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23 April, 2012

New kid on the missile block

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Indian public opinion responded with a display of patriotic fervour last week as the country blasted its way into the elite club of countries with long-range missile capability by successfully test-firing the indigenously designed and built Agni V, with a range of 5,000 kilometres.

 “We are today a missile power,” said VK Saraswat, head of Defence Research and Development Organisation, which handles the Agni missile programme. Sections of the media interpreted it to mean the country now has the capability to fire an intercontinental missile.

China greeted the arrival of the new kid on the missile block with a quaint mix of sneer, suspicion and sobriety. The state-owned Global Times said India, swept up by missile delusion, apparently is hoping to enter the intercontinental ballistic missile club, although ICBMs normally have a range of over 8,000 km.

The newspaper quoted a researcher at the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Sciences as saying Agni V actually has the potential to reach targets 8,000 km away, but the Indian government is downplaying its capability to avoid causing concern to other countries.

“China and India should develop as friendly a relationship as possible,” the newspaper said. “Even if this cannot be achieved, the two should at least tolerate each other and learn to coexist.”

A 17.5m tall, solid-fuelled, three-stage vehicle with a launch weight of 50 tonnes, Agni V cost more than Rs 2.5 billion to build. It can carry a one-tonne nuclear payload.

India did not inform China in advance about the launch. But China was following developments closely. Its media carried reports on the launch preparations and took note of a day’s delay caused by bad weather.

Apart from China, parts of Europe and capitals as far apart as Tehran, Jakarta and Manila fall within the range of Agni V but there was hardly any criticism from the rest of the world.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation said it did not consider India a missile threat to its allies or territory. The United States responded with a call for restraint, addressed to all nuclear-capable states.

With the border dispute which led to a short war between India and China a half-century ago still unresolved, the relationship between the two countries remains uneasy. In view of China’s cosy relations with Pakistan, Indian defence planning takes into account the possibility of having to fight on two fronts at the same time. 

Pakistan’s response to Agni V was muted presumably because it makes little difference to the military balance between the two countries. Both countries possess intermediate-range nuclear-capable missiles and have thus been, in a sense, in a situation of mutual deterrence already.

Both China and India hiked up their defence budgets this year – China by 11.2 per cent to touch a record $106 billion, and India by 17.63 per cent to reach a new high of $39 billion. The huge gap between the outlays reflects the differing strategic perceptions of the two countries. 

China justifies its huge military spending, pointing out that it is only 1.2 per cent of its gross domestic product and is in keeping with its security environment and economic and social development. It already has a missile with a range of 13,000 km, which puts North America within striking distance.

India’s defence budget is about 1.9 per cent of its GDP. Military and strategic experts have been arguing it must be raised to three per cent to effectively deter both China and Pakistan. However, military spending of that order can be ruled out as it will hamper the country’s developmental efforts.

China knows that India is not seeking military parity with it and poses no threat to it. Its concerns actually stem from the fear of India’s possible involvement with the USA which has stepped up its presence in the Pacific.

India has cause for worry too. Its problem is not that it cannot match China’s military manpower and hardware but that it is heavily dependent upon outside sources for equipment. It is now the world’s largest importer of arms.

What India perceives as China’s arrogance and China terms India’s persecution mania are pointers to the psychological hurdles the two countries must cross before they can establish healthy bilateral relations. Close cooperation in a forum like BRICS, which includes, besides them, Brazil, Russia and South Africa, may help in this regard.  -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 23, 2012

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