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Interview: Chinese scholar Zhao Tong on nuclear arms dimensions of Ladakh crisis, military capabilities and more

In an interview with Network18 Group Consulting Editor Praveen Swami, Dr Zhao Tong, a senior fellow in nuclear policy at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre, Beijing, of the Carnegie International Endowment for Peace, talks about the little-discussed nuclear-weapons dimensions of the Ladakh crisis.

September 29, 2020 / 11:11 AM IST

India and China have recently decided to stop deploying more troops to the contested border to avoid any escalation in the tense situation there. But both nations are still not able to end the stalemate over the withdrawal of large numbers of troops they already deployed over the past four-and-a-half months since the border stand-off started.  

In an interview with Network18 Group Consulting Editor Praveen Swami, Dr Zhao Tong, a senior fellow in nuclear policy at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre, Beijing, of the Carnegie International Endowment for Peace, talks about the little-discussed nuclear-weapons dimensions of the Ladakh crisis. Dr Tong specialises in strategic security issues, including nuclear weapons policy, deterrence, missile defence, hypersonic weapons, and regional nuclear crises.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Praveen Swami: So my first question to you Dr. Zhao is there is now an agreed five-point framework between the foreign ministers of the two countries for ending the crisis in Ladakh, or at least scaling down the crisis. There have been military-to-military talks on this subject. What is your feeling? Is this the end of the story, or are there elements of this crisis that will be with us for many years to come?

Zhao Tong: I'm not very optimistic. I'm afraid this tension might continue into the foreseeable future, not least because of the domestic political environment in both countries. Both countries are ruled by strongmen, and they encourage nationalistic sentiment in their general public. In the Chinese case, President Xi Jinping openly promoted the fighting spirit to his party cadres, and his general public. It's really hard for Chinese military officers and civilian officials to make necessary conditions to really de-escalate and settle the dispute. So that's one concern.

Listen | China wants to appear as the winner in the standoff with India, combined attack with Pakistan is not a possibility

The other is there is generally a high level of self-confidence in China that China can sustain this highly costly military mobilisation in the border region. India is less capable of doing so. India is facing a huge pandemic; domestically, the situation is very bad. So if China maintains its position, India will have to concede on its own.

And there is this view that China possesses an obvious military and economic superiority over India. So India is a good place where China could teach a lesson and show to the world that China has a strong political will to defend its legitimate national interest. It will set a good example for all other countries near China. So given all these domestic incentives, I think we are likely to see a very prolonged bilateral confrontation.

Q: Now, a prolonged sort of confrontation between deployed forces of two nuclear powers like this is relatively rare. There's nothing really in the Cold War experience that teaches us how this might play out. In both capitals, though, there seems to be a great deal of confidence that even a limited conventional conflict will not escalate into a conflict where strategic weapons are used. In your view, is that confidence misplaced? Or is it correct?

A: I think it’s misplaced. It's true that both countries understand that neither side has an interest to fight a serious all-out war or nuclear war. Both countries have no-first-use nuclear policy. But ironically, the confidence in their no-first-use and moderate nuclear policies also make them so confident that their nuclear deterrence, mutual deterrence relationship is so stable, that is it is safe to fight at the conventional level so that inadvertently encourages conventional level of military adventurism.

And again, I think near the border region, Chinese traditional wisdom means it is impossible to have a huge large scale conventional war because the terrain is so tough, it's impossible to mobilise a huge number of troops. But I think with the improvements of military capabilities, the improvement of infrastructures, today, it has been proven the case that both countries can actually deploy large forces across the border. So the chances for a massive conventional war cannot be ruled out. And if indeed the two countries fight a conventional war, I think there are many pathways to a higher level of military conflict, many pathways to escalation, some intentional some inadvertent. And both countries, for example, possess dual-capable military assets.

China has a nuclear theatre range missiles that are deployed near the border that have -- some of them are nuclear-capable some of them conventional capable and you may not be able to tell them apart by their external appearances, because they are based on the same model. So if India mistakenly takes out some of China's nuclear-capable missiles, how would China decide to respond conventionally or nuclear? So all these technical ambiguities also contribute to the risk of inadvertent escalation.

