Last week, the world’s attention was once again focused on the geopolitics of our region when India successfully test fired its improved version of the nuclear capable long-range missile Agni-5 that could strike targets “as far as Beijing or Shanghai”. Soon after, Pakistan tested its improved version of the medium-range Shaheen-1 (designated 1A). It is claimed that Agni-5 uses better propulsion systems and has greater accuracy than its predecessors. From a prestige perspective, by developing an intermediate-range missile, India has joined the P-5 and Israel league. This was not unexpected as India has been aiming at acquiring most of the ‘attributes’ of major powers. It has successfully placed satellites in polar and geostationary orbits and its ambitious civilian space programme works in tandem with the military projects.
The world reaction to this development was muted. Beijing, as a part of its nuanced diplomacy, played it cool and came out with a statement that India and China enjoyed good relations. Washington deliberately played down the Indian test by merely stating that regional countries should “show restraint”, in sharp contrast to its strong response to missile developments in North Korea and Iran.
Ever since India and Pakistan became nuclear powers, ballistic missiles have acquired a special significance. When armed with nuclear warheads, missiles can provide a credible deterrent force, and in case of Pakistan, also partially offset its conventional numerical inferiority against India. Missiles are also preferred to strike aircraft as they are faster in reaching the target, have a longer range, and — as they are mobile — stand a better chance of evading detection. At the same time, these very characteristics generate instability. Due to geographic proximity, the flight time of missiles to major cities or bases in either country would be 10 minutes or less, making any early warning system practically ineffective. Moreover, the dual use of the same missile system for conventional or nuclear use aggravates instability. Fortunately, so far the two countries have not kept their missiles in a state of alert with mated nuclear warheads, but an escalation in tension can alter the situation.
What does this missile and arms dynamic mean for Pakistan? How should it respond when both countries, in a parallel development, are moving towards improved trade and commercial relations, easing of visa regimes and encouraging more sociocultural interaction? As Pakistan’s current missiles already cover most of India’s major cities and military installations, the question arises whether we still need to develop long-range missiles and match India, system for system? Probably not: Pakistan’s economic conditions and international environment do not favour pursuing costly nuclear deterrence programmes.
Clearly, it is for China to counter the long-range missile and nuclear challenge in this triangular interaction among Pakistan, India and China. India has always taken the line that it faces a two-front nuclear and conventional threat and has to take steps to reduce the asymmetry with China. Chinese missiles cover the whole of India, whereas India does not have a comparable capacity. By developing the Agni-5, India feels it has developed a retaliatory capability against China. If it were to develop a submarine launched version of the missile, it will also have a second-strike capability against Pakistan.
All these interlinking factors make the strategic dynamic among China, India and Pakistan quite complex. The central question is how will these interactions play out in the future. Despite its rise as a world power, China has been cautious and calibrated in developing its nuclear and missile capacity, working on the principle of minimum deterrence. Besides, its priority is sustained economic growth and it does not want to give the US an excuse to raise the alarm about its military build-up. With India trying to bridge its gap with China, and Pakistan trailing behind, it seems we are destined towards modest competition rather than a strategic arms race. The danger, however, is that the region is susceptible to crises that could give rise to additional nuclear requirements. To counter that, it is necessary to take certain stabilisation measures, both bilaterally and among the three countries. A case in point is a potential threat of militant attack in India and New Delhi reacting to it and all this leading to greater reliance on nuclear arms. For this reason it is important that India and Pakistan engage seriously in working towards improving crisis stability to help ensure that these missiles are never actually needed.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 1st, 2012.