India's Agni-V missile demonstrates a new maturity for the Asian power, despite China's dismissive attitude.
Agni-V missile test moves India past its old rivalries
There was a sense of déjà vu when, days after India successfully test-fired its nuclear-capable Agni-V ballistic missile, Pakistan responded by test-firing an "improved version" of its nuclear-capable Hatf-4 intermediate range ballistic missile. At a time when Indo-Pakistan ties seem to be improving, these tests have struck a jarring note.
Although New Delhi and Islamabad informed each other of their impending tests, in accordance with a 2005 pact that stipulates that the two neighbours give due warning to each other before missile tests, recent events underscore the continuing security dilemma between the South Asian neighbours. However, there is a bigger story behind India's test that also needs to be recognised.
With its latest test, India has gained entry into an elite club of nations - the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Israel - and is a culmination, in many ways, of efforts that started in 1983 as part of India's Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP).
From the first test of Agni I in 1989, it has been an eventful road for India's missile programme. It was just a matter of time for Agni-V with its range of 5,000 kilometres after the 3,500-kilometre test of the Agni-IV in November. Although it will take a few more tests before the missile becomes operational and inducted into the armed forces, the message is clear - India's second-strike capability is secure.
India's nuclear doctrine precluding a first strike relies fundamentally on a credible second-strike nuclear capability. The Agni-V, by bringing the Chinese heartland within range of India's missiles, makes the Sino-Indian nuclear dynamic more stable than before. India's Agni-III has been deployed very close to the Chinese border to give India a credible second strike capability.
Now, for the first time, India has demonstrated its missile capability that is able to target China. This will give Indian military planners greater flexibility in deploying the missile arsenal. This test is also psychologically important for India, boosting its confidence to deal with China as an equal.
China is already at an advanced stage in its missile capability. China's nuclear arsenal is more than double India's estimated 100 warheads, and it continues to deploy both land and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
China's reaction has been predictable, underscoring once again the disdain sections of the Chinese elite feel for India. Although officially, China just emphasised that India and China were not rivals, the state-run Global Times was openly dismissive of Indian claims, arguing that India "should be clear that China's nuclear power is stronger and more reliable" and that "for the foreseeable future, India would stand no chance in an overall arms race with China".
Although sections of the media have portrayed Agni-V as an Inter Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), technically the missile is not. The Agni-V is an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) and in terms of policy there is a good reason for New Delhi to underline the fact that India is not yet ready for an ICBM.
So far, India has successfully crafted a narrative about its missile programme that gives it a defensive orientation. India wants a missile capability to strengthen its deterrence, and there is no need to antagonise the rest of the world by suggesting a capability to strike at will against any corner of the world.
While this might not satisfy some hyper-nationalists in India, an ICBM capability would generate apprehensions about India's intentions and cast doubts on the narrative of a peaceful rise. The message India sends to the rest of the world is especially important at a time when India is seeking membership in global-export control regimes - the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Australia Group and the Wassenaar Agreement - based on its impeccable non-proliferation credentials.
The reaction of the US, underlining India's "solid non-proliferation record", is also very instructive about how US-India ties have deepened in the last few years. India is widely considered as a responsible nuclear power, and the logic of India's tests is well understood. The US today welcomes its rise as a balancing force in Asia and as a powerful democratic partner at a time when America's traditional allies in the West no longer have the will and the ability to carry the burdens of a global power.
So while India's focus remains firmly on China, Pakistan continues with its obsession with India. Islamabad's latest missile test merely underscores an already well-established reality that Pakistan maintains a credible deterrence against India. The more confident Pakistan is about its nuclear posture, the better it is for the region as it will bring greater stability in India-Pakistan ties.
The real problem in India-Pakistan ties today is not Pakistan's nuclear capability but the reluctance of the Pakistani security establishment to unequivocally renounce terrorism as an instrument of state policy. And the recent tests in South Asia do nothing to change that reality.
Dr Harsh V Pant is a reader in international studies at King's College London