India’s defense arsenal received a significant boost with the successful test of the Agni-V – considered India’s first true intercontinental range ballistic missile (ICBM). The Agni-V’s effective range covers all of China and part of Europe. With this addition to its arsenal, India has now joined the elite ICBM club with just five other countries across the world: the United States, Russia, France, China, and Britain.
While the country conducted two tests earlier in 2012 and 2013, the current version of Agni-V is said to be significantly cutting-edge in its navigation and guidance capabilities. The Agni-V can be launched from effectively anywhere in India, giving the country the ability to hit back and maintain a second-strike capability even after facing a nuclear strike.
The missile, likely to be inducted soon into the Indian armed forces, may be equipped with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) in the future – a possibility that raises alarm among many analysts who foresee a possible arms race with the potential to destabilize the region.
Detractors of the technology argue that MIRVs enable the use of multiple warheads, each having capacity to strike different targets. China and India so far maintain minimum credible deterrence and no-first use doctrines, with a focus on preparing for a first strike and stocking up on their nuclear inventories. China, which for long has had its nuclear capacities deployed across Tibet and its southwestern frontier, is capable of striking major Indian cities, including Delhi. Beijing is reportedly already building MIRV vehicles.
Additionally, there are fears that this may have a spillover effect on Pakistan, which might use India’s MIRV capabilities as an excuse to also enhance its nuclear capability further.
Following a 2012 ballistic missile test, many in the Western media also echoed the above sentiment, expressing concern over the “militarization” of Asia and that continuing tests “increases the perception of an arms race, and the reality of an arms race, particularly between China and India.”
However, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is gradually marching towards a more vocal and outgoing foreign policy. It is openly getting closer to countries like the United States and shedding its legacy of non-alignment. It is partnering with Israel — a relationship that for long stayed under wraps owing to India’s sympathies for the Palestinian cause. Despite these changes, India is unlikely to move away from its basic strategic culture of non-aggression.
With its “no first use” (NFU) doctrine, India is unlikely to let any addition to its nuclear inventory impact regional stability. However, there have been arguments in Indian strategic circles about the relevance of NFU given the security concerns from Pakistan’s growing nuclear capability and an expansionist China.
Pakistan reportedly possesses about 100 to 120 nuclear weapons, and China about 250. India, meanwhile, is thought to possess around 110 warheads. Additionally, there was wide anticipation that the Bharatiya Janata Party, (BJP) following its 2014 election win, may move away from the NFU doctrine.
However BJP assuaged such fears by confirming that India’s NFU policy is here to stay, adding that the doctrine grants a “certain amount of leverage in foreign-policy matters.”
Defense circles agree that India’s NFU posture has indeed led to significant diplomatic gains, including the lifting of sanctions and multiple civil nuclear cooperation agreements which would not have been possible otherwise.
India will therefore continue to keep its deterrence guard up: it uses its nuclear arsenal more as a political weapon that can deter its opponents. Also, many feel that any movement away from NFU will be an unnecessary provocation to China.
China too seems to be high on rhetoric about mending ties with India, as evident from the recent statements following Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s China visit for the Russia-India-China (RIC) meet. That trilateral meeting covered several issues from the settling boundary issues to India’s potential admission into APEC. Perhaps most importantly, Chinese President Xi Jinping even broke protocol and met Swaraj.
Despite the meet happening just after the Agni-V test launch, there was no talk about broader security concerns during the meet. Even the Chinese media refrained from commenting on the test, unlike its reactions to previous Indian tests.
The message is clear: India, increasingly growing closer to the U.S., will be a key player for China in South Asia, especially in Xi’s pet project – the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) – as well as the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor.
During his India visit last year, President Xi, in an op-ed in The Hindu, indicated that Asia’s economic growth will be led by India’s participation in the BCIM Economic Corridor, the initiatives of the Silk Road Economic Belt, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.
Additionally, reports indicate that China could also be eying India’s lucrative civil nuclear market, which is likely to create contracts of about $150 billion over the next 10-15 years.
However, the usual subtle and indirect provocations from Beijing still pose a future risk. One happened during President Xi’s India visit last year, with a Chinese army border incursion taking place while Xi and Modi met to strengthen ties.
Furthermore, India fears that Beijing could use countries in the region to bolster its military position in South Asia while still talking amicably about economic cooperation.
Another major risk is the growing China-Pakistan axis. Pakistan’s nuclear program – considered one of world’s fastest growing – has had China’s enormous support over the years.
New Delhi is also uneasy about Beijing’s growing clout in the Indian Ocean region, where it is increasingly deepening ties with countries like Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
Beijing recently announced that it will enhance its naval presence in the Indian Ocean – a move India perceives as crossing a red line.
The frequent docking of Chinese submarines at ports built and controlled by Chinese companies has New Delhi suspecting that assets of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) could use the Chinese-funded ports of Sri Lanka as ad-hoc bases.
Given all this, while chances of a full-blown nuclear war between the two emerging Asian nations are dim, this sense of encirclement still prompts India to stay prepared. The Agni-V and other military advances should be understood as preparatory measures in this regard.
Experts have long felt that for India to become a superpower, it needs to field a robust ICBM capability and develop a global strike competency. This is all the more important as current global geopolitical equations get more volatile.
Jhinuk Chowdhury is a freelance journalist based in India with keen interest on South Asian affairs. She is also a contributing author for RT.com (Russia Today website). Follow her @jhinuk28.