China’s Missile Silos and the Sino-Indian Nuclear Competition
This summer, U.S. analysts using commercial satellite imagery discovered that China was significantly expanding its nuclear forces and building hundreds of new missile silos. With the new silos, China could potentially double the size of its arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The news sent shockwaves through Washington. The head of Strategic Command called the developments “breathtaking,” and the news is sure to embolden efforts to fund U.S. nuclear modernization efforts on Capitol Hill. While the United States has a much larger nuclear force than China — with 3,750 nuclear warheads in its nuclear weapons stockpile compared to China’s 350 warheads — it will still likely take a forceful response to China’s latest nuclear developments.
But how will India — China’s other nuclear armed adversary — react to Beijing’s new missile silos? India has a nuclear triad and is reported to have 150 nuclear warheads deployed on different air-, sea-, and land-based platforms. China, meanwhile, is estimated to have its nuclear weapons stockpile of 350 nuclear warheads deployed across different platforms. However, with the new missile silos and fears of an increase in Chinese nuclear warheads, the strategic asymmetry in the Sino-Indian nuclear relationship may become more stark.
Moreover, China and India continue to engage in hostilities in the Himalayas. In August 2021, over a hundred soldiers from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army crossed over to the Indian side of the border and damaged a bridge and other infrastructure before retreating. In June 2020, in the deadliest clash between the two countries in 45 years, more than 20 soldiers were killed in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh. This led to a heightened state of tensions and a war scare between the two countries. High-level military talks between the two nuclear states remain deadlocked, with regular hostilities at different points along the 3,488-kilometer Line of Actual Control. An increase in Chinese nuclear capabilities in this context has the potential to destabilize the region and spark a nuclear arms race. But will it?
India has been cautious in its nuclear relationship with China and is unlikely to have a dramatic response to the new missile silos at the moment. It has two nuclear-armed adversaries to consider, and its focus will remain on Pakistan. India will continue to modernize its nuclear arsenal with new counterforce nuclear delivery systems and to test multiple independently targeted re-entry ballistic missiles, which will allow it to manage its nuclear relationship with both nations. While the counterforce missiles and short-range nuclear delivery systems are aimed at Pakistan, India’s nuclear relationship with China will continue to be based on ensuring a secure second-strike capability.
No First Use, Second-Strike, and Caution
Despite the continuing military engagements along the Line of Actual Control, the Sino-Indian nuclear relationship remains stable. This is because India’s nuclear relationship with China rests on its survivable second-strike nuclear doctrine. It has pledged not to use its nuclear weapons first as a part of a no first use policy. This doctrine means that as long as India has a secure-second-strike capability — that is, the capability to absorb a nuclear first strike on its soil and then retaliate using its remaining nuclear forces — it will not need to build a large arsenal of nuclear weapons. It just needs to make sure that its nuclear weapons systems are well dispersed and survivable.
To do this, India has deployed its first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, the INS Arihant, as well as road- and rail-mobile ballistic missile launch systems. The rail-mobile Agni II ballistic missiles are likely aimed at targets in western, central, and southern China. Meanwhile, apart from the Arihant, India will deploy three more nuclear submarines by 2024. These submarines will be armed with the K-15 submarine-launched ballistic missile (750 kilometer range) and are intended to increase the survivability of Indian nuclear forces. Subsequently, the submarines will be armed with K-4 submarine-launched ballistic missiles that have a range of 3,500 kilometers (these missiles are currently under development).
India’s diversification of second-strike capabilities and the increased ranges on missile systems are aimed primarily at China — and the latter has taken note. However, given that both states have declared no first use and credible minimum deterrence policies (i.e., they profess to rely on small numbers of nuclear weapons to deter their adversaries) there is unlikely to be a race to acquire a significantly higher number of nuclear weapons than the other.
Manageable Historical Asymmetry
China’s additional nuclear silos do not represent a new strategic problem for India. India has been on the weaker end of asymmetry in nuclear capability against China ever since the latter’s first nuclear test in 1964. Visibly concerned by Chinese nuclearization at the time, India sought the assurance of a nuclear umbrella from the United States and the Soviet Union, hoping this would deter China from attack. The United States and the Soviet Union did not comply. While India conducted its “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974, it chose to not overtly weaponize its nuclear capability at the time. Despite an adversarial relationship with China, the lack of any serious military engagements between the two countries (apart from a standoff in 1986-1987) meant that India could stop worrying and learn to live with the nuclear neighbor with whom it had a strategic asymmetry.
After India conducted nuclear weapons tests in 1998, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee wrote to President Bill Clinton that China was one of the main reasons for Indian nuclearization. However, at no point did India seek nuclear parity (i.e., attempting to build the same number of bombs as China). Instead, it remained content with a much smaller nuclear arsenal, owing to its belief in “credible minimum deterrence.”
India’s calculus will not have changed in 2021. Despite China building new missile silos, India’s vulnerability to Chinese nuclear forces remains unaltered. Even if not all the new Chinese silos contain missiles, it makes no difference for India. Whether China deploys 250 extra DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles in these silos, or whether it uses the silos as a part of a “shell game” strategy where some have missiles and others are simply decoys, there will be no fundamental change to the strategic asymmetry with China that India has historically been able to manage.
Border Conflict Remains at Low Escalation Level
Sino-Indian hostilities based on a longstanding boundary dispute have led to loss of life on both sides. In June 2020, there was fighting with fists, stones, and nail-studded bamboo poles near the Galwan valley that led to at least 20 casualties, sparking fears of war between the two countries. Both sides have deployed tens of thousands of troops and military equipment along the border. There have been two other major standoffs between India and China in the last decade: at Doklam on the Bhutan-China border in 2017, and at Daulat Beg Oldi in 2013 (also known as the Depsang Standoff).
The Sino-Indian security competition is not driven by nuclear weapons. While the boundary remains disputed, Chinese incursions into India’s territory will likely continue. However, these standoffs have remained at low levels of escalation. Even at Galwan, there was no exchange of gunfire, and future confrontations are likely to remain at the same level. Escalation to a higher level of conventional conflict is unlikely and further escalation to nuclear signaling or competition is extremely improbable.
During the Galwan crisis, India’s sole nuclear submarine, INS Arihant, was sent out to sea. This was seen by some as a potential nuclear signal. However, the deployment was likely part of the Indian navy’s standard operating procedure to move its operational platforms out to sea during a national security crisis. Furthermore, the lack of communication or clarity on whether the submarine was armed with nuclear weapons or not makes it very unlikely to be a nuclear signal.
China’s recent nuclear modernization efforts are likely to affect the strategic balance with the United States. American officials are already expressing their concern, and strategic planners have begun to account for the qualitative improvement Beijing’s nuclear forces. The reaction in India will be much different. New Delhi believes, for the most part, that its more modest nuclear arsenal meets its deterrence goals, and additional Chinese capabilities won’t significantly change that. To be sure, Indian nuclear modernization will continue. Likewise, India will keep a close eye on China and bolster its survivable second-strike capability by greater dispersal of its strategic nuclear forces. While these forces will see both qualitative (i.e., the addition of multiple independently targeted re-entry systems) and quantitative improvements, they will neither be drastic nor introduced as a reaction to China’s silos. Rather, India’s nuclear modernization — if it moves toward a more counterforce capability — will be aimed at Pakistan. Indeed, if India does reconsider its no first use pledge (as has been hinted at time and again), that change will likely be aimed at coercing Pakistan, not China.
Right now, India is satisfied with the nuclear status quo with China. But in the medium to long term, as two different nuclear policies for Pakistan and China evolve, India might have to reconsider its asymmetry vis-à-vis China.