Friday, October 27, 2006

More on nukes

Amar and I talked about nukes back in August. I posed these questions.

What existential threat did India face in 1974? Whom did the Indian leadership think it was going to deter with its nukes? Was it just a prestige issue for Mrs Gandhi?

Some brothers have mentioned China. Amar puts it this way.

Does Sino-Indian war really not matter? I would have thought it was the spectre of the loss to china which would have been India's primary motivation for acquiring nuclear bomb in 1970s. While subsequent explosions in 1998 made it clear where we all stand, Pakistan's pursuit and acquisition of the bomb was inspired by India having it in the 1970s, which followed, did it not, from our loss to China in 1960s, and their explosion of bomb in mid-1960s?

This is how we rated the importance of the 1962 war last year.

[T]he Sino-Indian war didn't really have much of an impact on the subsequent history. Sure it weakened the Nehru government, but Congress survived as the dominant political force for two more generations. It led to India rearming, but that probably would have happened anyway given Pakistan's actions. And Indian embrace of Soviet friendship was caused by the war in Bangladesh, not by the war with China.

Did India acquire nukes to deter China? This view is popular. But is it correct?

I’ve never read it in any proper history book/article. This is not to say that the view is wrong, or that no one has written about it. I am happy to be shown that the threat from China was the biggest motivation for the Indian nuke in the early 1970s. But I think there are some strong arguments against that view.

I think despite the loss in 1962, China was not viewed as much of a threat to India’s national security as Pakistan was during the 1960s and the 1970s (and certainly not since then). I think the Indian policymakers accepted that the Chinese really didn’t want anything more than Aksai Chin.

Firstly, China could have marched on to Calcutta in 1962, but didn’t. In fact, it withdrew from NEFA within months. If China had additional territorial designs, surely they wouldn’t have retreated.

Secondly, China didn’t attack India during 1965 and 1971 wars, despite the all‑weather Sino-Pak friendship. In fact, Indian policymakers in 1971 thought that a US involvement to prevent West Pakistan from being overrun was more likely than a Chinese intervention in the western theatre — no one outside the Pakistani top brass thought that anyone would stop the Indian march to Dhaka, and Kissinger in his memoir says that the US 7th Fleet was sent to prevent India from occupying West Pakistan.

Thirdly, China wasn’t interested in exporting revolution to India. Naxalites thought that the PLA would march to assist their insurgency. China characterised the Naxalbari uprising as adventurism.

If China wasn’t going to intervene when Pakistan was being dismembered, and if China was not going to grab any more Indian land or help overthrow the Indian government, then why would India be afraid of China? Also, India had not shown any overt antagonism to China either. It’s not as if Indian politicians routinely talk of liberating Aksai Chin. India spends millions on Siachen, when was the last time you heard about the battle against the Chinese?

Further, India didn’t technically acquire a bomb in 1974. It acquired the capability to acquire a bomb. Then it claimed that it wasn’t going to use that capability to actually get a bomb. So if the nuke was for deterring China, this seems like a lousy deterrence — one is reminded of the scene from Dr Strangelove.

Why didn’t you tell everyone that you had this machine?
Well we were waiting for the May Day parade.

In fact, I haven’t seen any good account of why India acquired nukes in the 1970s, except that having the nuclear capability (not necessarily the bomb) seemed like a status symbol – countries like Brazil or South Africa were also toying with it.

Status symbol ot not, as discussed previously, nukes probably have made India less secure.

Pakistani nukes deter Indian reprisal, even though Indian nukes don’t deter Kargil that ought to cause an Indian reprisal. In fact, nukes make mischief more likely if Pakistani leaders are inclined that way!