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India’s no-first-use dilemma: Strategic consistency or ambiguity towards China and Pakistan

Agni-III Missile, New Delhi, 26 January 2008
Agni-III Missile, New Delhi, 26 January 2008/Public.Resource.Org Flickr
Dr Lora Saalman

On 14 October 2020, in a statement to the Conference on Disarmament, Indian ambassador, Pankaj Sharma, reiterated India’s commitment to a policy of no first use (NFU) of nuclear weapons. This reaffirmation, however, followed statements suggesting that India may be reconsidering its NFU pledge. In a statement in 2016, Manohar Parrikar, India’s defence minister, questioned whether India should bind itself to NFU and in 2019 a subsequent defence minister, Rajnath Singh, said that India’s NFU policy might change in the future depending upon circumstances. While Parrikar framed his statement as a personal opinion and debates have revolved around the intent behind Singh’s comment, even Sharma’s statement has been contextualized in light of India’s desire to tamp down recent border tensions with China. Irrespective of mitigating circumstances and despite arguments that its nuclear posture remains unchanged, there are signs that India may be moving towards greater strategic ambiguity, with NFU as an indicator. 

This phenomenon is not unique to India. In China, as early as 1995, General Xiong Guangkai reportedly told a former United States assistant secretary of defense that China would consider using nuclear weapons in a conflict over Taiwan, while in 2005 Major General Zhu Chenghu claimed that China would engage in nuclear retaliation if the USA ‘aims its missiles and positioning launch systems toward targets inside Chinese territory’. The debate over the future of China’s NFU policy reached its height when China’s 2013 defence white paper omitted reference to this bedrock of its nuclear posture. The official omission triggered speculation that China might abandon its NFU policy. Even if China’s 2019 defence white paper reaffirmed China’s NFU commitment and the Chinese military statements have been dismissed, subsequent statements by Major General Yao Yunzhu and Major General Pan Zhenqiang have continued to elicit questions as to whether technological shifts or future conditions may drive China to tailor or evolve its NFU policy. The lack of clarity on the exact nature of these red lines is where, in fact, the strategic ambiguity lies for both China and India. This WritePeace blog explores strategic ambiguity and strategic consistency using writings from and interviews with Indian experts.

Strategic ambiguity versus strategic consistency

While much maligned, strategic ambiguity is not necessarily in and of itself destabilizing. The lack of knowledge of an adversary’s red lines could lead to lines inadvertently being crossed, but it could also restrain a country from engaging in actions that may trigger a nuclear response. To this end, India has undergone a degree of NFU evolution since its 1999 draft doctrine, under which it would ‘not be the first to initiate a nuclear first strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail’, towards its 2003 draft doctrine that added the option of nuclear retaliation in the event of ‘a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons’. 

During 2020, this author conducted 33 interviews with Indian military, political, technical and academic experts, which place these shifts in perspective. While the majority of Indian experts surveyed stated that both India’s and China’s NFU remain in place and unyielding, upon further discussion, they raised exceptions to and questions about aspects of both countries’ nuclear postures. In the face of changing strategic dynamics, several suggested the importance of India enhancing its own strategic ambiguity to prevent adversaries from exploiting the ‘vacuum’ left by NFU. In one nuclear expert’s view, for some politicians and military figures this would mean avoiding India ‘unnecessarily tying its own hands’. Yet when naming the country most likely to take advantage of India’s NFU pledge, Indian experts tended to name Pakistan rather than China. 

