India and China may have engaged in multiple border skirmishes since the 1962 war, but a nuclear war between the two neighbors is not only unlikely but also unthinkable, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Indian and Chinese troops had disengaged in February after a 10-month-long border standoff in eastern Ladakh. The episode also included the deadly Galwan Valley clash between their soldiers in June last year. India had lost 20 of its soldiers while China officially admitted four casualties, that too six months after the incident.
Despite such volatility in their relations, the two countries are unlikely to press the nuclear buttons, the SIPRI report titled ‘South Asia’s Nuclear Challenges’ says.
“Among Chinese and Indian experts, there was a prevailing view that they shared the same stance on no first use, and that nuclear escalation between the two countries was not only unlikely but also unthinkable,” the Swedish think tank’s report claims.
“In most cases, there was a steadfast view that both countries were on the same page when it came to nuclear posture, with NFU (no-first-use) as just one example.”
The SIPRI report was based on interviews with 119 experts from India, China, the US, Russia, and Pakistan.
The experts also argue that India only “superficially” understands its opponent, and stressed the need for more bilateral dialogues between New Delhi and Beijing. They drew attention to China’s unwillingness to engage India, citing the latter’s non-accession to the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) as an excuse. Yet these same experts also stressed the stabilizing properties of the two countries’ similar nuclear postures.
Currently, China and India are the only two nuclear-armed nations in the world to adopt an NFU policy. It refers to a pledge or a policy by a nuclear power not to use these weapons as a means of warfare unless first attacked by an adversary using nuclear munitions. India’s NFU policy is also applicable to chemical and biological warfare.
China’s aggressive postures in the region have always been questioned by experts, and its strong relations with Pakistan have already put India into a two-front war preparedness and maintain relations with the United States.
On China and the USA, experts from each county tended to see the other as playing a larger and more destabilizing role in South Asia. Chinese experts focused on past US weapon sales to the region, the Indian–US nuclear deal, the US Indo-Pacific Strategy, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which have had a strong focus on China as well as India.
US experts cited China’s conventional and nuclear weapons outreach to Pakistan, military training, and the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This different focus and pattern of engagement led some US experts to express concern that the region could break into two camps, with the USA and India on one side and China and Pakistan on the other.