Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Opinion | A new Chinese threat warrants a review of NFU policy

If India decides to stay with the NFU policy after any future review, it should qualify it further to deter destructive conventional attacks on its major population, industrial and commercial centres

China is developing an India-specific long-range rocket that can fly over the Himalayas from Tibet with an electromagnetic propulsion system, similar to what is used in a railgun or to launch aircraft from aircraft carriers. The South China Morning Post, quoting Chinese state media, reported that the rocket system is being designed to hit the heartland of India. It went on to cite the Doklam standoff as the reason for its development.

This is the first time that China has explicitly named India to develop a weapon system and talked about striking India’s mainland. This tells us two things,

One, China does not think it can impose its will on India in a border conflict. The Doklam standoff lasted for more than 70 days, and despite constant threats from China, India did not blink till a disengagement was negotiated. China will require a 10:1 force advantage to overwhelm the strong Indian defensive posture in the Himalayas, making it impossible for it to “teach India another lesson" as its media threatened at the height of the Doklam standoff. India, on the other hand, won tactical victories in the two previous skirmishes in 1967 and 1987.

Two, China is considering the feasibility of waging a total war with India and not limiting itself to a border conflict that it cannot win. By declaring the development of an India-specific rocket, China has revealed that it now considers India a threat. It is trying to deter India from undertaking tactical military operations against China to stop its “salami slicing" by threatening to strike India’s industrial, commercial and population centres.

The idea is that once the system is ready, it will be deployed in large numbers as it is relatively cheap and will give China the capability to launch saturation strikes on major north Indian cities—New Delhi in particular. This would overwhelm India’s air defence system and cause a lot of damage. This is similar to China’s war planning against Taiwan—it has more than 2,000 missiles pointed at the latter to overwhelm the air defence and deliver crippling strikes that will destroy 90% of the island. North Korea, too, has a large artillery force pointed at Seoul that will inflict unacceptable destruction without the need for nuclear weapons.

While the development of this rocket and its deployment is years away, China is sending a message to India that it is willing to wage total war to deter any Indian action on the border (like Doklam) or in the wider Indo-Pacific region. It may be part of China’s psychological warfare against India, but it does have other weapon systems already deployed in Tibet to strike at India’s heartland.

China has a large number of conventional and nuclear-armed DF-21 medium-range ballistic missiles in Tibet, which, with a range of more than 2,000km, can strike the entire northern and central parts of India. China also has the over 1,500-km range CJ-10 cruise missiles, which can again be armed with conventional and nuclear warheads and launched from the ground as well as air from its strategic bombers. It also has a large number of fighter jets in Tibet and has conducted massive exercises as a show of force.

China’s major industrial, commercial and population centres are located on its east coast, about 4,000km from India. New Delhi does not have any conventional capability to strike them. India only has a limited number of Agni series of missiles that can strike these areas, but they are all intended for nuclear weapons delivery, not conventional warheads. It will be very expensive to make a large number of Agni V missiles with conventional warheads that can strike all parts of China.

India’s options to counter any Chinese border and maritime violations will be restricted in the absence of conventional retaliatory options to respond to strategic bombing of Indian cities with conventional weapons, as China now threatens. Although India has tried to “reset" its ties with China post Doklam, satellite imagery shows that China has fortified its positions in Doklam, avoiding India’s narrow redlines, thereby blunting India’s tactical advantage in a strategic location. Beijing also, it is believed, warned New Delhi against any intervention in the Maldives in response to its pro-China president Abdulla Yameen declaring a state of emergency and subverting democracy in the archipelago.

China’s overwhelming conventional firepower superiority over India will leave only the nuclear option for India. But India has pledged no first use (NFU) of nuclear weapons and will use them if it is attacked first with nuclear weapons. India’s NFU is, however, qualified. India’s nuclear doctrine says that if attacked with weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological weapons, India will respond with nuclear weapons. However, it does not consider mass destruction by conventional weapons that strategic bombing can inflict as a reason to respond with nuclear weapons.

A review of India’s nuclear doctrine is long overdue. There are opinions in the country against continuing with the NFU policy. Countries around the world are developing even more potent conventional weapons that fly at hypersonic speed and can accurately strike targets within minutes. China has an advanced hypersonic weapons programme. While India, too, has such a programme, it will be years before it matures and it won’t be a cost-effective solution, especially in response to China’s saturation strikes. If India decides to stay with the NFU policy after any future review, it should qualify it further to deter destructive conventional attacks on its major population, industrial and commercial centres.

Yusuf Unjhawala is the editor of Defence Forum India and a commentator on defence and strategic affairs.

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