top of page

Nuclear Capability of India and China: An Analysis

A comparison of nuclear capability of India and China cannot be made in isolation. It has to be derived in the backdrop of their strategic vision, global ambitions and political and social ethos that condition their perceptions. Their strategic vision dictates the development of their nuclear capability (including nuclear policy, concepts, weapons capability and delivery systems) appropriate to the geo-strategic environment.

Strategic setting

Ever since the global economic downturn started around 2008, China’s economic clout had been increasing. And the Obama administration soon after it came to power made special efforts to woo China to seek help in stemming its own economic decline. Apparently China’s global ambitions were strengthened by this. So it was not surprising that it showed reluctance to play ball with Obama administration’s efforts to turn it into a partner in international affairs.

However, one of the important reasons for Chinese reluctance is the suspicion about the U.S. intentions in Asia, where the U.S. had been developing strategic convergence in its relations with India. This was made clear in China’s Defence White Paper 2008 that spoke of ‘increasing US military presence in Asia-Pacific.’ China is wary of a US sponsored creation of an anti-Chinese axis extending from India to Japan. Though this was not referred to by General Ma Xiaotian, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the PLA, while speaking at the Shangri La Dialogue 2010 he said “we believe that maintaining security in the Asia-Pacific region serves China’s interest, and it is also China’s responsibility.” Apparently, the Chinese Navy’s increasingly assertive posture in South China Sea is only an affirmation of this policy.

This power assertion has strong strategic connotations to its ASEAN neighbours in particular as China is likely to be embedded in their security architecture inn the coming years as indicated by Professor Zhuang Jian Zhong, Standing Vice Director, Center for National Strategic Studies, Shanghai Jiaotong University, at the Shangri La Dialogue 2010.

After the Indo-US civilian nuclear bill became a reality, US-India economic relations were poised to grow fast. However, this did not happen as Obama administration had its own hangups on India. However, US-India relations have recently been warming up for the first time after President Obama came to power. The reality is that this has come about only after the impasse in the US-China relations. Now US-India economic relations are poised to grow rapidly only because Indian economy, less dependant upon export market than China, is clocking a steady 8 % growth.

Moreover, even if the US pulls out of Afghanistan, it would perhaps like to retain Pakistan a strategic ally in the region. The Army is likely to continue to decide Pakistan’s strategic posture in the coming years. Perhaps this is the underlying reason for the $ 10 billion U.S. assistance to the Pakistan army. It should not be forgotten that Pakistan, a close ally of China, achieved its nuclear capability aided and abetted by China. These considerations are likely to influence the US form encouraging India to play a major strategic role in Afghanistan and beyond in the west. With such considerations, in the US foreign relations horizon China would continue to occupy a larger space than India in the coming years, regardless the ups and downs of US-China relations.

India dominates South Asian region physically and economically. Soft power of Indian culture spills over the region as well. During the cold war era, it had built strong relationship with Soviet Union, which still has a large residual content in Russia, particularly as a supplier of defence equipment and weaponry. India’s geographic location enables it to be a dominant power in the Indian Ocean region. So it is not surprising that China had been cultivating India’s smaller neighbours who have latent fear of Indian domination. China’s close relation with Pakistan is well known. Nepal and Sri Lanka are increasingly coming under Chinese influence. Except for Pakistan, present emphasis of China’s relationship-building with other neighbours of India appears to have more political and economic than military content.

Nuclear setting

Given India’s comparatively smaller economic and military clout, unlike China, India appears to nurse only regional ambitions. Unlike China, which signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a recognised nuclear weapons state, though India did not sign NPT, its nuclear capability got recognition only after it tested nuclear weapons in 1998. So India has fundamental limitations in augmenting its nuclear weapons capability although it is said to have enriched Uranium stockpile to produce another 30 warheads. India’s nuclear arsenal is estimated between 40 and 80 warheads. This is less than the number of warheads Pakistan has and probably one fifth of China’s holdings. Moreover, with limited nuclear tests carried out, questions about their operational performance have been raised.

But the main limitation of India lies in is weak nuclear delivery capability. India at present has only short and intermediate range ballistic missiles. Its naval missile development is aimed at refining its intermediate range capability only. Its first-ever nuclear submarine INS Arihant, now undergoing sea trials, is likely to become operational in 2012, if it keeps to its schedule. Thus at present it has no operational ballistic missile submarine. Its submarine fleet is aging and due to stilted naval procurement programme its fleet is likely to be reduced to half according to one estimate. So India’s nuclear weapon delivery at present is limited to nuclear-capable aircraft and surface ships of the navy only. At present this restricts the reach of India’s nuclear capability to South Asia and Tibet.

After its nuclear tests in 1998, India adopted a “no first use policy.” But according to its nuclear policy even though there will be no first-use of nuclear weapons by India, “nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.” But how far these words can be given form remains to be seen. With India’s limited missile capability, second strike capability will have to be based upon its air force and surface ships. Thus India will continue to be vulnerable nuclear missile strikes beyond the intermediate range.

