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The India-China Problem and the Risk of Nuclear War

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The recent small-scale conflicts involving the fights of the soldiers of both states with sticks and stones in some problematic areas of the India-China border raises the question of whether such problems will lead to a nuclear conflict between the two nuclear powers of the region. Although the probability of such a war, which will directly concern almost three-eighths of the world’s population, seems quite low, it should be stated that there has been a rapid and dangerous progress towards nuclear armament in the recent period due to the threat of using nuclear weapons and moves towards it, which Moscow voiced during the Russia-Ukraine War. Due to this situation, there is a risk of nuclear war between India and China; At least, it can be said that this option cannot be completely ignored.

China, which acquired nuclear weapons technology in 1964; The United States (USA), along with Russia, the United Kingdom, and France, are in the legal status of possessing nuclear weapons under the 1968 aNuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). China is currently thought to have 350 nuclear weapons, all of which are atomic bombs. However, it is thought that China does not have a thermonuclear weapon (hydrogen bomb) technology 3000-4000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb. Only the USA and Russia have this technology. On the other hand, in a report prepared by the US Department of Defense (Pentagon), it was claimed that the number of nuclear warheads in China reached 400 by 2022.[1]

China has planned to use its nuclear weapons mainly with intercontinental ballistic missiles. 272 nuclear warheads with an intercontinental ballistic missile code named DF-31 AG with a range of 11,200 km; the rest are stated to have the ability to be used with submarines called JIN class. The range of the missiles to be used from the submarine is 7,200 km, and accordingly, China has the ability to hit the Hawaiian Island from its own seas. Moreover, as China advances in the Pacific Sea, it has the ability to hit most of the US territory. However, in the current situation, it is thought that China does not have a bomber concept.[2]

Compared to the US’s inventory of 3,700 nuclear weapons, some of which are very destructive thermonuclear weapons, and highly advanced launch vehicles, China’s nuclear weapons power is rather ineffective compared to the US. The Chinese authorities are already expressing this openly. However, according to a report recently leaked to the press and prepared by the Pentagon, the Washington administration predicts that China’s nuclear weapons will reach 1,500 by 2035.[3] In the face of Washington’s concerns, Beijing stated that it would be open to negotiation on this issue if the USA reduced the number of nuclear weapons to the level of China.[4]

India, which conducted its first nuclear weapon test in 1974, has enriched plutonium at the level to obtain 213 nuclear weapons; but it is currently considered to have 160 nuclear weapons.[5] India, which has an AGNI-V missile with a range of 5,000 km, is conducting new missile tests with a range of 10,000 km. It also has the capability to use nuclear weapons with both warplanes and developing submarines.

In the light of all this information, it can be said that China has an obvious superiority over India in the nuclear field as well as in the conventional field. However, although this possibility cannot be ignored, it does not seem realistic for China to enter into a nuclear war with India, with which it has recently improved its relations due to border problems, and especially with which it is on the same side in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

First of all, this possibility does not comply with the basic policy of the Beijing administration for a long time. On the one hand, it develops itself in many areas such as economy, technology and arms industry; On the other hand, China, which has rapidly increased its influence on a global scale, mainly in its region, pioneered the formation of the Shanghai Five for the peaceful solution of border problems in 1996 with a forward-thinking policy, which today defies Western hegemony and brings China and Russia together on the same platform. He laid the foundations of the SCO. This initiative, which he started to prevent minor border problems from interfering with his grand strategic vision, contributed to the rapid development of China and to have a voice on a global scale. Beijing is expected to continue this policy. As a matter of fact, the dialogue that developed between senior managers after each border fight can be considered as a concrete indicator of this vision.

On the other hand, both China and India have declared their commitment not to be the first to use nuclear weapons. Although they have an important inventory of nuclear weapons, it will be against both states if this power, which is very weak compared to Russia and the USA, is used in a dangerous process that will lead to a general nuclear war. It would be unrealistic for India to make such a move, especially given its relations with its nuclear-armed neighbor Pakistan. In this process, it is expected that India’s nuclear weapons will not go beyond being an element that will balance the conventional superiority of China.

As a result, in the same rank within the SCO; However, these two states, which have to observe multilateral regional and global balances, do not want their development in various fields, especially economy and technology, to be delayed by different problems, give weight to peaceful policy and have nuclear power roughly close to each other, are very unlikely to enter a nuclear war due to border problems is a possibility. But nuclear deterrence is the most important factor in this regard. Kenneth Waltz said, “The more nuclear-armed states, the more they contribute to peace.”[6] His approach, which can be summarized as above, is perhaps confirmed in this case study. In other words, the fact that China, India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons in the region contributes to peace due to its deterrent effect.


[1] Idrees Ali-Phil Stewart, “China Likely to Have 1,500 Nuclear Warheads by 2035: Pentagon”, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/world/china-likely-have-1500-nuclear-warheads-by-2035-pentagon-2022-11-29/, (Date of Accession: 08.01.2023).

[2] “Fact Sheet: China’s Nuclear Inventory”, Arms Control Center, https://armscontrolcenter.org/fact-sheet-chinas-nuclear-arsenal/, (Date of Accession: 08.01.2023).

[3] Oren Lirbermann, “China Could Have 1,500 Nuclear Warheads by 2035: Pentagon Report”, CNN, https://edition.cnn.com/2022/11/29/politics/china-nuclear-arsenal-military-power-report-pentagon/index.html/, (Date of Accession: 08.01.2023).

[4] Ali-Stewar, op.cit.

[5] Hans M. Kristensen-Matt Korda, “Indian Nuclear Weapons, 2022”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 78(4), 2022, p. 224-236.

[6] Kenneth N. Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better: Introduction, The Adelphi Papers, 21, 1981, p. 171

Doç. Dr. Şafak OĞUZ
Doç. Dr. Şafak OĞUZ
In 2019, Şafak OĞUZ received his Associate Professor title and retired in 2021 after 23 years of service in the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF). Having worked for the United Nations (UN) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) during his service, OĞUZ works on Weapons of Mass Destruction, Terrorism, International Security, International Organizations and Peace and Conflict Studies. OĞUZ is currently a faculty member at Cappadocia University, Faculty of Economics, Administrative and Social Sciences, Department of International Relations. He is fluent in English and German.