This post first appeared on Future Directions International on 2 May 2012.
As the latest addition to India’s expanding arsenal, the launch of the Agni-5 long-range missile on 19 April is another step forward in the diversification of India’s nuclear strike capabilities. While India celebrates its technological achievement, the development of a nuclear-capable intermediate-range ballistic missile, with an estimated range of 5,000 kilometres or 3,100 miles, is likely to intensify strategic competition between Pakistan and China, which have viewed these developments with reservation.
Although senior Indian officials publicly say that the Agni-5 is for deterrence purposes only, India has a clear rationale behind the missile’s development, which is to: demonstrate its expanding strategic strike capabilities, impress the world’s major powers that possess intercontinental missiles and deliver a strong message to Pakistan and China.
As a nation that has reportedly doubled the size of its nuclear arsenal within the last ten years, the Agni-5 is the latest addition to India’s nuclear-capable weapon systems, adding to its existing missile and aircraft-deliver systems.
Among Indian strategic planners there is an influential school of thought, who firmly believe, that India must develop world-class military strike capabilities and project the symbolism of a major world power. This, they believe, will provide greater international recognition and further strengthen India’s case to obtain a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.
Senior Indian officials are also wary of China’s power and influence and its ability to thwart India’s regional ambitions, especially in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region. However remote, Indian strategic planners also appear to be increasingly concerned about the possibility of a two-front war with Pakistan and China, which has provided added impetus to developing sophisticated military capabilities.
Although the Indian Government has tried to downplay the Agni-5 and portray it as a defensive weapon, Indian defence analysts and the media pointed out the weapon’s significance is to give India strategic parity against China. The fact India deliberately chose not to inform China of its intention to launch the new missile, is indeed revealing given that all other permanent members of the UN’s Security Council were reportedly told.
Officially, China’s response has been reserved and tempered. ‘China and India are both emerging powers. We are not rivals but co-operative partners. We should cherish the hard earned momentum of co-operation,’ stated Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Weimin.
Chinese state media, however, has adopted a different tone accusing India of downplaying the missile’s capabilities, claiming it has an actual range of up to 8,000 km. Similarly, as reported in BBC News, the editor of the Chinese Military Magazine, asserted that: ‘Without an adequate tank corps and a heavy-duty land force with adequate heavy weapons, it [India] can hardly become a so-called “China killer” by relying solely on nuclear weapons.’ More disparagingly, quoting Gao Zugui of the Institute of International Strategic Studies, the South China Morning Post, reported: ‘…if it [India] really wants to become a great nation, each of its families should have a toilet first.’
Furthermore, Pakistan’s response to the launch of the Agni-5 was immediate and forthright. Within days after India launched the Agni-5, Pakistan test-fired the Hatf IV Shaheen-1A, its latest nuclear-capable intermediate-range ballistic missile. Although the range of the new missile was not announced, it is speculated to be around 2,000 km or 1,240 miles. As emphasised by Lt. Gen. Khalid Ahmed Kidwai, the Pakistani commander overseeing the nation’s nuclear command, Pakistan legitimised the launch, claiming: ‘The improved version of Shaheen-1A will further consolidate and strengthen Pakistan’s deterrence abilities.’
Although China has not responded with gestures of hostility, it may choose to respond more subtly as it continues to pursue ways and means to counterbalance India, including the development of its own military capabilities. At this stage, what impact the Agni-5 may have on China’s strategic and defence policies is difficult to interpret, but it is likely that China will look to strengthen further its strategic ties with Pakistan and other Indian Ocean countries that surround India’s immediate neighbourhood.
But the sentiment provided by an article in the Pakistan Observer, on 30 April, is perhaps more illustrative of how either Pakistan or China may choose to respond in the long-term. ‘Neither Beijing nor Islamabad will stand idly by as India arms itself. It could lead to an Asian arms race similar to that witnessed during the Cold War’.