This seemingly radical suggestion would thwart China’s dominance, and increase the chances of peace in the neighbourhood.
Nuclear proliferation and its risks have again become a major issue in geopolitics, both due to the repudiation of the nuclear deal with Iran by President Trump, and with the sabre-rattling and subsequent diplomatic outreach to North Korea.
At such a time, it may seem like a crazy foreign policy idea to suggest that a nuclear-armed Vietnam is in India’s interest, and something that India should actively enable! Yet, I believe that sober cost-benefit analysis would show that this is in India’s interests.
First, the assessment of the potential risks and costs.
Potential risk 1: India will face global opprobrium
Contrary to what one thinks, the opprobrium that nuclear proliferation attracts is a function not of the act of nuclear weaponization itself, but of the power and strategic importance wielded by the countries involved. This is why a nuclear North Korea or Iraq invited a fierce reaction from the US and most of its NATO allies, whereas the proliferation of nuclear weapons to Pakistan (from China) and the “nuclear Walmart” run by Dr AQ Khan hardly imposed any costs on any of the countries involved given Pakistan’s continuing strategic importance to the USA and its NATO allies, as well as China.
When a country like Pakistan can get away with its nuclear proliferation, it is hard to argue that India will face any greater global pressure.
Also, on this issue, there is a congruence of interests between India, much of the Western world and several East Asian countries, in that the biggest threat that all of them perceive is that of an aggressive China.
Potential risk 2: China will become more aggressive towards India
Of course, there is the Chinese counter-reaction itself to account for in the risks and costs–but even there, what else can China do? It has already proliferated nuclear weapons and missile technology to Pakistan and continues to shield it. It has sought to strategically encircle India in its neighbourhood including by using debt as a weapon through OBOR to gain leverage with neighbouring states of India. Chinese hostility to India has even extended to them shielding certified terrorists in Pakistan such as Masood Azhar. Hence, one must ponder what India will achieve by being diffident that an aggressive move will anger China. What else can China really do?
The big lesson from the Doklam conflict should be that China seeks peace and reconciliation if and only if India demonstrates the strategic capability to impose costs on it. A strong India, with de facto alliances with states such as Vietnam acting as force multipliers, could actually lead to a more responsible China, which creates the right conditions for India’s own peaceful rise.
This is where a closer India- Vietnam defence collaboration in general, and a nuclear Vietnam in particular, serves our strategic interests, and will be seen as a positive development by much of the rest of the world (and will hence impose very marginal costs on India).
Vietnam is well-suited to be leveraged by India to strategically throttle China for these reasons:
- Traditional antipathy to China: Vietnam has a long history of antipathy to China–the civilisational memory of Vietnam is replete with stories of thwarting unrelenting Chinese aggression on what the latter viewed as a pesky tributary state that should submit to Chinese suzerainty. Indeed this is one of the strongest sentiments on which Vietnamese nationalism has been forged. Even in the modern era, Vietnam has been in continual strategic conflict with China, especially in recent years over the South China Sea (over the Spratly chains in particular), and the tapping of energy reservoirs off the course of Vietnam in what China claims as its territory.
- Vietnam’s strategic location and capability: Secondly, Vietnam’s location and demonstrated military pluck makes it a credible check on China. As late as 1979, the Vietnamese army managed to give a bloody nose to the invading Chinese forces, who had to retreat without achieving any of their goals. Vietnam’s location also allows it to threaten the South Sea fleet of the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) based out of the Hainan island, as has been outlined in an analysis by the strategic affairs expert Bharat Karnad in his book Why India is not a Great Power (Yet).
In recent years, though, Vietnam has been forced to back-off from conflict from an increasingly aggressive China, given the widening power differential between the countries. A nuclear-armed Vietnam would significantly alter the strategic balance in the South China Sea, and snuff out the incipient Chinese efforts to be the leading power of the Indo-Pacific region, primarily through naval force projection.
Nuclear weapons would make Chinese salami-slicing tactics in the South China seas more fraught with the risk of going across the nuclear trip-wires that Vietnam would have. Chinese psy-ops as part of their “three warfare” strategy would also be rendered ineffective. However, nuclear weapons are not a silver bullet, and this has to be part of a larger strategy of enhancing the defence capabilities of Vietnam with the transfer of missile technology (e.g., the Brahmos), training of personnel, signal intelligence capability, cooperation to create additional capability in the ports of Cam Ranh and Nha Trang etc. But conventional weapons alone will not be sufficient to deter China since it enjoys overwhelming dominance in that sphere, but it does achieve nuclear deterrence with a normal escalation ladder, which again will lower the risk of alarming the rest of the world.
Just as nuclear weapons are the “new Himalayas” between India and China, nuclear weapons would effectively constrain the ambitions of the People’s Republic to alter the territorial status quo in the South China Sea, and extend its reach to the wider Indo-Pacific. Hence, the primary benefit of a nuclear-armed Vietnam is on confining China’s ambitions in the South China Sea, and in the wider Indo-Pacific.
The second benefit is the effect this will have on other South East Asian countries. A nuclear-armed Vietnam would also mean that powers in South East Asia would not bandwagon with China, anticipating a lack of alternatives to Chinese expansionism, especially with a retreating US. Today, with the lack of credible alternatives, South East Asian powers are bandwagoning with China (for example Duterte’s Philippines looking for conciliation with China), but with an enhancement of the defence capabilities of Vietnam, South East Asian powers will be emboldened to stand up to China.
Hence there will be significant second-order benefits to a nuclear-armed Vietnam in terms of the rest of ASEAN, especially with Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Nuclear-arming Vietnam would be a low cost way for India to achieve these outcomes, especially since naval power is expensive to build, especially if it has to be credible enough to challenge China right upto the South China Sea, to the extent that it inspires confidence in other South East Asian powers.
No Western power would seek to impose sanctions because of this, given that it is in their interests to constrain China.
Vietnam also is unlikely to ever turn into a rogue state, and even to the extent that it does, no Indian or global great power’s strategic interests will be impacted.
Given this, the conclusion, though seemingly radical, is a logical outcome: India should develop a deep strategic relationship with Vietnam in general, and arm them with nuclear weapons in particular.