While international attention has been focused on North Korea’s failed “satellite launch,” India last week successfully test-fired a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead 5,000 km. This development has the potential to shift the regional strategic balance and introduce new uncertainties into Asia.
The Agni series of missiles — the name means “fire” in Sanskrit — has been in development since the 1960s. The longest range of earlier versions could threaten Pakistan and western China, but was unable to strike most of China’s major population centers. The Agni-V, tested on Thursday, is a three-stage rocket capable of carrying a 1-ton warhead and is road mobile.
The successful launch — “immaculate” according to Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony — puts India in an elite club with France, China, Russia, the United States, Britain and possibly Israel, whose members possess long-range nuclear weapons. A deployable missile is still at least two years away, however.
Pakistan is India’s chief security concern, but that country is already within range of Delhi’s existing weapons systems. The range of the new missile — which allows it to reach Beijing or Shanghai — makes clear that it has been developed with China in mind.
Not only do the two countries harbor ambitions to become leading powers in Asia, but they have fought several wars over contested boundaries. Indian officials insist that their defense programs, like those of China, are for deterrent uses only.
Like Beijing, Delhi has a “no first use” policy: It will only use its nuclear weapons after it has been attacked with nuclear weapons. While welcome, such assurances are not enough.
India’s new missile capabilities are part of a broad defense modernization effort. India was the world’s largest purchaser of arms last year. As the Indian effort mirrors the program in China, the potential for an arms race is real. Chinese officials insist that China and India “are not competitors but partners,” yet arms and ambitions are a potent and potentially lethal combination. Asia’s two emerging powers should strive to resolve their bilateral issues through diplomatic negotiations.