The China-India military stand-off continues and is likely to be a long haul. Meanwhile, there is contemplation that China and Pakistan could pose a collusive two-front threat to India. The strategic nexus between the “iron brothers” is old, deep and broad-based. Both symbiotically support each other to complicate India’s security. Pakistan is assured of Chinese weaponry, economic assistance for infrastructure development, intelligence inputs, diplomatic support and psychological backing. China can bank on Pakistan for tactical actions to impose pressure on India by opening new fronts using its regular army or terrorist infrastructure.

Placed in the middle, India faces China, which enjoys numerical conventional superiority, and Pakistan whose nuclear weapons negate India’s conventional edge. To address them individually or jointly, some opine that India should adopt a more offensive nuclear posture by projecting first use of nuclear weapons, building “tactical” nuclear weapons (TNWs) and threatening their use with impunity, a la Pakistan.

Before India rushes to this conclusion, some questions should be answered. Pakistan may project use of nuclear weapons, but can it really use them in a manner that brings benefits? Does India believe Pakistan’s nuclear use threat? Has that stopped a resolute India from undertaking conventional punitive actions? Notwithstanding all the nuclear noise, Pakistan understands that unless its first use is able to disarm India’s nuclear arsenal, it is sure to suffer nuclear retaliation, worsening its situation. How, then, is the threat of first use credible?

India will face the same credibility issues when it signals the first use of nuclear weapons. In fact, laying down artificial redlines for nuclear use in conventional scenarios is not helpful. It can place national leaderships in a commitment trap or a credibility crisis. India has wisely circumvented this problem by adopting the no-first-use doctrine. The only redline here is nuclear use by the adversary. Short of that, there should be little reason for India to use nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the assumptions that use of low-yield TNWs is more credible, or that their controlled use would be condoned for fear of nuclear escalation, are both questionable. A 75-year old taboo against nuclear use makes any decision to use them, even the low-yield variety, extremely difficult and not easily condoned. Also, no such use can guarantee a controlled conflict since the response from the other side will always be unknown. India, for instance, promises massive retaliation against any use of nuclear weapons. Pakistan can never safely presume that India would act otherwise. The assuredness of retaliation ensured by secure second-strike capabilities makes the weapon non-usable. The Superpowers could not use them despite building thousands of TNWs. Neither has Pakistan been able to do so despite professedly deploying such weapons.  India will not be able to do so either.

The answer to dealing with a collusive two-front situation lies not in projection of first nuclear use, but in exploiting arrows in the diplomatic, information, military and economic (DIME) quiver.

In the diplomatic domain, India’s stature as a responsible country that respects international rules and values is far ahead of China and Pakistan. Individually and jointly, their disruptive behaviour is well recognised. India has the opportunity to team up with like-minded nations to pose credible dilemmas to both. For example, India’s efforts at engaging West Asia or exposing state support to terrorism have been fruitful against Pakistan. China’s non-transparency on the pandemic, debt diplomacy, expansionist behaviour has already created an anti-China sentiment that India can exploit to great effect.

Utilisation of the information spectrum is critical for this. India’s success at blocking Pakistan’s ability to play a victim of terrorism is one illustration of effective use of this sphere. In case of China too, India needs to amplify Beijing’s aggressive tendencies and duplicity, facts that already have a resonance. Further, India can find and fuel fissures in the collusion. Beijing and Islamabad have no civilisational, ideological, socio-cultural, or religious affinities. China is apprehensive of Pakistan’s radical Islam and its appeal with the Uighurs; this could be exploited. China should also be reminded that any Pakistani nuclear use would result in socio-environmental consequences that it will not be able to escape either. Other points of friction can be found and exploited.

On the military front, the answer lies in building usable capability in the conventional realm. Chief of Defence Staff has expectedly underscored India’s ability to take on a collusive threat. More thoughtful build-up and use of numerous rungs on the conventional spectrum, including newer realms of space and cyber, can provide important leverages. Indeed, conventional capability is the only instrument that can credibly deter and punish.

Lastly, India’s trade, markets and resources are its strength. Denial of these allows India to wage “economic warfare”. This has persisted with Pakistan for some years now. India has also managed further economic heat from the Financial Action Task Force. China, meanwhile, has squandered a good economic relationship worth $100 billion owing to the current crisis. Some steps taken by India have also reverberated with other countries and the collective impact on China will be felt if these policies are sustained.

India’s security challenges are complex. But a change in nuclear doctrine to deal with tactical, sub-conventional or even conventional concerns would be meaningless. A shift to nuclear pre-emption would only heighten risks of inadvertent nuclear escalation. As instruments of deterrence, nuclear weapons are most credible when threatened against an existential crisis. India’s DIME actions can ensure that China and Pakistan, individually or collusively, cannot pose such a risk to the country. India must focus on options that lie between fisticuffs and nuclear use.

Manpreet Sethi is Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies.