Nuclear weapons as the ‘million pound note’

Published on Sep 07, 2022 11:35 AM IST

The article has been authored by Tara Kartha, distinguished fellow, Indian Peace and Conflict Studies.

The nuclear dimension along the Taiwan Straits may not be immediately evident, but it runs like an invisible thread through the conflict.(AP)
The nuclear dimension along the Taiwan Straits may not be immediately evident, but it runs like an invisible thread through the conflict.(AP)
ByHindustan Times

It seems everyone is at war. The Azeris and Armenians are back fighting with each other, even as Turkey restarts its war against the Kurds. Data from the Council of Foreign Relations, counts some 27 such wars, including Ukraine, but doesn’t yet count the Taiwan crisis, that flared briefly. Oddly, it doesn’t at all mention continuing confrontation between India and China in Ladakh. Its not a high decibel hot war like Ukraine, not does it have the high noise levels Taiwan. But these three have one thing in common. All are being ‘fought’ between nuclear powers, and of the three only the India China border has seen actual casualties between two nuclear weapon states. There are other commonalities, including that though fought fiercely, at least two of these are being carefully kept at a level where nuclear weapons don’t quite come into play. But it might. That requires some deep thought.

Deterrence or no? The issue in Ukraine

Though it is Ukraine that is getting strafed and bombed, there is no doubt even in the layman’s mind that the ‘war’ is between the United States (US) – and to an extent its allies in Europe - and Russia. There is one school of thought that feels deterrence failed since Russia invaded despite the proximate presence of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) who has about 500 plus nuclear weapons in the arsenals of France and Germany, as well as about 100 odd that belong to the United States, but are positioned in Europe. That’s a lot of deterrence, but for the simple fact that these weapons don’t guarantee Ukraine sovereignty since Kyiv is not part of NATO. It has been trying to get in for years, but has been quietly and diplomatically rebuffed. Nuclear deterrence, therefore, never actually came into play. The twist is however interesting. Russia’s President Putin tried his best to given it a nuclear tinge. Not only did Russia hold a nuclear forces exercise just before the invasion, Putin declared in an impassioned speech that any interference would lead to “ consequences… never seen in your entire history”. That’s the first time such a threat has been hurled since the 1960’s. Three days later, he seemed to follow that up with a directive to keep nuclear forces on high alert, and an exercise using nuclear submarines in the Barents Sea. While Russian officials attempted to qualify or roll back his remarks, the US Administration went one smarter. White House officials simply said that they had no reason to change their nuclear alert levels, thus denying the Russians the chance to bring in nukes into the equation. Washington had by then made it clear that first, ‘no US soldiers’ would be involved in Ukraine; and second, that they would most certainly be involved in NATO territory. Once the lines of deterrence were drawn, Ukraine began to be steadily supplied with weapons and aid. Enough to keep the Russian engaged, but not enough to enrage them – so far. But even as the war expands with US long range missiles arriving in Ukraine in June, Shoigu hastened to say that Russia had no need to use nuclear weapons or even chemical weapons. His President however warned that with the arrival of the missiles, it was free to strike at new targets. The problem? Apart from the Russian defence minister saying so, Biden said so too – though afterward Us officials went all out to ‘warn’ against the use of nukes in Ukraine. The point is that at no time did anyone believe that the US or Europe would be threatened with nukes, and perhaps not even Ukraine. A radiologically devasted Ukraine so close to its own territory would hardly have been feasible for Russia. That gives two lessons for India. If no one believes in your deterrence, then it doesn’t exist. Second, geographic proximity imposes its own limitations.

