Long the dominant South Asian regional power, India has dramatically upped its aspirations in recent years.
It clearly wants to be regarded – along with China, the United States and, perhaps, a resurgent Russia – as among the handful of 21st-century “great powers” capable of projecting power, enforcing peace and, if need be, waging war far beyond its borders.
Military might is only part, albeit a vital measure, of great power status. And with Thursday’s launch, India added another key piece in the arsenal of power projection.
Nuclear warheads, multistage rockets capable of delivering those warheads half-way around the world, a navy with aircraft carriers able to project air power distantly and nuclear submarines, all are characteristic of modern “great powers.”
Only five countries – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – have long laid claim to the status with any credibility. Not coincidentally, they are also the five, veto-wielding permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Any one can block international collective military action with a veto.
While U.S. military might still outstrips the other four, most analysts expect China’s relentless rise to eventually rival, if not match, America’s superpower status.
India wants in. Not only is India pushing hard for its own veto and a permanent Security Council seat, but it wants to be regarded as China’s equal, not just a regional power like Brazil or Indonesia.
Other nations, notably Israel and Pakistan, have shorter-range missiles tipped with nuclear warheads. North Korea exploded rudimental nuclear devices. Many regional powers, like Iran, have sophisticated medium-range missiles and some are suspected of covert nuclear weapons programs.
But only India, with its ambitious development of a “blue-water” navy, including Russian-built nuclear submarines and new aircraft carriers, is making a play to become a great power with global reach. It has long had shorter-range missiles capable of raining nuclear warheads on Pakistan, the neighbour it has beaten three times in war, but the Agni V rocket delivers a whole new capacity: putting India among the handful of nations capable of waging nuclear war over vast distances..
In Washington, India’s rise is largely welcomed, not just as a counterbalance to China but as a powerful democratic partner for the United States in an era when the traditional western allies – Britain and France – are in relative decline and no longer warrant “great power” status.
“We fully embraced India’s rise as a great power and a great partner for the United States,” President Barack Obama’s National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said last year.
It was no accident that the Obamas’ first glittering state dinner – marred by reality-TV crashers – was for India’s Prime Minister.
In India, the successful test of the Agni V rocket with a range of 5,000-kilometres was officially hailed by Defence Minister A.K. Anthony as a “a major milestone in India’s missile program.” In the tabloid media, the missile is glibly dubbed the “China killer.”
Although China’s nuclear arsenal is more than double India’s estimated 100 warheads and Beijing deploys both land- and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, the 5,000-kilometre range of the Agni V now puts all of China squarely within reach.
An era of strategic nuclear balance maybe is emerging between the world’s two billion-person nations. Relations are uneasy, irritants abound and both warily regard the other. There is relatively little trade between such massive economies and a legacy of ill-will from a brief 1962 border war that India lost.
But India’s intercontinental missile gambit isn’t about regional power nor solely focused on a rivalry with China. It’s really about big-power status.
Still, in the wake of Mr. Obama’s decision to “pivot” to the Pacific, shifting military resources to Asia, amidst ongoing concerns about China’s fast-growing military capabilities – now including aircraft carriers, stealthy warplanes and satellite-killer missiles – the Indian missile launch also rekindles worries of an Asian arms race.
In striking contrast to its shrill denunciations of North Korea’s failed attempt to fire a multistage rocket last week, the Obama administration was low-key in its response to India’s missile test. “We urge all nuclear-capable states to exercise restraint regarding nuclear capabilities,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner, adding: “That said, India has a solid non-proliferation record.”
In China, the official response was muted but the state-run Global Times was openly dismissive of India’s new prowess. “India should be clear that China’s nuclear power is stronger and more reliable,” it said, adding that “for the foreseeable future, India would stand no chance in an overall arms race with China.”