Threat of China’s increasing nuclear capabilities – UPSC GS2

Context: China is increasing quality and quantity of its nuclear arsenal which can be dangerous for India.
Recent changes in China’s nuclear arsenal:
China Military Power Report (CMPR) recently released by the Pentagon reveals four specific areas where change is underway:
  • Quantitative strength: Presently China has around 200 nuclear warheads. By 2027, they are likely to increase to 700.
  • Atomic yield: China is likely to favour the expansion of low-yield weapons. They are weapons ideal for battlefield use during conventional military operations and against conventional targets such as concentrations of armoured, artillery and infantry forces. Lower yield warheads help the PRC avoid causing collateral damage.
  • Delivery capabilities: These low-yield nuclear warheads are also likely to find their way into a key delivery capability – the PRC’s Dong-Feng-26 (DF-26) ballistic missile. In addition to the DF-26, China has also developed the JL-2 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) with a range of 7,200 kilometres capable of striking targets across continental Asia.
  • Posture: China has moved towards a Launch on Warning (LoW) nuclear posture. A higher alert posture risks reducing the threshold for nuclear use in the form of pre-emption. It could also lead to miscalculation and unintended nuclear use.
What are the implications for India of China’s increasing military capabilities?
  • Size of China’s nuclear arsenal complicates the potency of India’s nuclear arsenal. A significantly larger Chinese nuclear arsenal paired to missile defences will limit damage to the PRC. It also threatens the survivability of the Indian nuclear arsenal.
  • Launch on Warning (LoW) posture reduces the decision time for any Indian retaliatory nuclear strike in the heat of a war or crisis and places pressure on India to pursue its own LoW. The PRC could also significantly degrade an Indian retaliatory strike if China chooses to resort to First Use (FU) of nuclear weapons, and completely eradicate India’s nuclear forces.
  • Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese have added two new Type 094 (Jin class) SSBNs/nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines to their existing fleet. The Chinese Navy has carried out bathymetric and ocean mapping surveys in the Indian Ocean, crucial to the execution of sub-surface military operations. The Bay of Bengal’s sea depth is very conducive for nuclear submarine missions, which will leave India exposed to a Chinese atomic pincer from the maritime & the continental domain.
What is the way forward?
  • Indian strategic planners will have to think about the quantitative nuclear balance and India’s nuclear posture vis-à-vis the PRC.
  • The maritime dimension of China’s nuclear capabilities might not be an immediate strategic challenge but will potentially become one in the coming years for New Delhi. It will have to specifically watch the pattern in the People Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) nuclear submarine deployments and address the deficit in its subsurface nuclear delivery capabilities.