India’s potential to review its nuclear posture

During interviews, over half of the Indian experts cited Pakistan’s ambiguity about the conditions it applies for the first use of nuclear weapons and the application of Full Spectrum Deterrence, which provides for sub-conventional, conventional and nuclear contingencies. This was in direct contrast with the same experts’ descriptions of China’s consistency on its NFU pledge. This assumption—of consistency in the case of China and ambiguity in the case of Pakistan—was predicated on the view that nuclear relations with the former were inherently stable, while those with the latter were inherently unstable. Yet not all of the Indian experts suggested that China’s and India’s postural similarities would lead to stability. While one Indian nuclear expert stated that the lack of India–China ‘nuclear fear’ mitigates nuclear threats, there remained misgivings as to how China’s technological advances may shape its NFU pledge. Some expressed concern over whether China’s NFU would apply if it were attacked by high-precision conventional weapons or if a disputed territory like Taiwan or Arunachal Pradesh was at risk. Others emphasized China’s alleged commingling of command and control and entanglement of nuclear and conventional platforms as problematic for its application of NFU. 

This dual-use dilemma also spilled over into the Indian experts’ discussions of Pakistan’s nuclear posture, which was considered more malleable, and subject to Chinese influence. As noted by one Indian nuclear expert, ‘There is an effort to strengthen the role of nuclear weapons in states’ national security strategies. There is focus . . . to quantitatively and qualitatively strengthen the size of nuclear arsenals . . . particularly in the case of China and Pakistan’. A number expressed concern that Pakistan’s own tactical nuclear weapons programmes were expanding, with one nuclear expert suggesting that such advances may have even been impacted by China. Facing such technological shifts, at least a third of the Indian experts highlighted the need to enhance the level of India’s own ambiguity on NFU. One military expert argued that while India may continue its official NFU commitment, reviews of its nuclear posture are merited, including potentially a ‘China-tailored’ version of NFU. Another nuclear expert went further by arguing that India may in the future omit NFU, instead opting to simply reiterate India’s role as a ‘responsible nuclear power’. 

Despite recognizing this interplay between China and Pakistan, there was a lack of clarity among the experts interviewed as to the level to which India could apply ambiguity on NFU towards China without impacting Pakistan. Indian assertions that China’s NFU posture remained immutable were tempered by their technological discussions that suggested China’s nuclear posture may be in flux. Further, Indian arguments that Pakistan maintained an ambiguous nuclear posture were complicated by their own claims that Pakistan’s aims are clearer than those of China. Most Indian experts interviewed lamented the relative lack of engagement with Chinese counterparts on nuclear issues as a central factor in this opacity. Moreover, for all of the ambiguities ascribed to Pakistan’s nuclear posture, Indian experts had more confidence in the consistency of its behaviour and ultimately rationality. These contradictions suggest that in examining the nuclear paradigm of China’s consistency versus Pakistan’s ambiguity, the opposite may in fact be true: for India, China may be more of a source of strategic ambiguity than Pakistan.

Need for a better understanding of strategic consistency and ambiguity

If this is the case, it raises a dilemma in terms of signalling and strategy. This is because the organizing principle in India–China nuclear deterrence remains consistency, while that between India and Pakistan continues to be ambiguity. Since China and Pakistan are intertwined in Indian concepts of a broader South Asia and a ‘two-front’ challenge—which presupposes collaboration between the two countries to pressure India—this interplay between strategic consistency and ambiguity must be better understood. Nuclear relations between India and China may be more ambiguous than assumed, and India and Pakistan’s nuclear relations may be more consistent. If this is the case, these nuclear posture assumptions merit a systematic re-evaluation. For this to happen, particularly in the case of India and China, it means moving beyond the traditional reluctance of China to engage India at an official level on nuclear issues. The claim that both countries are aligned on NFU is just one example of an assumption on nuclear posture that may be stabilizing in the short term but may lead to miscalculation in the future. While strategic ambiguity may not elicit instability, the assumption of ‘strategic consistency’ in a nuclear deterrence relationship underpinned by growing ‘strategic ambiguity’ could. 

This is the third in a series of SIPRI WritePeace blogs that will explore nuclear narratives surrounding nuclear dynamics in South Asia.


Dr Lora Saalman is an Associate Senior Fellow within SIPRI’s Armament and Disarmament and Conflict, Peace and Security research areas and a Senior Fellow in the Global Cooperation in Cyberspace Program at the EastWest Institute.