Geographic 9

Engagement without Recognition: A Pathway to China-India Risk Reduction Dialogue?

Recent deadly military incidents and an ongoing border conflict between China and India has led to direct albeit low-level military confrontation. Despite it’s low-intensity, military conflicts always contain within them the potential for escalation, including ultimately to the nuclear level. But in the case of the two nuclear-armed adversaries, there are no bilateral risk reduction mechanisms in place to de-escalate conflicts, and there is no nuclear risk reduction dialogue at the official level that might put in place such crisis management structures. 

Although India has openly declared that it possesses nuclear weapons, this happened after January 1967, meaning India cannot be recognised as a ‘Nuclear Weapon State’ under Article IX(III) of the NPT. Citing this legal impediment and the risk of legitimising India’s nuclear status, China has so far signalled no interest or willingness towards sustained dialogue with India on nuclear weapons issues.

Yet, nuclear scholars in both countries are beginning to call upon Beijing to consider engaging with New Delhi. We suggest that Sino-Indian diplomatic interactions in the spirit of ‘engagement without recognition’ can open up a pathway to a China-India nuclear risk reduction dialogue. 

What is Engagement Without Recognition?

The concept of ‘engagement without recognition’ has gained prominence in the field of International Relations (IR) to explain diplomatic interactions between international actors and contested, or de facto, states. In particular, the concept has been used in academic and policy-making circles to describe the increasingly diffused practice of engaging with contested states on a spectrum of economic, political, cultural and social levels without this implying a recognition of their sovereignty.

Engagement without recognition can open up channels of communication at various official and non-official levels, acting as an important conflict resolution tool

While a total lack of engagement can exacerbate conflicts, a strategy of engagement without recognition can help conflicting parties to reach concrete and short-term objectives, such as agreeing ceasefires, implementing confidence-building measures and establishing trade links.

A case point is the European Union’s (EU) engagement with the secessionist populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia through confidence-building projects, notwithstanding its support for Georgia’s territorial integrity.

Another example is the engagement strategy used by the United Nations and the EU within the framework of the Cyprus conflict. Although parties ultimately failed to reach a peace agreement, peace-keeping and peace-making activities were made possible by an engagement process between the non-recognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and the Republic of Cyprus.

To date, ‘engagement without recognition’ has only been applied to contested states. But it can also be utilised for more nuanced types of (non-)recognition policies, such as the complex nuclear issues between China and India. Simply put, ‘engagement without recognition’ would enable China to talk with India on nuclear issues without having to recognise its nuclear status.

The Paradox of the China-India Nuclear Relationship

Despite India’s repeated efforts since 1998 to claim the People’s Republic of China as a near-peer competitor, the international community often considers Pakistan to be India’s primary security concern. For India, however, China’s nuclear capability continues to be the primary driving force behind its evolving nuclear weapons programme. 

China has not publicly revealed how they interpret New Delhi’s evolving nuclear doctrine and strategy, but it has been vocal about its non-recognition of India’s nuclear status. 

Whatever their public signals, China and India have a complex adversarial relationship that underscores a basic responsibility for the two actors to engage on a meaningful level. Whilst China and India may both possess a declared No First Use policy, which has become a set of double safety valves between the two to avoid a nuclear clash, the increasing tensions between the two places a burden on their stated commitments. 

The China-India relationship is characterised by distrust and is exacerbated by territorial disputes, COVID-19 and a flurry of reciprocal retaliatory economic restrictions being put in place. The two nuclear possessor states have revealed an appetite for confrontation at various (non-nuclear) levels. 

This brings to the forefront the functioning of nuclear deterrence between the two.  Viewed as stable and secure, political and economic ties that previously took priority are now crumbling under the weight of overt hostility. As Toby Dalton asks: as time goes on, will nuclear weapons play a more prominent role as each country seeks to shape each other’s behaviour? 

The Opportunity of Engagement Without Recognition for China

The principle of ‘engagement without recognition’, or a kindred idea, could enable China to collaborate with India to reach concrete and short-term nuclear risk reduction objectives, while making clear that this does not imply a recognition of India’s legal nuclear status. 

Small-scale, official-level dialogue that helps thaw the distrust and build mutual understanding between the two nations would be an end in itself, and may provide an important backchannel of communication during a crisis. Over time, such dialogues could lead to the development of informal or formal nuclear confidence-building measures implemented at the track one level. 

One example of this could be an agreement over hazardous nuclear incidents at sea. With both countries expanding their naval presence in the Indian Ocean, the lack of such an agreement is a cause for concern as incidents of miscalculation and misperception with escalatory potential cannot be ruled out. 

One low-cost avenue that India and China could explore is a mutual exploration of how each state perceives its responsibilities in relation to nuclear weapons, using the dialogical process conceptualised by the BASIC-ICCS Nuclear Responsibilities Approach. This approach to thinking and talking about nuclear weapons is specifically designed to broker an inclusive and non-judgemental dialogue between nuclear adversaries, including in relationships characterised by recognition issues.

However, parties should keep two important points in mind, if the principle of engagement without recognition is to facilitate, rather than hinder, the dialogue.

First, as James Ker Lindsay writes in International Affairs, parties will need to clarify that recognition is ‘a matter of intention’ that ‘cannot be replaced by questionable inferences from conduct’. In other words, any policy pursued under ‘engagement without recognition’ should not be instrumentalised and construed as acts of recognition by the parties involved or by external actors. This should be openly discussed and agreed by parties: China would need to clarify that its policy of non-recognition of India’s nuclear status is maintained throughout the engagement process. 

Moreover, parties will have to make sure that non-recognition does not equate with disrespect or unequal treatment in any type of diplomatic interactions, as happened in the case of the TRNC. Parties should refrain from using any statements or actions that can exacerbate existing animosities by creating inequalities and fostering feelings of disrespect and resentment in the non-recognised state. 


As two nuclear-armed adversaries, India and China have nuclear responsibilities. With an eye towards building a more secure global order, they should find practical ways to reduce bilateral distrust, and enhance confidence and transparency, in relation to their nuclear weapons policies and practices. ‘Engagement without recognition’, or an idea like it, can offer one viable route to meaningful and sustainable cooperation between the two nuclear-armed rivals.


The authors, Chiara Cervasio and Dr Rishi Paul are Policy Fellows on the Nuclear Responsibilities Programme at BASIC. Dr Rishi Paul is the Programme Manager of the Nuclear Responsibilities Asia-Pacific Track.

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