State Interests and Symbolism in India’s Nuclear Build-Up

  • Karsten Frey (Author)

Identifiers (Article)


India’s nuclear build-up, which culminated in the 1998 nuclear tests and India’s subsequent self-declaration as a nuclear power, bears several puzzles for academic research in the field of strategic studies, as it appears difficult to identify clear strategic motives behind it. In its relations to arch rival Pakistan, the introduction of nuclear weapons was strategically rather counter productive for India, as the equalising effects of these weapons diminished much of India’s overwhelming superiority in conventional weaponry. Many academics therefore stress the so-called ‘China factor’, that is, the threat to Indian security posed by the nuclear-armed neighbour in the north, as the reason for India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. This argument, however, appears to be not sound enough to solely explain the course of India’s nuclearisation, as the conflicting interests at stake are of too little relevance to justify the substantial financial and political sacrifice involved. Thus, a majority of studies on the nuclear build-up in South Asia concludes that a significant, if not dominating part of the explanatory variables lies outside of the classical strategic realm. However, stringent explanatory models which account for the key role of non-strategic motives behind India’s nuclear build-up are largely missing. Prime objective of the present paper is to reduce this gap by sketching a possible model to explain how the interplay of several contradicting national interests at stake, being either strategic or non-strategic in nature, contributed to India’s decision to pass the nuclear threshold. Within the applied model, the structure of the international system in South Asia clearly sets the framework for India’s international action. Structural conditions, however, are not transformed directly into India’ strategic policy formulation, but rather distorted by intervening factors at the national level. The strong threat perception emerging from Pakistan among India’s elite, and, at the same time, the remarkable indifference of the elite as well as public at large towards China, does not correspond to the actual relative power capabilities within the system, nor do these threat perceptions sufficiently explain India’s nuclear course. The present model, which is itself based on the paradigms of Neo-classical Realism, departs from conventional explanatory models in two fundamental aspects: First, state interaction is not exclusively explained by the structure of the international system, but rather by the interplay between systemic variables such as the states’ relative power capabilities, and intervening variables at the unit-level. Second, state interests are not defined exclusively in terms of security maximisation. The emphasis of the present paper on an in-depth analysis of the particular interests at stake appears justified considering the non-security motives behind India’s self-declaration as nuclear weapon state. The paper starts with a general description of the South Asian context within the field of International Relations, and the particularities of this region in regard to the applicability of the conventional IR models. Then, the international system which sets the framework for India’s strategic policy-making is outlined. The central part of the paper is an evaluation of intervening factors on the national level. Several domestic dynamics within India’s policy decision-making process regularly overlap structural conditions in shaping India’s national interest formulation. The most striking interests at stake are India’s aversion to the existing international non-proliferation regime, as well as domestic factors, such as India’s ad hoc, non-institutionalised nuclear decision-making process, dynamics emerging from India’s democratic structure, and the key role of certain pressure groups like the defence scientists and the strategic analysts.


India, Nuclear Build-Up, International Relations, Nuclearization