Fire in the Sky

India's missile launch isn't about China so much as it is about wounded national pride. But that doesn't mean it couldn't start an Asian arms race.


The instant his 50-foot-tall, tungsten-tipped "dream" rocket pierced the stratosphere on Thursday, April 19, V.K. Saraswat could finally dare to exhale. Unlike with North Korea’s disastrous display just days before, years of secret preparations by the director of India’s Defense Research and Development Organization on its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) paid off flawlessly. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was among the first to offer congratulations, telling him that "you made the nation proud." The last time an Indian nuclear scientist was so honored, the country held parades and revelers even worshipped the bombs. The Buddha was smiling then; now, he’s flexing.

Fifth in the Agni series (meaning "fire" in Hindi), this indigenously constructed missile can carry multiple nuclear warheads up to 3,100 miles away, putting not only Beijing in play, but also the Middle East, as well as sections of Africa, Europe, and Australia. It’s also India’s strongest display of military might since a series of 1998 nuclear tests. Then, the international community greeted the announcement with economic sanctions and widespread condemnation. This time is different. Images of the rocket’s launch, its sides emblazoned with patriotic flags, ensured that Indian dailies and TV stations were powerless to resist from crafting Agni "high-five" headlines. Once the news reached the other side of the world, it garnered little more than the equivalent of diplomatic golf claps.

So why did countries that so aggressively (and even sanctimoniously) punished India less than 15 years ago act positively subdued this time — and for a weapon with far more destructive potential? The answer lies not only in India’s emerging global role, but also in the fact that India is hunting bigger, and unfriendlier, geopolitical game. Traditional rival Pakistan has long been viewed as India’s binary strategic pole, and in 1998 both countries were chastised over fears that neither was responsible enough to be a nuclear power. Now it’s clear that the biggest target painted by the test lies within New Delhi’s neighbor to the northeast.

India has been saber rattling China for the last decade (which, according to then-Defense Minister George Fernandes, was a big reason for the 1998 tests), but the Agni V’s range gives India its first legitimate deterrence-based threat to China’s growing military might. The Agni V’s actual capabilities are years away from the "deterrence parity" that giddy Indian analysts are already claiming, but while the ICBM may conjure feelings of near nostalgia in the United States among Cold War wonks and North Dakotan farmers tilling crops around abandoned underground silos, for India those four little letters herald proof of making the big time. Joining the exclusive nuclear annihilation capabilities club with Britain, China, France, Israel, Russia, and the United States, India now thinks it can redefine its nationalist pride and global standing merely by whom it picks fights with.

China is not the only one revising old irenic policies as it improves military capabilities. A muscular India is a perplexing sight for those with visions of the country as a land of Gandhian peace and nonviolent struggle, especially given India’s historic role as one of nonproliferation’s guiding lights. India spearheaded the Non-Aligned Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, arguing consistently in the United Nations for an end to nuclear weapons from countries forced to live under the shadow of the Cold War. Then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi forwarded a global action plan for nuclear disarmament in 1988. Today, however, abolition voices are marginalized while a prideful nuclear breast-beating leads top Indian dailies to declare the Agni V launch a Great Leap Forward — without a trace of irony.

That’s because at its core, the Agni V project isn’t driven by credibility, deterrence, or even military strategy — it’s about mending a broken Indian psyche. The India-China relationship is as complex as it is acrimonious, inviting comparisons between the two for at least the last 65 years. Mao’s People’s Republic of China was founded two years after India’s 1947 independence, and throughout the 1950s and 1960s the two massive states scored similarly on economic indicators, while squabbling over issues such as Tibet and skirmishing in minor border wars that, while largely inconsequential, humiliated India.

But after decades of Chinese hyperindustrialization driven by its authoritarian muscle, China now far outpaces India on those same indicators. India fell behind despite its greater commitment to democracy, the United Nations, and other institutions that the West assured the country were essential for responsible states to honor. Now, China’s rise to global giant is both assumed (and feared), while India is still known for little more than being the "world’s largest democracy" and the butt of inefficient call-center punch lines. The subcontinental pride (and ubiquitous China-bashing) this past week reflects the fact that India feels it has finally caught up in one aspect to its neighbor — the country that did everything "wrong" and still came out ahead.

This is an escalation that China neither asked for nor wants. Blistering, condescending critiques were lobbed back from Beijing mere hours after the rocket splashed down harmlessly into the Indian Ocean. An op-ed in the state-run Global Times offered that "objectively speaking, China does not spend much time guarding against India" because India suffers from "missile delusion" with "no chance in an overall arms race" because it’s "still poor." China, meanwhile, is busy trying to punch above its own weight to generate a global counter to the United States. Despite India and China’s $75 billion annual bilateral trade, India doesn’t register as a military rival worthy of anything more than a few insulting barbs.

