Interestingly, the first news that I got of India’s successful launch of the long-range Agni V missile on April 19, came in a phone call from a journalist in faraway Warsaw, who wanted a Pakistani perspective on it. Apparently, the 5000 kilometre range was creating ripples within a radius that would take in Eastern Europe, Russia and much of China. Launched from Nicobar Island, Agni V could knock at Australia’s door.
Reactions from Washington and Beijing were notable for pragmatism. America set aside its usual rhetoric about proliferation—used aggressively only few days earlier when Pyongyang carried out a failed test of a long-range delivery vehicle; it virtually welcomed another big step taken by India towards balancing China’s strategic power. On its part, the Chinese decided not to be alarmed by the Indian capability to attack even the great economic hub, Shanghai, and declared that as two large developing nations, India and China “are not competitors, but partners”.
In the absence of any formal reaction from Pakistan I told the Polish journalist that Agni V made no material difference to the existing India-Pakistan balance of power or terror. Its expected operational deployment by 2014 would certainly peg India’s power projection several notches higher. As a technology demonstrator, it showed that India could build inter-continental ballistic missiles with a range of up to 10,000 kilometres. The test also augured well for India’s ambitious Space programme. India would expect its western supporters, including the United States, to consider it as a further attribute of power entitling it to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
It did not seem appropriate to me to add caveats to Pakistani sang-froid about Agni V; a cool and serene April morning in Islamabad is no time for apocalyptic images. A quick recourse to Indian sources, however, provided a glimpse into the ecstasy that accompanied India’s latest chariot of fire. This celebration of the culture of power seemed more important than the physical parameters of the test — the range, payload, accuracy, use of solid fuel. In the final analysis, peace is threatened more by the increasing militarisation of imagination in the region than by the tools of war. In Asia, by now, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea have well developed missile programmes while Japan has high capability without any overt military purpose. Much depends on how these states translate their advances into strategic ambitions.
India’s rise to the status of a major power is assured. What is still not clear is how it would conduct itself in international affairs. Since strategic planners in both, India and Pakistan belong to the realistic school, Pakistan has already built up a formidable deterrent capacity. A sizeable nuclear arsenal is backed by a wide range of missiles. Apart from a further extension of Agni’s outreach, the next frontier for India is the development of anti ballistic missile systems, an enterprise in which it could expect support from Israel and the United States. Pakistan’s cruise missile provides an answer for now. India’s defence budget has major annual leaps. According to Jane’s Defence Weekly, India’s aggregate defence procurement spending between 2011 and 2015 would exceed $100 billion. Pakistan cannot afford this arms race and would probably respond by improving its current delivery systems and by enlarging its tactical weapons programme. Its posture on Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) may further harden.
There are good reasons for Pakistan not to be alarmed by Agni V. As the strategic calculus pioneered by the Cold War goes, it is reasonably secure. Pakistan’s test of Hatf IV Shaheen 1A — a missile with an undisclosed extension of range and greater accuracy than an earlier version of it — on April 25 testifies to the robust programme in hand; the test did not seem to belong to the category of tit-for-tat tests. What should be of concern is that strategic advances may make resolution of outstanding issues more difficult.
India is in a transition from a soft state to a hard state. It may increasingly interpret conflict resolution as an exercise to be undertaken only on its terms. Locked in action and reaction, South Asia can drift away from what it needs most — a culture of peace that demands that regional states abandon the use of force, overt or covert, or the threat to use force in solving problems left behind by history. Neither side can constrain military acquisitions of the other but both of them can jointly accelerate the processes by which their respective power, conventional or nuclear, is not considered a menace. Given the geography, new feats in nuclear weapons and missile technology should be a reason to deepen and expand the recently held conversation between President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 30th, 2012.