese investment and direct economic interests in South Asia will become ever greater, increasing the practical need for stability in the region. 

Aside from this, India’s nuclear development is, to some extent, being pushed forward by domestic interest groups. India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), for instance, engages in active lobbying on behalf of the country’s ballistic-missile and missile-defense programs. Given these circumstances, China needs to comprehensively engage with the relevant domestic Indian organizations that conduct research on and contribute to the country’s strategic security policies. One goal for unofficial Track-2 dialogues should be to understand the range of Indian perspectives on nuclear developments. Another more ambitious goal, if possible, would be to gradually influence Indian policy thinking and prevent domestic Indian interest groups from being driven by narrow departmental interests to destabilize overall China-India nuclear relations. 

Matters for Discussion at a China-India Nuclear Dialogue

The first aim of a China-India nuclear dialogue should be to identify and solidify shared views and common understandings in their existing nuclear policies. Among all nuclear-armed states, China’s and India’s thinking and policies on a wide range of nuclear issues are the closest to each other, so it should not be difficult for the two countries to reach consensus—although the infrequency of their interactions can cause both sides to dismiss or reject each other’s positions in reality. 

For example, China and India are the only two countries in the world – except North Korea – that adopt an explicit policy of no first use for nuclear weapons. Beijing and New Delhi both embrace strategies calling for a minimalist approach to maintaining reliable nuclear deterrence, and both countries exercise considerable restraint in building up their nuclear arsenals. China and India have also both made negative security assurances to non-nuclear-weapons states, pledging that they will never threaten to use nuclear weapons against them. In peacetime, China and India both keep their nuclear arsenals at a relatively low alert level with nuclear warheads and missiles stored separately. This  policy avoids the possibility of accidental launches—a risk that is inherent for nuclear weapons kept on high alert. The two countries also have the same long-held position in support of comprehensive and thorough nuclear disarmament. These similarities reflect important shared understandings between China and India on the nature and role of nuclear weapons. Such shared understandings create an important foundation for a productive nuclear dialogue. 

Due, however, to a lack of direct communication, China and India harbor serious doubts about each other’s nuclear policies and haven’t recognized this substantial common ground. If China and India can realize that important areas of consensus already exist, they can push forward several confidence-building measures and turn this common ground into substantive cooperation. For instance, China and India could discuss the possibility of signing a mutual pledge not to use nuclear weapons first. They could also reaffirm their joint support for the goal of comprehensive nuclear disarmament. The two countries could take other steps too, such as stating clearly that the role of nuclear weapons should be limited to deterrence, jointly resisting policies to raise the role of nuclear weapons in national defense strategies, and refraining from providing research and development funding for tactical nuclear weapons or elevating the importance of such weapons in national doctrine.  

The second aim should be to try to bridge important gaps in mutual understanding. There is a lack of understanding between the two countries regarding the objectives of each other’s efforts to modernize their nuclear weapons. Indian scholars and officials commonly overestimate the size of China’s nuclear arsenal and worry that China has the capability to execute a preemptive nuclear strike against India. For its part, China also fails to understand the goals of India’s nuclear-weapon development or the thinking and logic behind its on-going nuclear modernization programs. Both countries could benefit from explaining to each other their objectives for modernizing their nuclear arsenals and making it clear that neither country is pursuing the ability to achieve nuclear primacy over the other or against a third country. 

As for principles governing the use of nuclear weapons, China and India could jointly announce that neither country intends or plans to attack the other’s military or civilian nuclear facilities. The Indian and Pakistani practice of exchanging a list of nuclear facilities every year is one confidence-building measure for China and India to consider adopting. China and India should be clear about what kinds of conflicts of interest could inadvertently trigger nuclear conflict, and the two countries should clearly express their bottom lines on the use of nuclear weapons so as to avoid miscalculations that could – intentionally or unintentionally – lead to a nuclear conflict. In terms of sea-based nuclear weapons, China and India should discuss how to use their respective nuclear-armed submarines to strengthen their respective nuclear deterrent capabilities without triggering more widespread naval friction and conflict. As for both countries’ ongoing efforts to develop missile defense capabilities, the problem facing Beijing is how to reassure India that China’s future missile defense system will not undermine India’s nuclear counterstrike capability. For New Delhi, one of the greatest challenges is to decide whether India needs to deploy a missile defense system capable of intercepting Chinese ballistic missiles in the future. Another emerging challenge that needs discussion is how to ensure that joint U.S,.-Indian efforts on ballistic missile defense do not pose a threat to China’s security interests. 

China and India should also discuss the future of the regional nuclear order. Specifically, India is currently striving to become a member of major global nonproliferation institutions including the Nuclear Suppliers Group, with support from the United States and other countries. China worries that if India gains membership but Pakistan does not, it may trigger a more serious arms race between New Delhi and Islamabad that would not bode well for the regional nuclear balance or long-term stability. A candid discussion on these concerns would help find workaround for all parties. In addition, China and India both face international criticism over the opacity of their nuclear programs. But a deeper look reveals that the two countries embrace different levels of transparency in different aspects of their nuclear programs. China’s nuclear doctrine and policy of no first use are more clear-cut than those of India, for instance, while India is more forthcoming about the development of its nuclear weapon delivery systems than China is. The two countries can learn from each other, and exchanges on these topics can serve to bridge differences in opinion and enhance mutual understanding.

Finally, a China-India nuclear dialogue could be used for testing the potential to conduct concrete cooperation on less sensitive issues. Setting aside nuclear weapons and arms control, China and India have important shared interests in the areas of civilian nuclear energy, nuclear safety, and preventing nuclear terrorism. The idea of pushing cooperation in these specific areas to prepare the ground for a more comprehensive bilateral nuclear dialogue is worth considering. When President Xi Jinping visited India in September 2014, he again reaffirmed the prospects of China and India cooperating in the area of civilian nuclear energy. In view of both countries’ overdependence on fossil fuels and their severe air pollution problems, China and India—as the world’s most potential-laden developing economies—can produce positive ecological and environmental returns in the area of civilian nuclear energy cooperation. In terms of using nuclear energy safely, both China and India still have room to cooperate by constantly communicating, sharing best practices, and learning from each other.

Both countries also face the threat of terrorism and extremism, which has been on the rise. The most severe of these dangers is that terrorists may attack a nuclear facility or steal nuclear materials. Given that China and India neighbor each other and that both countries have large-scale, civilian nuclear facilities and an abundance of nuclear materials, a nuclear security breach in one country might very well become a security threat to the other. As a result, there is a real need for China and India to strengthen cooperative efforts to keep nuclear materials secure and combat nuclear terrorism. To this end, the two countries should consider setting up specialized communication channels, sharing intelligence, and learning from each other’s experiences to deepen coordination and cooperation. Given that the Nuclear Security Summit process has now almost certainly come to an end, China and India should pursue bilateral engagement on nuclear security cooperation, with the aim of protecting both countries’ shared interests and of laying the foundation for a regional nuclear security cooperation framework.

This article was originally published by Chinese Social Sciences Today.