Perils of Nuclear Paranoia

By

Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

(This article was first published in the author’s weekly column on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website.)

Nuclear Brinkmanship Plus

The late Thomas Schelling, remarking on how dangerously skewed a nuclear deterrent relationship could get, famously drew the analogy of “one driver in a game of chicken who tears out and brandishes his steering column.” Conventional wisdom suggests that nuclear brinkmanship is the deliberate creation of a recognizable risk, denoting intimidation of an adversary and exposing him to a mutual risk; and if that risk is slanted such as by tearing out and brandishing the steering column, then that very act has a high probability of unleashing a nuclear catastrophe. By dramatically tossing the steering wheel out of the driver’s window, the reckless motorist assumes that this act would force the other player to concede the tourney. But this is not necessarily so since removal of the steering wheel to the other protagonist may well constitute a breakdown in the deterrent relationship and therefore releasing the latter from nuclear restraint or any risk reducing obligation that the relationship may have notionally implied.

The Zhenbao Incident

On 02 March 1969, Chinese troops ambushed and killed a group of Soviet border guards on Zhenbao Island; one of the many (then) disputed islands on the Ussuri River. As Sino-Soviet tensions heightened in the 1960s, ownership of these tiny riverine islands designated as a boundary line between China and the Soviet Union by the 1860 Treaty of Peking, became an issue of grave contention. Beijing was convinced that ownership of the islands was symptomatic of forcing a weak China to submit to the Soviet Union. According to Moscow, the Treaty of Peking clearly identified the boundary line between China and the Soviet Union in this area as running along the Chinese riverbank. China saw in its military action resolve to deter future Soviet provocations partly aggravated by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and further incited by the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ that gave sweeping rights to the Soviet Union to intervene in the affairs of Communist countries to strengthen Communism. Mao intended the limited attack to demonstrate that it could not be bullied. Moscow, however interpreted China’s actions as aggressive and characteristic of a revisionist tendency. By end March, the conventional battle escalated and was fought with increasing ferocity across a wider front. In the following months the tempo and scale of operations was upped.

On the diplomatic front each armed escalation was paired with threats of further increase in combat operations. So extensive was the intimidation that Mao feared a Soviet invasion preceded by a nuclear ‘first strike’. Behind the frontline USSR had been trying to warn the USA of China’s power aspirations and requested US neutrality in the matter. But unbeknownst to the USSR, there were other diplomatic manoeuvres afoot that sought to use China as a means of containing the Soviets. By August the USSR threatened to cross the nuclear Rubicon. For Beijing, the knowledge that Moscow had approached other countries for disposition and response   to a nuclear strike greatly increased the credibility of the impending Soviet nuclear attack. As such, this case stands out as a rare instance of the use of nuclear threats to attempt to compel a weaker adversary to the negotiating table (that eventually went awry). However, Beijing’s ensuing perception of the credibility of Soviet nuclear threats had unintended consequences that greatly increased the possibility of a nuclear exchange. China believed that negotiations were a thinly veiled mask for a nuclear “sneak attack.” By October 1969, so alarmed of an imminent Soviet nuclear strike, Chinese leadership evacuated Beijing, and placed its nuclear forces, a stockpile of between 60 to 80 warheads, on hair trigger alert.

Had China wrenched out the steering column? Had it arrived at a ‘Schelling Point’? There is much to suggest that it had. Kremlin, as more recent reports have pointed out, was stunned at the prospects now of a people’s war under the overhang of a steering-less nuclear arsenal. It would appear that the Soviets had swerved out of the path of an uncontrolled Armageddon and as in Schelling’s game of chicken conceded the tourney. The two nations, by end October, were on the negotiation table.

Skewing Against Gravity

A central argument in much of contemporary deterrence literature is that nuclear weapons induce predictable rationality in interstate relations and prompts mirror imaging in policy making; this in turn transforms national behaviour and reduces the likelihood of direct conflict between nuclear-armed states. Nuclear weapons, according to this school of thought, define the spectrum of acceptable policies and circumscribe the limits of conventional warfare. To the contrary, the substantiation from the Zhenbao war suggests that there can be conflicts and other armed actions that, for the initiator, have nothing to do with the military balance both conventional and nuclear. Critically it raises the probability of unintended consequences and the prospect that balance may indeed be skewed against gravity. The India Pakistan hostile correlation; China’s aggressive activities in the South China Sea and the North Korea nuclear standoff are stark reminders of this precept.

Differing Ideas of Deterrence and its Fragility

Strategic culture and the differing idea of deterrence characterise a key role in determining actions taken by international players. China’s traditional word for deterrence, weishe, quite bluntly means “to intimidate militarily” without nuances. While the Oxford English dictionary defines the meaning of the verb “to deter” as to discourage (from acting) or prevent (from occurring), usually by instilling fear, doubt, or anxiety; from this is derived the accepted idea that essentially upholds the status quo. What Pakistan understands remains blurred; whether it is to discourage all forms of armed conflict against India or to provide an umbrella for non-state actors to continue a war to bleed India is ambiguous. The introduction of Jihadists and non-state actors is unique in that it delivers an asymmetricity that keeps the level of warfare well under the nuclear shadow, is deniable and yet its impact can be as consequential as any act of war.

Indian strategic planners will do well to appreciate that the international nuclear milieu today is complex and multilateral in nature which increases the chances of strategic misunderstandings to the detriment of balanced decision-making. The demand is for explicit credibility if deterrence is to be functional and exertive. In addition, these issues also highlight an important dilemma: for deterrence to be effective, an opponent must fear the consequences of his actions; however, excessive anxiety is also a potential peril, as it can lead to paranoia and dangerous behaviour such as ‘tearing out the steering column’.

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