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Wednesday, May 9, 2001

Why India endorses NMD

NEW DELHI -- U.S. President George W. Bush's publicly announced plan to push ahead with defenses against nuclear missiles reflects his administration's unilateral determination to assertively advance U.S. national interests and put some muscle into foreign policy. From repudiation of the Kyoto Protocol to its readiness to abrogate the 29-year-old Antiballistic Missile Treaty, the Bush team is signaling America's intent to utilize its global pre-eminence to full advantage.

Bush's presentation of an ambitious national missile-defense plan involving a triad of land, sea and air defenses should not come as a surprise. Just as Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government conducted nuclear tests in keeping with his coalition's pre-election nuclearization pledge, Bush has agreed to do what he had committed to do during the presidential campaign. But just as India's tests came as a shock to many, Bush's NMD plan has jolted and dismayed a number of foreign governments.

India's positive reaction to Bush's missile-defense plan and his call for a broad strategic rethinking of the role of nuclear deterrence does not appear impulsive and hasty, contrary to what critics say. Rather, it seems to be a product of a larger understanding or deal with the Bush team.

This is evident not only from U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage's visit to New Delhi this week, but also from the more significant trip to India toward the end of May by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Henry Shelton. Moreover, the Bush administration appears set to lift some important sanctions against India, including in the military and space fields, raising the possibility of New Delhi buying American weapons systems.

India's endorsement of NMD -- it is one of the few nations to have openly backed the plan -- has certainly opened new opportunities for cooperation with the United States, even as it has embarrassed Russia, India's traditional friend, and angered its old foe China. The timing of the Indian statement on NMD was unfortunate, as it came on the eve of the Russian foreign minister's important visit to New Delhi.

Russia will always remain a natural ally of India. But while India has to revive its sagging relationship with Moscow, those ties cannot stand in the way of building an Indo-U.S. strategic partnership -- a partnership critical for both Indian security and Asian stability.

India's positive response to the NMD plan has clearly been driven by a careful consideration of India's options and long-term interests. India has to make the best of a bad situation. Its largest neighbor, China, will use NMD as an excuse to further build up its already expanding nuclear and missile arsenals. With or without NMD, India's security will be adversely affected by the growing Chinese armories and Beijing's continued nuclear and missile transfers to Pakistan. But with NMD, India will be squeezed more, as China will have a justification to further accelerate its buildup and flout international norms and conventions.

Deciding priorities

So what can India do in such circumstances? Should it abandon its plans to build a nuclear-deterrent force at very modest levels and begin building up its capabilities? Or should it look at other options?

Few can mistake Bush's single-minded dedication to building an NMD as a shield against intercontinental ballistic missiles as well as to construct a theater missile-defense system in East Asia for limited-area protection against shorter-range missiles. Potentially, America could arm itself with the capacity to both unleash a first strike and protect itself from retaliation, upsetting the balance of nuclear terror.

Bush's plans will change the concept and practice of deterrence -- a traditionally offense-based posture that aims to retain a balance between mutual vulnerabilities. So far, deterrence has been pivoted on the premise that "if you hit me, I'll hit you back in a manner that you'll regret." NMD threatens to change that to "I can hit you, but you can't hit me back, so you'd better behave."

In terms of focus, NMD symbolizes a shift from offense to defense. Without offense being given up, deterrence is to be constructed on the principles of defense to calculatingly tilt the balance between mutual vulnerabilities in favor of one side.

Unfortunately for India, it has to face these emerging changes even before it has put in place a fully operational deterrent force. The biggest expansion of missile capabilities anywhere in the world is being carried out by China, which is building a new generation of solid-fueled, multiple-warhead missiles, such as the Dongfeng 31 and Dongfeng 41. These are precisely the kind of destabilizing systems that the START 2 treaty seeks to eliminate. As U.S. House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman has pointed out, China has deployed a large number of short-range missiles and 25 intermediate-range missiles with nuclear warheads in Tibet against India.

NMD and TMD carry serious implications -- more for China than for Russia. Unlike China's, Russia's huge strategic nuclear force cannot be undercut. China has only two dozen ICBMs capable of reaching the U.S., with the rest of its 500-odd nuclear weapons comprising shorter-range systems that are of consequence only to its neighbors, such as Japan, India and the ASEAN states.

Any plan that can possibly contain China's growing power and arrogance should aid Indian interests. To see the Chinese rattled by U.S. missile defenses cannot but be an agreeable sight for India. The problem, however, is that China is likely to respond by embarking on a frenzied nuclear and missile buildup.

India's existing deterrent capabilities will be gravely undermined as China builds up its nuclear and missile armories. The Sino-Indian asymmetry will increase to the extent that New Delhi will be compelled to initiate an ICBM program. Moreover, once China begins to build more sophisticated missiles armed with decoys and other penetration aids to neutralize TMD and NMD, it will have greater commercial incentives to recover some of the costs by selling Pakistan its older technologies.

A strategic partnership

India may have to arm its own missiles with decoys and other countermeasures. But it is inevitable that it will be attracted to missile defenses and to potential collaboration with the U.S.

NMD's potential benefits could help strengthen and expand U.S.-led security arrangements. If NMD is seen to work, the U.S. could extend a "missile umbrella" to its allies the way it presently holds out a nuclear umbrella.

India, as a potential strategic partner of the U.S., could make use of such benefits to reduce its burden of deterring China's burgeoning missile-based might. When nations as dispersed as Japan, Taiwan and Israel have expressed interest in defenses against a potential missile attack, India has all the more reason to seek cooperation in that field with the U.S. In a world marked by rapid change, it is easy to conceive of a future India with its own nuclear force but under a U.S. strategic missile-defense umbrella.

On balance, then, India is right to take a supportive view of Bush's missile-defense plan. U.S. missile defenses will not threaten India's security but could yield potential benefits. The action-reaction cycle triggered by missile defenses is likely to drive India closer to the U.S.

Brahma Chellaney, professor of security studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, contributes regularly to The Japan Times.

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