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The posturing and muscle-flexing continues in South Asia. The governments in India and Pakistan appear committed to matching each other’s every military move and utterance, no matter how inflammatory. This behavior is immature at the best of times, but missile tests and reckless talk of nuclear war are especially inflammatory now, as the rest of the world tries to dampen a nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula and stop Iraqi efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Last week, India tested a nuclear-capable ballistic missile. The surface-to-surface Agni-1 missile, which can carry a nuclear warhead, has a 1-ton payload capacity and can be fired from rail- and road-launchers, making it highly mobile. The Agni, which means fire in Sanskrit, has a range of 592 to 800 km, which puts most of Pakistan within its reach. India will also test a supersonic cruise missile jointly developed with Russia, which has a range of 280 km, and is set to enter production by year end. New Delhi reportedly is going to test a 240-km range variant of the Prithvi, another surface-to-surface missile that is nuclear capable.

India said the test was routine, but the timing is curious. Only the day before, Pakistan’s army took formal possession of a new medium-range ballistic missile, the Ghauri, which is also capable of carrying a nuclear payload up to 1,500 km. The handing-over ceremony marked the first time that Pakistan’s armed forces took over a nuclear-capable ballistic missile. Of course, preparing for a test takes more than 24 hours; the more likely prod for India’s test was Pakistan’s test-firing of two nuclear-capable Shaheen missiles in October. Those tests were thought to be a response to India’s earlier test of a short-range surface-to-air missile.

This tit-for-tat behavior is nothing new for India and Pakistan. The two countries matched nuclear tests in May 1998, and every word and gesture since has been taken with one eye on the reaction of its neighbor. Unfortunately, the rhetoric is getting worse.

In a December speech to soldiers, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said that he had threatened India with “unconventional war” during a 10-month military standoff last year. When that comment was condemned by other governments, the president denied he was talking about nuclear weapons. Not to be outdone, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes last week said India would destroy Pakistan in any reprisal against a Pakistani nuclear attack. Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmedt responded that his country would “crush” India in the event of war. He also condemned last week’s test as proof of India’s “war-mongering mind-set.” Enough, gentlemen, please.

Officials in both countries played down the impact of the tests and the comments. They explained that the tests were “routine,” their militaries were under civilian control, and all responsible decision-makers had a firm grip on their emotions. In the meantime, officials in Pakistan-ruled Kashmir said one person was killed by overnight firing by Indian forces across the frontier. Police in Indian Kashmir said four people were killed and nine security-force personnel were hurt in separate militant attacks at the same time. Unfortunately, that too is “routine.”

Routine or not, the ballistic missile tests are disturbing. Not only do they inflame passions and trigger a cycle within the region, but they send a message to other governments that such weapons are useful and practical. Two of the greatest threats to regional peace and security — three, if we include the possibility of a crisis in South Asia — involve ballistic missiles. In Iraq, Mr. Hans Blix, chief of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, and Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, announced last week that they were investigating illegal Iraqi imports for its missile program. Only weeks ago, a Spanish naval vessel stopped a North Korean ship in the Arabian Sea carrying Scud missiles destined for Yemen. The prospect of a North Korean missile test is one of the few “red lines” that could prompt the United States to launch a pre-emptive strike against that country.

The testing of such weapons by India and Pakistan sends the wrong signal to the region and the world. It diminishes the authority of the norm that the international community is trying to enforce in Northeast Asia and the Middle East. These tests do not have to escalate tensions to still be dangerous. The status quo is nothing to be proud of.

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