India’s ICBM fails to impress China

A wave of patriotic fervor is sweeping over the Indian establishment and security community over the Agni-V launch. It poses no threat to the US and is unmistakably with an eye on China.

A wave of patriotic fervor is sweeping over the Indian establishment and security community over the Agni-V launch. Defence Minister A.K.Antony thought the Indian nation stood tall today. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was characteristically restrained and unemotional and took in his stride the impressive feat of Indian science and strategic capability.

Arguably, the two leaders spoke under different political compulsions. Antony’s stewardship of the defence portfolio has been under some cloud lately, and the ICBM is just the boost he would need. The prime minister, on the other hand, has many a thought on his mind and working with China in the sphere of economy is a dominant stream of his consciousness.

The reactions by the United States and China are worth noting. Washington is no-committal. It would neither approve nor disapprove openly but nonetheless would call attention to its stance calling on “all nuclear-capable states to exercise restraint regarding nuclear capabilities.”

In short, all options are on the table. The Agni-V poses no threat to the US and is unmistakably with an eye on China. All the same, when it comes to the exclusivity of the nuclear club, which the US cherishes, there has been erosion. On the other hand, the US is also knocking at the Indian door to join its missile defence program. India-China acrimony works to the advantage of the US’ Asian strategy.

India is also making a strong pitch for membership of global non-proliferation regimes. This, of course, is not going to be an easy decision for the US. The US’ global security concerns and its regional policy objectives would intersect here.

Beijing is yet to comment. An early Chinese viewpoint on Agni-V is available in the commentary in today’s Global Times. Interestingly, the commentary doesn’t question India’s success, credentials or its prerogative to acquire ICBM capability. In a nutshell, it advises India not to let hubris go into its head to delude itself it can win an arms race with China, leave alone count on Agni-V to resolve the bilateral disputes.

The GT notes India’s frenzy to “catch up” with China and advises India to remain “calm”. While friendly ties are the desirable objective, the two countries should “at least tolerate each other and learn to co-exist”, and in any case China doesn’t spend “much time guarding against India.” And China is quite “willing to take India in its stride as a “peaceful competitor.” The GT commentary is a curious mix of disdain bordering on contempt, irritation leading to condescension, studied indifference and even an ounce of reassurance.

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