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India’s Missile Test Raises the Stakes

A New Great Game in the Asia-Pacific

by DEEPAK TRIPATHI

On April 19, India tested its first inter-continental ballistic missile, named Agni-V, and joined the select group of nations possessing both nuclear weapons and a delivery system capable of hitting targets across continents. Only a few days before, nuclear capable North Korea had test fired a rocket, supposedly to place a satellite in the orbit, but it failed.

Within days, India’s long-time adversary, Pakistan, tested a more advance version of its Shaheen-1 missile. Named Shaheen-1A, it is capable of hitting targets between 2000 and 3000 miles––a substantially upgraded intermediate-range ballistic missile. Before the latest launch, Pakistan’s longest-range missile, Shaheen II, was thought to have a range of less than 1500 miles.

The North Korean attempt brought strong condemnation from the United States and its allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. The Obama administration announced a ban on food aid to Communist North Korea, an ally of China. Pyongyang immediately said that it was no longer bound by the agreement to refrain from its nuclear program. The expectation in Washington is that North Korea will now conduct another rocket or even a nuclear test, its third since October 2006.

Reaction to India’s first ICBM test was different from that after North Korea’s unsuccessful rocket launch. The Indian missile is not something China can ignore. The Chinese are ahead of the Indians in the nuclear and space race by a decisive
margin. Beijing has the capability of hitting targets anywhere in the world. It has had the atomic bomb since 1964 and the hydrogen bomb since 1967. It tested its first inter-continental ballistic missile four years later.

Today, China’s Dong Feng-41 missile has a range almost three times greater than the 3500 mile range of India’s latest missile. In all important respects, India is still in the Second Division of the nuclear league. Delhi hopes that further tests of Agni-V will enable the country to implement its nuclear deterrence in two years. Once the latest missiles are in operation, they will launch India into the First Division.

Notwithstanding the celebratory mood in India over the success of its missile test, the recent overall trend will be seen as an intensification of the arms race in the Asia-Pacific region. Whereas the North Korean nuclear and missile programs have caused upset in South Korea, Japan and Washington, India’s Agni-V is unwelcome to China and Pakistan. It is hardly surprising that the Chinese response was filled with warning and ridicule.

Pointing at its superior firepower, the Chinese media called Agni-V a “political missile” and mocked it as being “dwarf.” Beijing warned that “India should not overestimate its strength.” And the Global Times accused “vested interests” of promoting an arms race between neighbors.

The United States reacted with an unusual degree of calm and understanding on India’s entry into the league of nations possessing inter-continental ballistic missiles. President Obama had recently proclaimed Asia-Pacific as the new focus of American strategy, indicating it to be a logical necessity to depart from the grinding wars of the Bush administration and counter China and North Korea in the future. Reacting to the Agni-V’s launch, a State Department spokesman called for “restrain” and, at the same time, praised India’s solid “non-proliferation record.”

With China continuing to build its naval and air presence in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, and others striving to stay in the game, the race for influence among Asian powers is a reality. The West, led by the United States, eyes India as its long-term ally with a view to countering China. As the American administration continues its attempts to lure India into an ever closer alliance, Delhi is not wholly willing to oblige. Washington’s offer to help India develop a “missile shield” is one significant issue between them. Then there are diverging views on relations with Iran causing tension between Delhi and Washington.

The arena of the new Great Game is Asia-Pacific. The race is complicated in a unipolar world, but the trend is clear. India’s intention to close the gap with China is welcomed by the West in general and the United States in particular. Pakistan is determined to stay close to India’s military might whereas China will want to maintain its supremacy.

Deepak Tripathi was the BBC Afghanistan correspondent in the early 1990s. His works can be found at http://deepaktripathi.wordpress.com and he can be reached at: dandatripathi@gmail.com.