On May 2, India’s ministry of external affairs released a statement declaring, "India believes that there is a strategic and technological inevitability in stepping away from a world that is held hostage by the doctrine of mad (mutually assured destruction) to a cooperative, defensive transition." India seems to support, or is at least sympathetic to, the US President’s decision to deploy a ballistic missile shield.
The move is interesting. When President Bill Clinton deferred last fall his decision to deploy the National Missile Defence (nmd) system, he was guided by two factors. First, nmd was expected to trigger substantial opposition from Russia and China. The US intelligence community then estimated that China—to offset the US defence buildup—might be forced to increase its strategic arsenal tenfold, from two dozens of icbms to about 200. Second, it was believed that such a development would stimulate a response from India and consequently unleash a nuclear arms race in South Asia.
Obviously, President Bush’s decision—he plans to deploy a land-based nmd system in Alaska by 2004, when he may campaign for his second term of presidency, and then initiate a programme aimed at ultimately providing the US a sea and space-based capability in global ballistic missile defence—shows he doesn’t care much about China’s security concerns, nor about the ensuing chain reaction it would set off in Beijing, New Delhi and
Islamabad. Considering the inevitability of Beijing undertaking efforts to neutralise the US missile defence for maintaining the effectiveness of China’s strategic deterrence, India’s support to the US on the nmd issue is difficult to comprehend. Is it that Beijing’s projected decision to counter the US through a proliferation of its arsenal would provide New Delhi the opportunity to justify the growth in its nuclear stockpile? Or is India supporting nmd because it is happy at the deteriorating Beijing-Washington relations?
Indeed, the world is witnessing a dramatic change, from a nuclear arms race to nuclear weapons reduction. There has also been a shift from the mad doctrine to cooperation on international security matters. Also, there is no denying the missile proliferation and the right of each country to defend itself against missile threats. Apparently, as long as there will be a threat, the need to defend would persist.
The question is: what are the sources of this threat? China feels the major source of threat to international security is Washington. It was Washington that bombed Iraq without UN authorisation; it was Washington that bombed Belgrade without UN authorisation. Again, Washington has continued to sell weapons to a part of China (Taiwan) for over half a century.
It must also be remembered that China decided to develop its nuclear weapons arsenal after repeated threats from the US that it would use nuclear weapons to end the Korean conflict in the 1950s. India wasn’t the reason for China to turn nuclear. The US still threatens China through its transfer of advanced conventional weaponry to China’s Taiwan Province. Last month, the US made public the latest sales list, the biggest since China and the US normalised their relationship, amounting to over $4 billion.
This poses an unacceptable challenge to China’s sovereignty and undermines the security of the Asia-Pacific region. Clearly, it is the threat from the US which forces other countries to adopt counter-measures. If the US doesn’t stop selling weapons to Taiwan, a showdown between China and the US can’t be considered impossible. To defend its national interest, it is legitimate for China to maintain a modest but effective strategic force. This deters the US from further interfering in China’s internal affairs, and helps promote regional stability.
Nevertheless, the strongest country in the world (as it is perceived by most countries) makes a virtue of nuclear reduction and then uses that to justify its missile defence. The irony is that even as the US nuclear arsenal shrinks, its military budget keeps increasing. This is because it wants to build a more capable armed force which can interfere worldwide as well as to build up a missile defence—both national and worldwide—to ensure that it can interfere without any fear of retribution. This obviously provides security to the US—but it is at the cost of other countries, something which isn’t desirable.
The US, like any other country, is entitled to security. But its interfering nature makes it difficult to allow the US the sort of absolute security it seeks. The more secure the US is, the more insecure the rest of the world feels. When the US keeps selling weapons to Taiwan, China has to oppose the US ballistic missile defence. When the US threatens the security of other countries, then there is a need to challenge the US security system which has missile defence as a crucial component.
Therefore, when India supports nmd, its intention puzzles China. Is New Delhi blind to the US policy of interfering in the affairs of other countries? Has India welcomed nmd because it sees the opportunity to boost its strategic force and nuclear race in the subcontinent? It is not inconceivable that Washington is interested in projecting India as a counterpoise to China, but why should India feel elated about it? Beijing has good reasons to suspect India’s strategic intentions.
(The writer teaches international security at the Centre for American Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai, China).