NO country needs nuclear weapons—not any of the nuclear weapons states and not India or Pakistan (or Israel for that matter). The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is making a historic mistake in committing itself to exercising the nuclear option. The party's manifesto and, more recently, its national agenda state that a BJP government will "induct" nuclear weapons into India's defence. To the extent that this is a serious objective, it is profoundly mistaken. It is a mistake for a number of economic, diplomatic, political and moral reasons. But most of all it is a mistake for strategic reasons.
Nuclear weapons, it is usually argued, are necessary for deterrence or a balance of power against nuclear weapons powers. In India's case, nuclear weapons would be aimed principally at Pakistan and China. Neither deployment is warranted.
Those who advocate an Indian bomb as a way of deterring Pakistan's bomb invert history. India exploded a bomb in 1974. That Pakistan was moving towards a nuclear weapons capability before 1974 is reasonably clear, but if India had unambiguously closed off the nuclear option in the 1950s and 1960s the pressure on Islamabad to develop a nuclear capability would have been largely absent: this is a "what if" of history but not a risible or trivial one.
To declare that India needs the bomb to deter Pakistan's bomb is, therefore, rather perverse. Islamabad has repeatedly stated that it will accept any de-nuclearising agreement or nuclear arms control measure that New Delhi is prepared to accept. One could see this as mere tactical manoeuvre, but if New Delhi did indeed give up the nuclear option, Pakistan's "bluff" would be called. It is difficult to see how, in the court of world opinion as well as influential sectors of its own domestic opinion, Islamabad could reject a nuclear deal—especially if that deal included adopting postures of defensive sufficiency in conventional forces on both sides. A unilateral move to be rid of the bomb would also be a powerful psychological rupture, which could lead to dramatic moves for Indo-Pakistan reconciliation.
Those who want India to exercise the nuclear option argue that, in any case, the real mission of the bomb is to deter China and to achieve a balance of power with Beijing: even if Pakistan was our friend and did not have nuclear capability, China would remain a threat to our security.
Would it? Perhaps, but consider the following. From 1964 to 1974, India learned to live with a nuclear China and was no worse off for it strategically. Note that also since 1974, still without a fully-fledged nuclear capability, we have lived with the Chinese bomb with no great harm attaching to us.
The past of course is the past. Would the future be different? Chinese nuclear intimidation could occur in three kinds of circumstances. First of all, there remains the unresolved border dispute. Second, internal instabilities in China could encourage external "adventurism" by Beijing. As the Chinese leadership struggles to assert or retain political control, it may be tempted to use external "threats" to outmanoeuvre and discipline internal rivals. Third, the two countries, by virtue of their size and self-image, are likely to be perennial rivals for influence in Asia if not farther afield.
Nuclear asymmetry, it is thought, will strengthen Beijing's hand in each case. It will encourage obduracy over the border quarrel. Should instabilities in Tibet, and other areas of southern China,tempt the leadership to "teach" India a lesson (as a way of rallying support domestically), this temptation will be reinforced by nuclear superiority. And China's nuclear confidence will enable it to enlarge its spheres of influence to India's detriment.
Each of these propositions bears critical examination. First, while the border dispute is unresolved in a formal sense, Beijing has got most of what it wanted out of the quarrel. If its primary aim was to secure the route from Xinkiang to Tibet, it long ago accomplished its goal. India will, in time, negotiate a fair and just border settlement with China. But it is hard to see how nuclear weapons will help India get such an accord.
Second, there is considerable room for debate over the "internal-external" linkage. Were internal factors truly responsible for Beijing's wars against India and Vietnam? How vulnerable and unstable is China likely to be in future? Opinions vary greatly here, but in any case the more serious question is: In today's China, can domestic political troubles be eased by external distractions? Most importantly, would war with India be credible, given that the only serious bilateral issue—the border—favours China; and would it help or hurt an insecure regime to raise an India bogey in such circumstances?
Let us leave the answers to these questions to India's Sinologists, but with respect to the last it seems to me that while Japan, Russia and the US would serve as rallying points in China, there is no evidence that India figures or is likely to figure high in China's demonology or threat cosmology.
Third, nuclear weapons as enhancing China's status is a hoary theme in Indian strategic thinking, but the growing stature of that country is linked to quite different factors: the vitality and quality of its first generation leaders; the speed with which, after 1949, the new government asserted political control and embarked on social reforms; the dramatic improvements in the quality of physical life; the willingness to use force, as demonstrated by its interventions in Tibet and Korea in the 1950s and its defeat of India in 1962; the break with the Soviets in 1958; the increasing sophistication of its conventional forces over the past two decades; the dynamism of its economy over the past 15 years; and, notwithstanding a certain degree of turbulence, overall political stability.
Nuclear weapons have not hurt China's standing in world affairs; but to ascribe Chinese status and influence primarily to nuclear weapons is untenable. The rise of non-nuclear Germany and Japan and the decay and collapse of a nuclear-ridden Soviet Union further challenge the linkage between nuclear weapons, status and influence. What is reasonably evident now is that a nuclear India would be unable to match China for status and influence unless it made important economic, social, political and diplomatic changes. The real "race" with China—if there is one—is civic and economic, not military and nuclear.
Questioned on the new government's nuclear policy, Atal Behari Vajpayee showed that he had thought through the strategic problem when he suggested that there was "no timeframe" for going nuclear and that the option would only be exercised "if need be".
Mr Vajpayee's nuclear policy makes sense; the BJP's does not.
(The writer teaches at the School of International Studies, JNU.)