Race in Space.
The test firing of two ballistic missiles by India and Pakistan, one following the other, has sparked new tensions between the two already uneasy neighbors, thus elevating worries about an increasing nuclear arms race in South Asia. Curiously, India, Pakistan as well as China have taken the tests in their stride. In fact, India and Pakistan informed one another in advance about the tests as per a 2005 agreement.
The nuclear race between the two South Asian neighbors started in 1974 when New Delhi conducted a nuclear explosion in Pokhran. India conducted further tests on May 11, 1998, conveying the message that by making nuclear devices and mastering technology in long-range delivery systems, it had added a new dimension to its strategic capabilities. Since neither India nor Pakistan are signatories to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), it is a matter of great concern for other nuclear powers. More worrisome is the missile race between the two nuclear neighbors. If a nuclear-armed missile is launched it cannot be recalled, unlike an aircraft. For two populous countries, so geographically close to each other, the response time is also very short.
The only time the US and the Soviet Union came close to a war was during the Cuban crisis in the early 1960s. On the other hand, India and Pakistan have fought four wars: 1948, 1965, 1971 and the limited Kargil conflict in 1999. Since the first war in Kashmir, the relationship between the two countries has become hostage to the festering dispute over the region.
Another reason to worry about is the safety of weapons and their likelihood of falling into the hands of terrorists. India has for long accused Pakistan of waging a proxy war in Kashmir by training and funding jihadis. India has also experienced two terrorist attacks in Mumbai - the serial bomb blasts in March 1993 and the more daring 2008 attack, though the origin of the terrorists has not been established with certainty in both instances so far.
For its part, Pakistan is also a victim of Islamist terror, especially on the border with Afghanistan and in the South and North Waziristan tribal belt. In this milieu, India test fired Agni-V, a 5000 km range inter-continental ballistic missile from the Wheeler Island off the Orissa coast on April 19; a move that is bound to escalate tensions in the region. Ironically, while the missile may have been targeted at China, this did not stop Pakistan from testing its own intermediate range missile, HATF-4, six days later.
The Agni-V is a 50-tonnes three-stage solid fuel-propelled missile capable of carrying a payload of 1.1 tonnes and can release multiple nuclear warheads, making it the most advanced indigenously built missile. Only last November, India successfully test fired the 3,500 km range, Agni-IV.
Once the Agni V is inducted in the Indian nuclear arsenal, New Delhi will achieve a deterrent capacity against China. India's strategic establishment had been eagerly waiting for the Agni-V ICBM since Beijing started deploying strategic missiles in Tibet and Xinjiang against India and building capacities of its land forces in the region. Last year, India discovered multiple missile silos at Xiadulla across the Karakoram Pass in China's Xinjiang region. Following this, the Indian Air Force strengthened its air bases along the line of actual control that is the de-facto border between India and China. Though India is fast catching up, China is already at a much advanced stage in its missile capability. China's nuclear arsenal is more than double of India's estimated 100 warheads and it continues to deploy both land and submarine launched ballistic missiles.
China has taken India's entry to the ICBM club in its stride. A spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, Liu Weimin, said, "China and India are not competitors but partners. We believe that both sides should work hard to uphold friendly strategic co-operation to promote peace and stability in the region." Chinese experts, however, feel that Agni V has the potential to reach targets 8,000 km away and that the Indian government has "deliberately downplayed the missile's capability in order to avoid causing concern to other countries."
The United States has lauded India's non-proliferation record and said it has engaged with the international community on such issues. At the same time, Mark Toner, State Department spokesman said, "We urge all nuclear-capable states to exercise restraint regarding nuclear capabilities."
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think tank, has commented that "The lack of US condemnation of India's latest missile test demonstrates that the US is comfortable with Indian progress in the nuclear and missile fields and appreciates India's need to meet the emerging strategic challenge posed by rising China."
Indian officials say that the Agni V missile can be launched from a mobile platform, a claim that raises immediate concerns in Pakistan. A mobile missile launcher will prove much more difficult to destroy in the event of a war.
In a paper presented to the International Institute for Science, Technology and Education (IISTE), Indian professor, Suresh Dhanda argues that the introduction of a ballistic missile defense system will trigger an arms race in the region. He says, "China and India fought over their disputed boundaries in 1962, and India and Pakistan have also gone to war four times. All three share 'lines of actual control' apart from international borders. In this scenario, the introduction of missile defense will disturb existing patterns of deterrence. Although all three states pledge to minimum deterrence, leaders in all three capitals have also said deterrence is not a static concept; the requirements of each state would, therefore, depend on what the others are doing or might seek to do."
American analysts say that as long as Pakistan feels threatened by India's superior conventional forces, it is likely to continue its nuclear build-up. Since the Pakistanis often perceive the United States and India as being in collusion against them, taking measures to secure their nuclear deterrent against foreign plots would be natural.
However, India's national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon has reiterated New Delhi's commitment to the doctrine of "no first use against non-nuclear weapons states." This has been interpreted by some to mean that India reserves its right to use nuclear weapons first, against nuclear weapons states like Pakistan and China.
Pakistan's defense establishment argues that it does not want war, and certainly not a nuclear war, with India. Despite this stated desire, New Delhi and Islamabad are caught in a spiral of tensions and mistrust that could cause the next regional crisis to flare into armed conflict and even a limited war.
S. Murari is a senior Indian journalist who has been covering Sri Lanka for the past 25 years. He was associated with the Bangalore-based English daily, Deccan Herald and retired as an associate editor of the newspaper
As the missile race between India and Pakistan speeds up, China too enters the equation. Such strategic and technological advances do not bode well for an already unstable South Asia.