India’s decision to pursue a nuclear weapon capability—which resulted in preparations being made for a nuclear test in 1995—arose from the confluence of several factors, including security threats, a hostile international nuclear regime, domestic politics, and the country’s promising economic trajectory. Of the two primary external impulses, Keck correctly identifies the first, which was the latent threat of Chinese aggression dating back to the 1950s. But this threat was by no means static. As John Garver details in his book Protracted Contest, China withdrew its proposal to accept the territorial status quo in October 1985. This would have involved recognizing Indian control of Arunachal Pradesh in exchange for India’s recognition of China’s claims to Aksai Chin. In Garver’s telling, “China for the first time began actively asserting its claim to the southern slope” of the Himalayas. Moreover, Indian government reports have recently indicated a changing of ground realities. The People’s Liberation Army’s incursion earlier this year in Ladakh—where Beijing’s territorial objectives were thought to have been achieved—had little to do with its continuing claims to Arunachal Pradesh, and may have signaled an even more ambitious statement of intent, in line with Beijing’s newfound approach to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and South China Sea.
More significantly—and Keck’s omission here is glaring—China pursued a policy until the early 1990s of supporting Pakistan’s nascent nuclear program, a move very much directed at containing India. In fact, Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons with Chinese assistance proved an impetus for India’s nuclear-weapon pursuit, not the other way around. Indian and Western intelligence agencies believed that China conducted a test in 1990 for Pakistan’s benefit, effectively granting it a nuclear-weapons capability. Testifying before the Senate in 1993, then CIA director James Woolsey said, “Beijing, prior to joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1992, probably provided some nuclear weapons related assistance to Islamabad.” As far as Indian security planners were concerned, their country was by 1990 bordering not one, but two, nuclear-armed states with irredentist claims to Indian-controlled territory.
As with his casual dismissal of China’s ambitions, Keck characterization of Pakistan’s objectives vis-à-vis India as purely territorial is a gross oversimplification. Pakistani adventurism directed at India was not enabled by a nuclear deterrent, but in fact predated it. It began just after the two countries’ independence in 1947, when Pakistan backed mujahideen raiders against Jammu and Kashmir. Then—and in 1965 and again after 1989—Pakistan employed proxy forces working closely with its military to undermine Indian security. Pakistan’s provocations occurred despite the power asymmetry in India’s favour and one humiliating defeat at India’s hands, and continue not only against nuclear-armed India but against nonnuclear Afghanistan. Keck’s argument that India’s pursuit of nuclear weaponry allowed Pakistan to provoke it from under a nuclear umbrella simply does not hold water.
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.
Keck is correct in asserting that nuclear weapons are ill-suited for addressing certain security threats and that low-level violence against nuclear-armed states is still possible. Yet India’s experience is by no means unique in this respect, for it mirrors that of other countries facing chronic provocations by state and nonstate actors. When nuclear weapons have not deterred Hamas rocket attacks against Israeli civilians, or North Korean provocations against U.S. forces in South Korea, why should India’s struggles against Chinese infantry patrols and Pakistan-based terrorists be singled out for condemnation?