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Earlier this week, India tested a new intermediate-range missile, the Agni II. The missile, capable of carrying either a conventional or nuclear payload a distance of 2,000 km, has most of China and all of Pakistan within its range. The test has been trumpeted as another display of India’s technical prowess, but it is, in reality, a serious challenge to political and military stability in South Asia. Regional governments should be redoubling efforts to lower suspicions and build trust among themselves. This week’s test is sure to do just the opposite.

Pakistan’s response was predictable: Only three days after the Agni flight, it tested a missile of its own in a dreary repetition of last May’s tit-for-tat nuclear tests. An opportunity to break this meaningless cycle has been lost. The fact that Pakistan has the capability to match the test — and there was never any doubt about that — does not mean that it needed to be demonstrated. Restraint would have done far more to advance Pakistan’s security, and that of the entire region, than this knee-jerk display of military weaponry.

There was no military rationale for India’s test. In fact, the security situation in South Asia has been improving since the nuclear tests last year. Those blasts, and the resulting international clamor, helped push the governments in New Delhi and Islamabad toward renewed dialogue. Both governments have announced a willingness, if not a readiness, to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The two countries’ prime ministers earlier this year held a summit that raised hopes for a real breakthrough in relations. One of the fruits of that meeting was the decision to give advance warning whenever one country planned to test a missile: That channel was used before Sunday’s test.

If there has been a warming in relations between India and Pakistan, there has also been a thaw in New Delhi’s relations with China, its real regional rival. Beijing has moderated its rhetoric in the wake of last spring’s tests, and officials in both countries now play up the benefits of cooperation. Both governments have been seeking common ground on other issues, such as finding ways to rein in U.S. unilateralism. On the economic front, trade between the two countries is growing.

So, if there is no security dimension to this week’s test, why did India take such a provocative step? The most compelling reason is domestic politics. The coalition government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is threatened by the withdrawal of a key ally. The test provided a nationalist backdrop to the political negotiations and maneuverings that are now taking place. Although Indian officials deny that the timing of the test was influenced by political developments, its impact was clear: All political parties, save for the Communists, rallied around the test. In Pakistan, the pressure for a response in kind proved similarly overwhelming. In fact, government officials stressed that politics was driving security decision-making.

There is a critical lesson in this. Political leaders in the region profess to have absolute faith in the logic of deterrence. Yet the events of the last year have demonstrated the force of a different kind of logic — that of domestic politics. Governments in both countries have proven unable to resist the temptation — or is it the compulsion? — to play the military card when facing domestic difficulties. Both have responded reflexively to regional developments. Since nuclear-tipped decision-making is supposed to be driven by dispassionate, cool-headed calculations, that is an ominous development — especially when the rivals are neighbors, and not antagonists whose arsenals are separated by an entire planet, as was the case during the Cold War.

Mr. Vajpayee now claims that his country has acquired a “minimum” nuclear deterrent. Pakistan can do the same. That dubious accomplishment should be sufficient to allow both governments to declare victory and put an end to the “arms crawl” that has been proceeding in South Asia. What is imperative is that the two governments now put as much effort into shoring up confidence-building measures and channels of communication as they have put into constructing their nuclear arsenals. Moreover, they should embrace the CTBT and missile technology control regimes to ensure that the spread of such lethal weapons stops at their borders.

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