Our nuclear future would take a significant turn for the worse if Beijing and New Delhi begin to mimic Cold War thinking about the utility of nuclear weapons. So far, they haven’t. New Delhi waited 24 years in between nuclear tests, and Beijing took about as long to begin sea trials of second-generation ballistic missile-carrying submarines. Both have issued “No First Use” declarations, focused on economic metrics of national influence, and generally dealt with nuclear deterrence in ways that are hard for Washington and Moscow to comprehend. Their parallel nuclear postures are all the more remarkable because they have fought a limited war over a longstanding border dispute. Can the uncommon strategic constraint of these two rising powers continue? Important tests lie ahead, like those facing Washington and Moscow in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
One test will be whether China, and then India decide to place multiple warheads atop their new long-range ballistic missiles. Given the small number of nuclear powered SSBNs China plans to build, the small number of ballistic missiles they can carry, and concerns about the effectiveness of U.S. anti-submarine warfare capabilities, it would not be surprising if Beijing moved toward multiple maneuverable or independently-targetable warheads at sea. And if at sea, then perhaps on land. With more warheads, plus improved guidance capabilities, counterforce options could become more interesting. A second test is whether China and India will go beyond technology demonstrations toward limited ballistic missile defense deployments.