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Face-off between Asia's nuclear giants raises new fears

Indian submarine at sea
Indian Navy submarine in the Bay of Bengal. Photo: STR / AFP / Getty Images

China and India have a long history of border disputes, most of them reasonably managed until last year’s standoff over Chinese road construction in the disputed territory of Doklam, which prompted an Indian military response.

Both states surprisingly asserted readiness for open conflict, and Beijing told Western ambassadors that its patience "was not indefinite” in refraining from the use of force. While this episode was mutually de-escalated, it has triggered more aggressive stances in subsequent interactions.

The Indian Army Chief has since called for developing military infrastructure in a new area of the border. And just three weeks ago, Chinese forces attempted to construct a road that cut into a new part of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, before having their equipment confiscated by Indian troops.

Most worryingly, the Doklam episode may have prompted Indian nuclear preparations, a response hard to see as proportionate to a localized, nonviolent border standoff. A new report revealed that, during the crisis, Indian leaders ordered submarines "flushed" — sent out to sea en masse — to defend against a potential Chinese naval attack. They were also specifically briefed on the deployment availability of India's Arihant nuclear-armed submarine. Had the boat not been under repair, it likely would have been launched, sending potential nuclear warning signals to Beijing.

Why it matters: Deteriorating mutual trust has set the stage for more crises. As the stakes rise — with potential nuclear implications — the Trump administration must prepare contingency plans for future crises.

Frank O’Donnell is a Stanton Nuclear Security Junior Faculty Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center and a nonresident fellow in the Stimson Center’s South Asia Program.

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