Only in 2003, India established the Strategic Nuclear Command. This join services organisation is responsible for holding all of India’s nuclear weapons, missiles and other assets. It has also executive responsibility for enforcing nuclear policy. However, it is the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) under the Prime Minister that will authorise response to any nuclear strike. Quick decision making under pressure had never been the strong point of CCS. Whether it can do so in real time to order a retaliatory nuclear strike is a moot question.

India’s key weakness is not only in strategic decision making process but tardy implementation of decisions. India has failed to use time as an irreplaceable resource. Thus the state controlled defence research and development programmes regularly fail to keep up their schedules. Defence procurement had become a hotbed of corruption and the bureaucratic procedure appears to be more focused on stemming corruption than on timely procurement of weapon systems. This has not improved despite the complaints of service chiefs; this has considerably weakened the modernisation of armed forces.

On the other hand, China has developed a clearly articulated long term vision for improving its strategic capability in conformity with its global ambitions. It has developed its large scale weapons research, development and manufacturing capability. It has become a major weapon producer and this gives it a powerful clout to favourably spread its influence.

China adopted No First Use nuclear policy well before India in 1964, with the affirmation not to be the first to use nuclear weapons “at any time or under any circumstances.” Though China has reaffirmed its NFU policy in 2009, China’s credibility to do so is low. For instance, there were reports that China had considered nuclear strikes against the Soviet Union in the event of a conventional Soviet attack. It has capability to deliver nuclear weapons from air craft, surface ships and submarines as well as missiles.

Its military modernisation programme is well on the way with focused development to improve its missile and naval capability while turning the huge PLA into a modern force with better mobility and fire power.

China is reported to hold the lowest number of nuclear warheads among the five nuclear weapons states. Though exact number of China’s nuclear arsenal is not known, the figure of around 130 nuclear warheads deployed in missiles and aircraft as given by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is probably correct. Probably 70 more are in storage. China has a variety of indigenously developed ICBMs including DF -5 ICBM which has a range of about 15000 Km has been in service since 1980. About 80 warheads are deployed in the ballistic missiles of DF-3, DF-4, DF-5 and DF-21. Of these China is estimated to have 25 DF-5 missiles. Under the military modernization programme, China is improving the missile portability, and performance capability. It has the potential to develop multiple warhead carrying capability in some of the missiles as well.

Though the PLA navy is ranked as the third largest in the world, it had only a defensive capability limited to its coastal region with only brown water capability. However as a result of modernisation efforts, it has now attained green water capability. That would mean it has offensive capability limited to about a thousand miles from its shores. It continues to suffer from weaknesses command C4 systems.

In keeping with increased strategic priorities Chinese navy is in the process of transforming into a blue water navy, though it is still a long way to go. It has developed Type 094 ballistic submarines armed with JL 2 SLBMs with a range of 8000 Km; this would make the western hemisphere within its range. It has developed a large submarine base in Hainan which has been cause of concern to the U.S. and India.

Since the last decade, Chinese naval presence in international waters has been on the rise. It has carried out joint exercises with over a dozen countries including India and Pakistan. In its first international foray, it is operating a flotilla on anti piracy duties in Gulf of Aden. Probably in during the coming decade we will be seeing large scale power assertion of Chinese navy in Indian Ocean region.

Chinese has been instrumental in contributing to the development of Pakistan’s nuclear and missile capabilities, flouting international agreements. The two countries have close strategic links. This could result in the further growth of Pakistan’s nuclear capability in the future. The recent Chinese announcement to give two more nuclear power stations to Pakistan ostensibly under a 1991 contract is a case in point. Though the Bush administration had objected to it earlier, the US appears to have chosen to ignore it now due to political expediency dictated by its Pak-Af posture. Thus China enjoys enormous advantage with its proxy presence in Pakistan.


China enjoys definite advantage over India in three key aspects of exercising nuclear capability: decision making process weapons systems, and delivery options. However, Chinese capability is mostly based on its ICBM systems operating from both land and sea. Its green water capability is being augmented with the development of 094 ballistic submarines armed with SLBMs. This could overcome its limitations in blue water operations. Thus China’s nuclear capability is in tandem with its global ambitions.

Comparatively, India’s nuclear capability is circumscribed by the limits of its regional ambitions. This situation is unlikely to change unless India improves its ability to handle strategic security challenges. To give form to it, better nuclear weapons and missile capabilities are essential. In particular, it has to develop a strong anti-missile capability. India has a long way to go in doing so. India’s strength would depend upon building a win-win relationship with China; at the same time India has to develop closer strategic relations with the US without sacrificing its regional interests. Indo-Russian relations, a little stagnant at present, also need to be nurtured. More than all this it has to speed up modernisation of armed forces. In the coming years, Indian Ocean region is likely to become the scene of power assertion. This would imply the need for making Indian navy a powerful entity so that India does not lose its strategic advantage in the region.

(The writer, Col. R Hariharan, is a retired Military Intelligence officer.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group, and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Website:

1 view0 comments


bottom of page