The Next Nuclear Arms Race

India and Pakistan are the two countries most likely to engage in nuclear war, or so goes the common wisdom. Yet if recent events are any indication, the world's most vigorous nuclear competition may well erupt between Asia's two giants: India and China.

Both countries already house significant and growing arsenals. China is estimated to have approximately 450 warheads; India, roughly 100. Though intensifying as of late, Sino-Indian nuclear competition has a long history: India's pursuit of a weapons program in the 1960s was triggered in part by China's initial nuclear tests, and the two have eyed one another's arsenals with mounting concern ever since. The competition intensified in 2007, when China began to upgrade missile facilities near Tibet, placing targets in northern India within range of its forces.

Yet the stakes have been raised yet again in recent months. Indian defense minister A.K. Antony announced last month that the military will soon incorporate into its arsenal a new intermediate-range missile, the Agni-III, which is capable of reaching all of China's major cities. Delhi is also reportedly considering redeploying survivable, medium-range Agni-IIs to its northeastern border. And just last month, India shifted a squadron of Su-30MKI fighters to a base just 150 kilometers from the disputed Sino-Indian border. An Indian Air Force official told Defense News these nuclear-armed planes could operate deep within China with midflight refueling.

For its part, China continues to enhance the quality, quantity and delivery systems of its nuclear forces. The Pentagon reported last month that the People's Liberation Army has replaced older, vulnerable ballistic missiles deployed in Western China with modern, survivable ones; this transition has taken place over the last four years. China's Hainan Island naval base houses new, nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines and affords those boats easy access to the Indian Ocean. China's military is also developing a new, longer range submarine-launched ballistic missile which will allow its subs to strike targets throughout India from the secure confines of the South China Sea.

No single event has stoked this rise in tensions. China, already concerned about India's growing strength and its desire to play a greater role in Asia, is even less enthused about the burgeoning strategic partnership between Delhi and Washington. While Beijing has learned to live with American forces on its eastern periphery, the possibility of an intimate U.S.-India military relationship has generated fears of encirclement. The ongoing Sino-Indian border dispute, as well as India's position astride China's key maritime shipping lanes, has made the prospect of a Washington-Delhi axis appear particularly troubling.

India likewise feels encircled by China's so-called "string of pearls"--a series of Chinese-built, ostensibly commercial port facilities in the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. Beijing's military ties to Pakistan, interference in the Kashmir dispute and references to Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian state, as "Southern Tibet" have done little to reassure New Delhi of Chinese intentions. The rapid growth of China's conventional military might in recent years--between 2000 and 2009, China's military spending more than tripled--and the lack of clarity as to its intentions, has spurred India to pursue its own military modernization.

These shifts in India's and China's nuclear force postures thus represent only the latest and most serious efforts to constrain and convey dissatisfaction with the other's perceived regional ambitions. But they are more troubling than conventional redeployments.

First, these developments suggest that neither country has confidence in the other's "no first use" policy. India has good reason for concern: The number of missions attributed to China's deterrent--responding to nuclear attacks, deterring conventional attacks against nuclear assets, providing Beijing freedom from nuclear coercion and otherwise "reinforcing China's great power status"--were enough to make the authors of the Pentagon's annual report on China's military power last year question the country's commitment to its "no first use" policy. India, for its part, relies on its nuclear forces to offset gaps and imbalances between its conventional military capabilities and those of China.

Second, there is a point at which efforts to enhance deterrence can foster an arms race. Any attempt on the part of China to increase its own defenses necessarily weakens, or is perceived to weaken, the security of India, thus spurring further defense build-ups; the opposite is true as well. Shifts in nuclear force posture can be particularly disruptive, and have been known to precipitate crises. Upon the discovery of Soviet efforts to deploy missiles to Cuba in 1962, for example, the U.S. responded militarily with a naval "quarantine" of the island, bringing Washington and Moscow as close as they have ever come to a nuclear war.

Finally, the redeployments of India's and China's nuclear forces suggest that there is deep-seated and growing discord between the two Asian giants. This is troubling news for a region whose future peace and prosperity depends heavily on continued comity between Delhi and Beijing. It is only a matter of time before the China-India military competition begins to affect neighboring states. China's nuclear force modernization, for instance, stands to threaten not only India, but also Korea, Japan and other U.S. partners in Asia. A dramatic defense buildup in India, meanwhile, will no doubt leave Pakistan feeling less secure.

Tensions are unlikely to ease any time soon. The two countries appear much closer to the brink of an all-out arms race than they do to any resolution of their differences. While each profits from the other's economic growth, it is that very growth--which finances military modernization and which is so dependent on potentially vulnerable overseas trade--that creates the conditions for heightened insecurity.

Michael Mazza is a senior research associate at AEI. Tim Sullivan is a research fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: Bigstock/Makhnach S.

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