Johann wrote:For most of the Cold War the PRC was unable to threaten either Soviet or American major population and industrial centres.
Its arsenal was a tiny fraction of the size of that available to the superpowers
The majority of its small nuclear arsenal in this time were also extremely vulnerable to a first strike given its small size and reliance on liquid fuels and pre-surveyed, prepared sites
Johann, we have to look at this from two different perspectives. For China vis-a-vis US, the continuing good relationship of the USSR with China at least until early 1960s was a major deterrence for the US. By circa 1964, China had exploded a nuke. Eventhough the USSR-China relationship began to be frosty from early 60s, it was only to be expected that the USSR would still not have kept quiet had the US attacked China with nukes. Anyway, in early 60s, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the consequent Missile Crisis taught the US a big lesson and they could not have contemplated any attack on China at all. The Ussuri river clash between USSR and PRC in c. 1969, emboldened both China and the US to re-appraise their mutual relationships and as a result of which the thaw happened when Kissinger secretly visited PRC. So, there was no question of any fear for PRC from the US. In essence, the fear for China existed for a short while perhaps after Mao drove Chiang Kai Shek to Taiwan.
As for the China-USSR relationship, that was not threatening until mid-60s. It was the Ussuri clash in early c. 1969 that really threatened to escalate. However, by end-1969, the two appeared to have reached some understanding and the threat receded. There was again, a small window like in the case of the US, when PRC was vulnerable to a nuke attack from the USSR. PRC decided to enhance its security by normalizing its relationship with the US soon thereafter with the help of Pakistan.
So, though PRC's arsenal was a tiny fraction of the US or the USSR, and though it had only liquid-fuelled engines for its missiles which were incapable of long distances or accuracy etc., there was no major threat it faced for a sustained period. It was either the US or the USSR it faced at any one time. It did not face continuous and high-pressure jihadi terrorist attacks from a proxy of either of these superpowers. The pressure on PRC eased considerably after it was accorded status as a NWS (in 1968), and in c. 1971 it completely evaporated after US-PRC relation thawed and technology transfers began to take place soon between them and PRC was accepted not only into the UN but even the UNSC.
On top of this it had an official no-first use policy
Yet the PRC was able to deter both superpowers.
All NWS states start with a countervalue and a NFU posture because that is all the luxury that their nuclear weapons and missiles would allow them to be. The NFU declaratory policy is always a ruse by a weaker nuke power to calm the nerves of stronger ones.
For that matter the Soviets who used nuclear threats against Israel in 1956, did not repeat them in 1967 or 1973, despite the weaknesses of the developing Israeli deterrent.
Israel's case was very different. It had the complete support of the US and the UK.
How did India deter a repeat of 1962 for all the years it lacked an operational nuclear deterrent after the Chinese test of 1964?
PRC was fighting for prestige, power and acceptance among the comity of nations during the period after 1962. It could not do something foolish like attacking a NNWS like India and cause millions of deaths, especially after its NFU for whatever it was worth. Besides, the rift in China-USSR relationship and the extraordinary warmth in India-USSR relationship precluded such a blatant use of nukes by PRC. The credit should not go to India for the deterrence it achieved, except perhaps to the extent of cultivating and maintaining a close relationship with the USSR.
There's no shortage of examples of asymmetric deterrence - now states usually want to even the odds and make it more symmetric, but the pace and the extent at which that occurs is a politically and materially expensive question.
True. Politically, I doubt if the present dispensation wants to go any further than May, 1998. Its priorities and approaches are different. As for being 'materially expensive', the usual and well-worn out 'advice' to India not to go any forward and freeze as-it-is is because a 'poor country' like India can ill-afford such expenses. I am sure India has never listened to such an argument due to sound reasons.