The test would hardly have made the news outside of India if the local air-traffic controllers had posted a warning in advance, but when an Indonesian airliner had to turn around in Indian airspace last Thursday and return to Jakarta to avoid flying into the missile’s path, it was bound to draw attention. So now the whole world knows that India has test-fired a nuclear-capable missile that can hit Shanghai and Beijing, and a few people (especially in China) may be asking: Why?
The Agni-III missile failed its first flight test last July, but this one seems to have gone off very well. The missile, which reportedly can carry a 300-kiloton nuclear warhead, was not tested at its full range of more than 3,000 km on this occasion, but that is the number that gets people’s attention. India’s main potential enemy is Pakistan, which is right next door, and it already has missiles that can strike anywhere there. The Agni-III gives India the range to strike the Middle East (but it has no enemies there), or southern Russia and Central Asia (likewise) — or China.
China is not India’s enemy either, but there is a worrisome drift in Asian affairs, and the Agni-III is just the tip of the iceberg. To be fair, China has had missiles that could strike Indian cities for more than 30 years now (though they were actually built to reach American cities), so there is no monopoly of blame here. And neither China or India is planning to attack the other. They’re just doing what comes naturally for great powers.
As the strategists say (in every great power): “Intentions may change; capabilities are permanent.” In other words, you don’t trust in the good will of your neighbors; you plan and prepare for what they could do if they turned nasty. So China built some long-range missiles to deter the United States from attacking it, although the American missiles were really aimed mostly at the old Soviet Union. And a very long time afterward, India builds long-range missiles to deter China from attacking it, although the Chinese missiles were really aimed mostly at the U.S.
Why is India doing this now, 30 years after China built its missiles? Because India, with U.S. encouragement, has finally decided, after a half-century of “non-alignment,” that it wants to play the great-power game too. It has the resources these days, and it’s just too galling to be left out when the Big Five get together to sort out the world. Even if playing the great-power game means you end up playing the nuclear-war game too.
There’s more. American strategists do not think that China intends to attack the U.S., but they know that China is going to be the second-biggest economy in the world in 10 or 15 years’ time. China is therefore a potential challenger to America’s position as the world’s sole superpower, and as such it must be “contained.” So for the past five or six years Washington has been busy renewing old military ties and forging new ones with countries all around China’s borders.
Of those countries, the two most powerful by far are Japan (already an American ally) and India. Japanese rightwing politicians are tired of being a special country that has forsworn the use of force in its international relations (in the constitution that the U.S. wrote for it after World War II). They want to be a “normal” country — well, a normal great power, really — so Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to rewrite the Constitution in order to remove those unreasonable restrictions on sending Japanese troops overseas and so on.
And since India is now a “normal” great power too, it is doing the things that normal great powers do, like making alliances with other great powers. Specifically, with the United States, with which New Delhi signed a 10-year military cooperation agreement in 2005. (No, it’s not officially called an alliance. It doesn’t need to be.)
When you go to Beijing and ask Chinese officials (off the record) how they feel about all this, they swear that they are not going to panic. They understand that this sort of thing is just the reflexive way that great powers have always behaved, and that they know it doesn’t mean that America, Japan and India are planning to attack them. Quite right, too, and as long as they hang on to that thought no harm will come of all this.
But if they do panic at some point — maybe over some crisis in the Taiwan Strait, or the disputed seabed between China and Japan, or some stupid incident like the American spy plane that collided with a Chinese fighter in 2001 — then all the pieces are already in place for an Asian Cold War. Which would be a serious waste of half the world’s time at best, and a mortal peril to the whole planet at worst.
But they’re all just doing what comes naturally to great powers. History doesn’t repeat itself, as Mark Twain remarked, but it does rhyme.