And even if there is no nuclear escalation, if the two countries fighting high intensity, high casualty conventional war, I'm not sure that the political leaders in both countries would really absorb the casualties and decided to de-escalate. China used to believe that it can tolerate a high casualty, because that's the Chinese traditional thinking, but Chinese confidence has never been tested in a real crisis. And now as China becomes a more modernised country, people's living standards rise, I wonder if today Chinese political leadership can really tolerate a high casualty conflict without escalating further.

The fact that China decided to conceal the number of its casualties of the June 15, Galwan Valley clash, I think, points to Chinese concern that a high casualty conflict would force Chinese leaders to further escalate, so they decided to conceal the number of casualties.

Q: My final question, Dr. Zhao. We live in a continent where there are already four nuclear weapons powers that is, five if you count Israel, six, if you count Russia to be a part of Asia, and possibly a few more looming over the horizon; Japan, which is a screwdriver to twist away from nuclear capability, some say South Korea, maybe tomorrow even Iran or Saudi Arabia? How does the Chinese leadership understand a continent that is increasingly facing problems of nuclear proliferation? Is this perceived as a real threat for which action will be needed? Or is this something that contributes to stability as every country acquires deterrence and deters its neighbours from going to war?

A: I think Chinese leaders are increasingly worried about proliferation risks in the world, and especially in the
Asia-Pacific region. China long suspects that Japan has a hedging strategy by accumulating sensitive enrichment and reprocessing technologies so that it could assemble workable nuclear weapons very soon, if necessary, in the future. South Korea has some enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, even though not doing it at an industrial scale. And even countries like Australia are having domestic debates about whether they need indigenous nuclear weapons. And China is very much worried about the domino effect of additional countries acquiring nuclear weapons, and prompting other countries to consider more seriously about their nuclear weapons and so on and so forth.

But I think China faces a dilemma, which is it doesn't have -- it faces other obstacles that make China unable to reduce the risks of proliferation by other countries. In the case of Northeast Asia, for example, China understands very well that North Korea's nuclear weapons are going to encourage South Korea and Japan to go nuclear. But China feels it cannot impose too much pressure on North Korea for various reasons. And China doesn't have the influence to really resolve and achieve complete denuclearisation of North Korea in a foreseeable future.

And China doesn't know how it can reduce the threat perception of countries like Japan and Australia towards China. China feels you know, all these countries are paranoid, right? There's nothing wrong that China did that should make them be fearful of China. It’s their own problem that caused them overly concerned about China. So it requires more self-reflection, I think for China to make effective measures aimed at reducing their concerns. But we need more international dialogue and exchanges to build better mutual understandings before that can happen.

Q: I know you're a scholar, and politicians don't like listening to scholars. But if President Xi Jinping was to ask for your advice tomorrow, wouldn't you tell him as an expert that look with this degree of instability on Japan's eastern seaboard, with many countries now even scrambling to seek nuclear status potentially, surely a conflict with countries like India or on China's Southeast Asian -- Southern Southeast Asia rim actually contributes to Chinese vulnerability and that China would be well-placed seeking a diplomatic resolution rather than military confrontation? What would in your view be correct advice?

A: I think that's exactly the risk that China is facing today, opening up too many fronts and fighting too many countries at the same time. But I think, in China, the view is -- it is not China that picked the fight. China is simply responding to provocations by other countries. In the Indian-China case, the Chinese experts community generally thinks that it's India that initiated the problem by making Kashmir part of Union Territory in August last year. And India military is basically adopting the salami-slicing tactics to gradually take over Chinese territory little by little.

I think the problem here is there is not much news report about the situation on the border. The two countries, societies and the two countries’ expert communities are decoupling from each other in the sense that they listen to different news, and they don't absorb the same information. And therefore, of course, they develop very divergent understandings and perspectives, even on factual issues. So it's really urgent that we need to clarify the facts first, and try to develop a balanced understanding of facts and that requires more engagement, more communication, more balanced news reporting, et cetera. And I think that's the first step towards real de-escalation between the two countries border disputes.

Praveen Swami
first published: Sep 28, 2020 03:54 pm