The expanding US alliance network is fraught with strategic instability and heightened nuclear risk. In September 2021, AUKUS, a military alliance between Australia, UK and the US, was formed to contain China in the Asia-Pacific region. Under the agreement, the US and UK will proliferate nuclear submarines technology to Australia.
Many States, especially China, contend that as a non-nuclear weapons State party to the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), Australia cannot be provided nuclear submarines. The AUKUS partners reject this assertion and consider that transfer of nuclear submarines shall instead increase strategic stability of so-called Indo-Pacific region and shall strengthen the non-proliferation norms.
The jury is still out in these diametrically opposing American and Chinese views. In fact, this deal is a second step to another poorer proliferation precedent. Russia has been leasing nuclear submarines to India since 1980s and has actively helped New Delhi build its nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines fleet. Since India is also an apple of Western eye, there is a possibility that France and US may also provide nuclear submarines to India. Such a military Axis shall be called INFRUS.
One of the leading India’s enthusiasts has even unapologetically contented that “India may be compelled to test [nuclear weapons] again, and when it does, it’s in US interest to avoid penalizing.” The US looked the other way when India resumed nuclear testing in 1998. There were claims in Indian scientific community that one of the thermonuclear devices tested was a fizzle and there is an imperative to retest. This shall only compel other nuclear powers to keep their powders dry and follow suit for another round of testing. In South Asia, India was the first to test nuclear weapons and shall be the first to resume testing worldwide, closely contesting with North Korea in qualitative proliferation.
In the prevailing environment, the US cannot contain China alone and Indian diaspora in the US Beltway has made American successive administrations believe that they must count on New Delhi for Asia-Pacific security. INFRUS will be a reward for such services and shall strengthen Indian deterrence at sea. However, arming India to the teeth increases Pakistan’s security dilemma. Islamabad does not seek an arms race and maintained its deterrence capability at minimum level of armament. However, minimum is not fixed and Pakistan must do what it takes to maintain credible deterrence in numbers and quality. The onus of lack of progress in the so-called fissile material cut-off treaty and comprehensive test ban treaty’s non-entry into force falls squarely on irresponsible Indian and Western behavior.
If INFRUS comes to pass, the US will midwife the transfer of French naval nuclear propulsion technology to India. It is pertinent to mention that the French nuclear propulsion technology is very sophisticated and is one of the best performing in the world.
India’ Sea-Leg of Nuclear Triad
The perception has developed that US support to India in strategic cooperation is based on long term bilateral relations. It is yet to be observed how the US will act upon INFRUS. If this partnership will be materialized as conceived, it will facilitate India to develop an assured sea-based nuclear second strike capability with adequate retaliatory capability against China and Pakistan that has long been a goal of Indian nuclear planners. However, achieving an assured or credible second strike capability has been a challenge for India. In terms of this partnership, the nuclear propelled submarines will provide desired credibility and capability to Indian nuclear weapons and will add to its major power status. It will also contribute to India’s aggressive nuclear posture leaving both neighbors in a dangerous position and destabilize the regional stability. In such a scenario, China and Pakistan will be left with no option but to follow suit.
Subsequently, in order to respond to Indian provocative nuclear strategies and a robust posture, both countries will have to strengthen their existing deterrence regimes, leading to the nuclearisation of the Indian Ocean. Moreover, the aggressive monitoring and tracking of rival forces in the sea could lead to dangerous accidents and increases the risks of miscalculation at sea as it had happened during the cold war, between US and Soviet Union navies.
The modernization of sea based dimension of India’s nuclear triad will help India achieve a dominant maritime position which will shift the geopolitics and geo-economics in its favor and would also facilitate India in achieving its hegemonic ambitions in the Indian Ocean. Moreover, it will also increase the probability of confrontations between India and Pakistan or India and China at sea, both economically and strategically as maritime trade accounts for the majority of the world trade.
The Indian Ocean is an important sea lane with several choke points such as the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca, etc., and huge volumes of trade routinely pass through these chokepoints. However, there are a few islands in the IOR that play a vital role in the sea lines of communication (SLOC) and India has always intended to protect these SLOCs. IOR is an economic theatre and regional countries that rely on maritime trade will end up in a vulnerable position if India was able to control SLOCs and block the chokepoints. The dominant maritime position would allow India to block free flow of trade and energy supplies of China directly or indirectly affecting BRI which has been in US crosshairs ever since it was initiated.
In view of the fact that a bulk of Pakistan’s trade passes through the sea, any blockade of SLOCs would have economic implications and could lead to a serious confrontation at sea. Similarly, China’s oil imports are carried through the Strait of Malacca and its reliance on maritime energy imports will be severely harmed. The economic threshold and fear of a possible blockade would therefore compel both countries for the acquisition of capabilities that strengthens their sea denial strategy. The “free and open” Asia-Pacific will not be free and open anymore. Hence, the US portraying itself an advocate of global peace should not endorse such a dangerous idea.
The advancement of India’s sea-leg of the nuclear triad will have grave implications for the deterrence and crisis stability of the region. India’s naval capability is already way ahead of Pakistan’s and its SLBMs have superior accuracy than Chinese missiles. Just a week ago, India tested a submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) from its indigenous nuclear ballistic missile submarine INS Arihant, aiming to enhance undersea deterrence against China and Pakistan.
The transfer of sophisticated nuclear submarine technology through INFRUS will enhance its sea deterrence which is not only a matter of concern for the Indian Ocean’s littoral states but also for the international community as the spillover effect of nuclearized Indian Ocean will go beyond the region. If and when the proposal will be materialized, the regional powers would have to counter future Indian incursions in the Indian Ocean and for that purpose, they would have to resort to upgrading their nuclear arsenals to be at par with India, resulting in horizontal as well as vertical nuclear proliferation.
In short, INFRUS would alter the geopolitical order as well as further weaken the non-proliferation regime. AUKUS has already set a precedent for aspiring non-nuclear weapon states to advance their programs and incase INFRUS is implemented, the threat of a nuclear domino is palpable in the region and beyond.
In conclusion, the present geopolitics of the region is different than it was in the past. The Joint Doctrine of Indian Armed Forces 2017 of incumbent Modi government, which is based on Hindutva beliefs and ideals; the shift in Indian nuclear strategy; modernized nuclear arsenal which is under a weak command and control system; and aggressive force posturing are threating the strategic stability of the region. The strengthening of Indian sea capability will further add to the already imbalanced strategic picture. Indian hegemonic designs for the region and ultra-nationalism in South Asia spearheaded by Modi are alarming factors for both China and Pakistan. A nuclear cooperation agreement like INFRUS would prove to be consequential for not only these States but for the entire region. Keeping in view India’s misadventures in Pakistan and its acts of provocation against China, it would be better for the US and associated global powers to review their South Asia policy vis-a-vis India.
Lastly, the bold and ambitious idea of transferring French nuclear propulsion technology to India to contain China’s peaceful rise has sent shockwaves in the policy circle of South Asian states. In view of this acutely asymmetric situation that may develop, Beijing could be advised to lease nuclear powered submarines to Islamabad and initiate a PAKCHIN (Pakistan and China) deal for which precedents exist. Even the US and Russia can add such a factor in South Asia, bringing a modicum of stability in the region.
This article has been published in another form at https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/sharing-nuclear-submarines-india-will-destabilize-south-asia-205752