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Monday, May 14, 2012

Beyond India's second-strike ability

Special to The Japan Times

LONDON — There was a sense of deja vu when, days after India successfully testfired its nuclear- capable, 5,000-km-range Agni-V ballistic missile, Pakistan responded by testfiring an "improved version" of its nuclear-capable Hatf-4 intermediate range ballistic missile.

At a time when Indo-Pakistan ties seem to be improving, these tests have struck a jarring note. Though both New Delhi and Islamabad informed each other of their impending tests — in accordance with a 2005 pact stipulating that the two neighbors would give due warning to each other before missile tests — recent events underscore the continuing security dilemma between them.

There is a bigger story behind India's test that also needs to be recognized. With its latest test, India has gained entry into an elite club of nations that includes only five other states — United States, Russia, China, France and Israel. And it marks a culmination, in many ways, of efforts that started in 1983 as part of India's Integrated Guided Missile Development Program.

From the first test of Agni-I in 1989, it has certainly been an eventful road for India's missile program. It was time for Agni-V when the 3,500-km-range Agni-IV was tested in November 2011.

Though it will take a few more tests before the missile becomes operational and inducted into the armed forces, the message is clear — India's second-strike capability is safe and secure.

India's no-first use nuclear doctrine relies fundamentally on a credible second-strike nuclear capability.

The Agni-V, by bringing the Chinese heartland into India's missile orbit, makes the Sino-Indian nuclear dynamic more stable than before. India's Agni-III has already been deployed very close to the Chinese border to give India a credible second strike capability.

Now, for the first time, India has demonstrated a missile range that can cover China. This will give Indian military planners greater flexibility in the deployment of their missile arsenal. The test was psychologically important for India, boosting its confidence to deal with China as an equal.

China is already at a much advanced stage in its missile capability. China's nuclear arsenal is more than double India's estimated 100 warheads, and it continues to deploy both land- and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. China's reaction has been predictable, underscoring once again the disdain that sections of the Chinese elite feel toward India.

Although officially China just emphasized that India and China are not rivals, the state-run Global Times was openly dismissive of Indian claims, arguing that India "should be clear that China's nuclear power is stronger and more reliable," and "for the foreseeable future, India would stand no chance in an overall arms race with China."

India has no need to enter into an arms race. It needs to be more sophisticated in its response.

Though sections of the media have portrayed Agni-V as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), technically Agni-V is not. It is an intermediate range ballistic missile; there is a good reason for New Delhi to underline the fact that India is not yet ready for an ICBM.

So far, India has been successful in crafting a narrative about its missile program that gives it a defensive orientation. India wants a missile capability to strengthen deterrence; there is no need to antagonize the rest of the world by suggesting a capability that it can strike at will any corner of the world. While this might satisfy some hypernationalists, it would also generate apprehensions about India's true intentions and make the Indian narrative of its peaceful rise problematic.

What message India sends out to the rest of the world is especially important at a time when India is seeking membership in global export control regimes — the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Australia Group, and the Wassenaar Arrangement — based on its impeccable nonproliferation credentials.

The reaction of the U.S., underlining India's "solid nonproliferation record," is also very instructive considering the distance that U.S.-India ties have traveled in the last few years. India is widely considered a responsible nuclear power and the logic of India's tests is well understood.

The U.S. today welcomes India's rise as a balancer in the Asia-Pacific and as a powerful democratic partner at a time when America's traditional allies in the West no longer have the will and the ability to carry the burdens of global power.

So, while India's focus remains firmly on China, Pakistan continues with its obsession with India. The latest missile test merely underscores an already well-established reality that Pakistan maintains a credible deterrence against India.

The more confident Pakistan is about its nuclear posture, the better it is for the region as it will bring greater stability in Indo-Pakistan ties. The real problem today is not Pakistan's nuclear capability but the reluctance of the Pakistani security establishment to unequivocally renounce terrorism as an instrument of state policy. The recent tests in South Asia do nothing to change that reality.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King's College London.

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