By Zachary Keck
September 20, 2013
A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for The National Interest arguing that India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons had been a mistake because it had not achieved its initial purpose of addressing the Chinese threat to India’s border, while it worsened Delhi’s ability to deal with Pakistan.
I was pleased to learn that Dhruva Jaishankar of the German Marshall Fund had taken the time towrite a rebuttal to my piece, which also appeared in TNI. On Thursday TNI was kind enough to publish my response to Jaishankar’s piece.
In order to address Jaishankar’s major points, my response ran rather long. As such, I tried to reduce the length of the piece by eliminating one section. Specifically, Jaishankar had argued I ignored the context in which India’s nuclear-decision making took place. He countered by arguing:
“Given its adverse security environment in the early 1990s, India’s pursuit of nuclear weapons as a deterrent against Chinese and Pakistani adventurism would have appeared not only wise but necessary, particularly when considered in conjunction with the relatively low costs of a nuclear program, a multilateral order that threatened to recognize China’s nuclear status in perpetuity while denying India entry, and an enabling domestic political environment.”
In my response, I focused mainly on whether it made sense to examine India’s nuclear calculus solely through the decision to test nuclear weapons in 1998. Not surprisingly, I argued that it did not. However, I also noted in passing that many of Jaishankar’s specific claims were questionable on the merits, without elaborating on why this was the case.
Since Jaishankar’s claims are representative of the ones often given for why India tested nuclear weapons in 1998, its worth explaining in greater detail why these are indeed questionable on the merits.
First, Jaishankar argues that India faced in adverse security environment in the early 1990s. Although this is rather vague, he is probably referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union, India’s Cold War ally, as this is often used by Indian officials and analysts to justify the nuclear tests in 1998.
Although there is something to this argument, it is grossly overstated because the loss of the immense Soviet military machine meant that Russia’s defense industry was all too willing to continue selling India military supplies. Delhi may have had to pay more for weapons under the Russian Federation, but its economy was also expanding rapidly starting in the 1990s and 2000s. Thus, it could afford to do so.
But India’s security environment in the early 1990s cannot be characterized as highly adverse because its external threat environment was greatly reduced. China, for instance, spent the first few years of the decade completely immersed in domestic affairs following Tiananmen Square. Its interest in threatening Indian territory was greatly reduced during this time. Additionally, during this time the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began to downsize its ground forces, which had historically taken precedence. Since these were the primary menace to India along its shared border with China, this also reduced the threat Beijing posed to India in the early to mid-1990s.