NEW DELHI, India — India's successful launch of a long-range ballistic missile that would allow it to hit Beijing with a nuclear warhead last week has been touted as the latest sign of an escalating Asian arms race and a potential game-changer in India-China relations.
But experts say its significance, on both counts, has been greatly exaggerated by alarmist and nationalist media reports.
“This is an ongoing program,” said Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science at Indiana University. “[Diplomatically, it's] a kind of signal to the Chinese that we're not going to stand idly by: we're going to develop our own capabilities and a credible deterrent.”
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For the past decade, India has openly sought to develop missiles capable of reaching China, which has targeted India with nuclear weapons since the 1980s. And the November 2011 test of the Agni IV — capable of striking targets as distant as 2,100 miles away — means that last week's launch of the 3,000-mile-range Agni V could not have come as a great surprise to Beijing or any other regional Asian power.
“India has made no secret of its missile development program,” said former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, noting the incremental range increases demonstrated by the Agni I (720 miles), Agni II (1,500 miles), Agni III (2,100 miles) and Agni IV (also 2,100 miles, but with greater accuracy) over the past decade.
Nor does the new missile — which will take at least five years before it can be deployed — mark an escalation in the militarization of Asia.
Beijing already possesses longer range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The additional range does not present a real threat to the other nations of the region, or to Pakistan. And even with the new capability, in terms of both its nuclear arsenal and its conventional armed forces, India remains far behind China — whose profligate military spending is geared toward matching the might of the US.
“China is already much ahead of us,” said Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian foreign secretary. “We have no intention to match their capabilities in every field. We are not going to accelerate our programs. As I said, we are acquiring a credible deterrent capability which we have lacked until now.”
The impact of deterrence
Nuclear, or even military, might is also overrated as an equalizer. With far fewer troops and less powerful missiles, Pakistan gives its neighbors more headaches than India, and, arguably, extorts better treatment. The reason? Just as a small, vicious dog is more frightening than a large, placid one, Islamabad seems more likely than New Delhi to bite.
In that context, the impact of India's new “credible” deterrent on India-China relations may be limited, even if its notoriously unreliable Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) does succeed in deploying the Agni V over the next few years.
That's because although China's superior military might has always been the key to the relationship between the two countries, it is Beijing's unpredictability and greater willingness to rattle the saber that has kept India in a fearful and reactive position.
In short: Both countries have a no-first-use doctrine with regard to nuclear weapons and neither is going to attack the other with conventional forces, but only Beijing is absolutely certain of that fundamental truth.
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Nevertheless, India's ability to strike China with nuclear weapons will likely spur some progress on a mutual “non-targeting agreement” like the one Beijing inked with Moscow and the US in the 1990s. And some experts suggest that India's new deterrent may increase New Delhi's confidence in negotiating sticky issues, such as the long-running border dispute with Beijing over parts of Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh.
“The Agni V will indicate notional parity, so there will be more respectability [for India] in terms of the territory dispute resolution, where previously China was negotiating from a stronger position,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
A double-standard on proliferation?
Coincidentally, India's successful test of the Agni V followed closely after North Korea's failed attempt with its Unha-3 rocket earlier this month — which prompted White House spokesman Jay Carney to point out that “India's record stands in stark contrast to that of North Korea” on Thursday.
But it is unreasonable to suggest that Washington's muted response to India's test will in any way undermine its condemnation of Pyongyang.
Segments of the non-proliferation lobby still insist that the India-US nuclear pact allowed India a “free pass,” despite New Delhi's continuing refusal to sign the non-proliferation treaty. But Washington was demonstrably correct in drawing a clear distinction between India and North Korea — where both the actions and the declared goals of the two nations eliminate any question of a double standard.
“One is one of the last totalitarian societies left on the earth,” said Indiana University's Ganguly. “The other, flaws and all, is a democracy. North Korea threatens all its neighbors. India has never done that, let alone lately. Because India is a democracy, it's an open society, which means you can see what's going on, what the decisions were leading up to this test. North Korea is totally opaque.”
Instead, just as India's new capabilities should speed the signing of a non-targeting agreement with China, the launch of the Agni V should add momentum to US efforts to include India in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and Nuclear Suppliers' Group — measures that would arguably be as effective as the non-proliferation treaty in ensuring India's continued cooperation in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
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