The nuclear dimension along the Taiwan Straits may not be immediately evident, but it runs like an invisible thread through the conflict. And don’t forget that the US military did consider the use of nuclear weapons against China in 1958, and indeed had also deployed the Matador nuclear cruise missile with a warhead of 20kt and a range of 965 km in Taiwan. The US position on Taiwan is deliberately ambiguous acknowledging (not recognising) the One China policy, committing to arms aid, and maintaining the ability to come to its defence without any actual commitment. A slew of legislation underpins this position, with Congress recently calling for more assistance to with the Taiwan Policy Act. The US position is backed by the presence of 58 ships in the Seventh Fleet, of a total of 112 such assets. That includes one Carrier Strike Group in Japan, not to mention forces deployed in Australia and South Korea, or in exercises off Hawaii at the time of Nancy Pelosi’s visit. On the other side, is President Xi’s completely non-negotiable position on Taiwan ‘reunification’, which as noted in the White Paper , “the people of the whole of China….. cannot allow the resolution of the Taiwan issue to be postponed indefinitely”. But here’s the facts on the ground. Invading Taiwan is no walk over. As a senior military expert notes, an amphibious operation is immensely vulnerable. The Taiwan straits is about 160km at its narrowest; the British channel which is 34 km in the same comparison. The latter gave pause to invaders from Napoleon to Hitler. A Taiwan operation would be hundred times more difficult than Ukraine, and look how that is going. Yet like Ukraine before the invasion, Taiwanese were certain that China would not attack, with many calmly watching the missiles rising during military exercises. That’s another lesson for India. Countries get complacent, especially when threats are repetitive.

Meanwhile, each round of Taiwan tensions has seen greater use of force. The next will certainly be worse. But as China continues to increase its arsenal, with new missile silos in north western China, nuclear deterrence with the US will hold, though Beijing has just 350 warheads to 5,550 warheads in the US arsenal, because there is nothing to indicate that US planners will, simply put, risk Washington for Taiwan. In other words, it is not a high value national security (HVNS) issue for the US, though it will immeasurably reduce US influence in the Pacific if China succeeds. And just for that reason, another Ukraine looms, as the State Department approves a potential $1.1 billion sale of military equipment to Taiwan. The objective? To raise conventional capability of Taiwan, and make the costs hugely high for Beijing, who has the choice of bleeding slowly, just like Moscow, or lump it till the time is right. Chinese and Russian nuclear weapons have little relevance in a creeping war. The danger? That either Taiwan or Ukraine may become a HVNS for an embattled leader. In that case, all bets are off. The lesson. Nuclear weapons are finally for political use.

What has been conclusively proven in Ukraine is that nuclear weapons only deter other nuclear weapons and cannot and were never meant to deter small wars. This was what eminent strategist K. Subrahmanyam noted decades ago, when he said nukes were like a 'million pound note' that couldn’t be used for the small stuff, but gave one the power to intimidate. Meanwhile you have to rely on muscular conventional strength. In Ladakh, escalation was prevented because India -unlike Ukraine - could and did quickly bring up its forces, thus raising the conventional threshold. As in Taiwan, the next conflict with China will certain be worse, and is even more likely as Beijing pokes and prods elsewhere along the border, and there is an accretion in deployments by both sides. Such a clash needs to be planned for in a ‘full expectation’ mode, - again unlike Ukraine – and with the knowledge that while other countries will certainly be of assistance, the brunt will be met by Indian forces. Another lesson. Outside powers often have a vested interest in escalation – and thereby more dependence on a weapons provider. Therefore, talk among US officials of China facing a two front war between India and Taiwan needs to be discouraged. But the final question is how India is to use that ‘million pound’ note to deter China. While accepting that nukes will not deter another Ladakh, the question is whether is also necessary to clearly state what our HVNS priorities are. Taiwan and Ukraine were identified as such by China and Russia. That doesn’t seem to have done them much good. But the truth is that neither of these are national territories for which both capitals will risk all. Without actually saying so, all nuclear weapons powers recognise that attacking another nuclear power’s sovereign territory is a no-no. The trouble for India is that China doesn’t recognise large tracts as Indian territory, despite it having a full-fledged state government and a governor. Maybe it time to draw that red line. And make it thick. Beijing is one who creeps by inches.

The article has been authored by Tara Kartha, distinguished fellow, Indian Peace and Conflict Studies.

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