Less noticed is that China’s critiques represent a fundamental policy break from Deng Xiaoping’s long-followed maxim that nuclear weapons are not to be stockpiled in order to guarantee tactical battlefield advantage, but exist only to ensure some degree of defensive retaliation against rivals with vastly superior arsenals. In short, China is now scorning both India and North Korea for many of the same reasons used to justify its own nuclear program during the 20th century. It may seem like hypocrisy, but it’s grounded in a hard-fought respect. China has worked for decades (and has spent billions of dollars) to earn its once-shunned place at the nuclear table; the thought of another country using China’s own playbook against it is galling.

As it rises, China is learning how to use the power plays traditionally employed by the global elite. China’s foreign-policy doctrine employs equal parts nonintervention and "peaceful rise" dynamics, both of which are difficult to maintain with nuclear-armed neighbors that are either belligerent or unpredictable. The cautioning of India to be wary of "external intervention" after its missile test reflects a concern that international acceptance of an Indian nuclear arsenal may merely be justification for what China sees as a tacit form of Western neo-containment. While New Delhi’s lenses may be China-colored, Beijing sees almost everything through the prism of U.S. actions.

When one compares the international responses to the two coincidentally timed recent Asian missile tests, the contrasts couldn’t be starker. Where North Korea received near-universal condemnation after its failed test, India has received a much more subdued response to its success. This is not just a case of taking the opportunity to figuratively kick a loser when its rocket went down. The two countries’ nonproliferation records, as well as their willingness to engage with existing nuclear states in an accepted way, hold the answer.

Although it’s true that neither country is party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — the widely accepted international agreement on limiting the spread of nuclear weapons — the United States has come out in full support of India’s "solid nonproliferation record" in expectations that India will employ its new capabilities responsibly. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that he doesn’t consider India’s actions threatening. But there’s also some definitional jujitsu at play — with 5,500 kilometers as the official lower limit for an ICBM, Agni V’s 5,000 km range technically makes it only an LRBM (long-range ballistic missile). It’s a way for the existing ICBM club to temper potential criticism of a friend while at the same time honoring international compacts — assuming, that is, club members ignore the comments of Chinese scientists who claim that the Agni V can already strike up to 8,000 km away.

The same cannot be said for North Korea. Since defecting from the NPT in 2003, the country has set out on a course of provocation. Six-party talks start and stop, then start and stop again, leaving most of the world clueless as to what happens next. Tests, like the most recent rocket launch, are often used as provocative extensions of negotiations after hard-fought concessions are won. Allegations of cooperation with other despotic regimes further muddy the waters. If one compares their nonproliferation records, it is understandable why the world came down harder on Pyongyang than New Delhi, failure notwithstanding.

It’s unlikely that anyone lying in Agni V’s potential path will consider the existing nuclear balance (or lack thereof) radically altered. In a Middle East gripped with ongoing drama surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, the Indian test will barely register. India-Iran relations themselves are generally stable — there won’t be any alarm bells ringing in Tehran. Nor will this put additional pressure on (or create additional incentive for) other Mideast states considering developing a nuclear weapons capability. The African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty will remain in effect. And Eastern Europe is unlikely to get worked up that it may be in range. Meanwhile, Pakistan is already bankrupting itself trying to maintain its military force — and already has weapons and delivery systems that can reach across India, its main rival.

The lack of broader implications of this test doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be concerned about China and India engaging in a nuclear arms race. For one, it illustrates how Washington is, for the first time, on the outside looking in as new emerging powers use the rhetoric of deterrence as forward strategic policy. While bilateral agreements such as the New START agreement between the United States and Russia provide an element of standardization, the fact remains that there aren’t any silver bullets for slowing the ability of emerging states like India or China to develop large nuclear arsenals.

Despite their comparatively modest caches at present, defining operational strength through warhead quantities and missile range invites a more insecure world. Many of the biggest cheerleaders for the strategy of nuclear deterrence have long since reversed course not only on the wisdom of tactical nuclear stockpiles but even on the value of deterrence itself. The lessons from the Cold War are apparent to all; ultimately it is up to India and China whether they follow the same path. Perhaps the danger of Asian citizens revisiting our frightening past of doomsday clocks and fallout shelters is closer than we think. But for now, the nationalist cheers reverberating throughout India show that nothing fires up a country like a big rocket.

Jason Miklian is a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo.

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