U.S. Nods to India’s Closing Missile Gap with China

India’s successful test of the Agni-V, a nuclear-capable long-range missile, is a major step forward for New Delhi in attaining nuclear deterrence against regional rival China. The lack of U.S. condemnation of India’s latest missile test demonstrates that the U.S. is comfortable with Indian progress in the nuclear and missile fields and appreciates India’s need to meet the emerging strategic challenge posed by rising China.

The Agni-V has extended India’s missile reach to about 3,100 miles, marking a major achievement in its missile development program. Until this week, Indian missiles had a range of about 2,200 miles. The Agni-V is scheduled to become fully operational in two to three years.

It is telling that no country has criticized India’s missile test. The U.S. State Department simply called on all nuclear-capable states to exercise restraint but also noted India’s solid record on nonproliferation and its cooperation with the international community on nuclear issues. This is a far cry from Washington’s position on Indian ballistic missile development throughout the 1990s, when Washington pressured New Delhi to modify its nuclear and missile posture.

Back then, the U.S. sought to convince both India and Pakistan “to cap, roll back, and eventually eliminate” their nuclear and missile capabilities. The U.S. had opposed the deployment of India’s short-range Prithvi missile and development of its medium-range Agni missile. The U.S. also imposed sanctions on India’s civilian space programs in 1992 because of the potential for rocket technology to contribute to India’s ballistic missile capability.

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The new U.S. stance also demonstrates a welcome evolution in U.S. nonproliferation policy. While some may view this evolution as a step away from U.S. nonproliferation commitments, this is not necessarily the case. What it recognizes is that U.S. nonproliferation policy should not be a one-way street, where potentially aggressive, non-status quo powers like China build up their nuclear and ballistic missile forces, and the U.S. responds by criticizing its friends and allies for responding to the emerging threat. It is a paradox, but nonetheless true, that sometimes the best option for confronting proliferation is to prepare to respond in kind. From this perspective, the Chinese, in large measure, have themselves to blame for this missile test by India.

In turn, this responsive approach raises the question of how the U.S. should pursue nonproliferation goals in South Asia looking forward. First, it needs to account for the fact that it is pursuing these goals under a circumstance where proliferation has already taken place, and should create incentives for both China and India to walk back their nuclear and missile programs. The goal should be to encourage both sides to adopt more defensive strategic postures, as opposed to relying on first strike and retaliatory nuclear options.

Since the official Chinese response to India’s missile launch was muted, one has to wonder whether Beijing recognizes that this situation is due, in part, to its own actions. It is striking that the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded to the test by stating that India and China were cooperative partners, not rivals. On the other hand, it is equally noteworthy that a Chinese editorial in one of its leading dailies warned India away from “arrogance” and stated that “India would stand no chance in a nuclear arms race with China.”

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India–China trade has grown steadily over the last decade, and presumably, neither side wants another border conflict to erupt. However, India is suspicious about Chinese cooperation with Pakistan’s nuclear program, and China has taken steps—such as refusing to grant visas to Indian citizens from areas where the Sino–Indian border is under dispute—that have raised tensions in recent years.

The U.S. change in position with regard to Indian missile capabilities demonstrates how far the U.S.–India relationship has evolved over the last decade. Now the U.S. views India as a strategic partner with growing economic and political clout that will contribute to promoting security and stability in Asia. The Heritage Foundation, in a backgrounder published last July, called on the Administration to pursue robust and strategic engagement with India to encourage a stable balance of power in Asia that prevents China from dominating the region and surrounding seas.

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