THE ARMS RACE

Print edition : April 24, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

In its final days in office, the BJP-led Government test-fires the nuclear-capable Agni-II missile, and the Pakistan Government responds with launches of the Ghauri-2 and Shaheen missiles.

ON April 11, even as it became increasingly clear that its days were numbered, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government took another step towards implementing its high-risk agenda of nuclear weaponisation by test-firing the Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile Agni-II, which is capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Taken with the Pokhran-II series of nuclear tests in May 1998, the move marked a break from the political consensus that existed earlier favouring the development of nuclear and missile technology independent of each other.

In a televised address to the nation on the same day, a politically embattled Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee claimed that the test was a "purely defensive step" and that the missile was not meant to be used for aggression against any nation. Agni, he said, "is proof of our determination to strengthen our national security so comprehensively that we can defend ourselves." India, he added, remained committed to retaining a credible minimum deterrence.

Defence Minister George Fernandes said that the missile, which had a range in excess of 2,000 km and a solid-fuel propulsion system, had "reached the point of operationalisation as a weapons system and also demonstrated our mobile launch capacity." No country, he added, could now threaten India.

A day before the test, the Indian Government informed the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and the governments of Germany, Japan and Pakistan, of its intention to conduct the test. Under the Lahore Agreement signed by India and Pakistan in February, the two countries had pledged to give advance notice of tests of ballistic missiles.

The test-firing of Agni-II drew a swift response from Pakistan, which on April 14 tested Ghauri-2, an improved version of the IRBM Ghauri-1 which was test-fired in April 1998, and followed it up the next day by launching the shorter-range Shaheen. Pakistan claimed that both the missiles "can be tipped by any kind of warhead". A statement issued by the Pakistan Foreign Office said that the flight tests had "strengthened national security and will help in maintaining strategic balance in South Asia."

AGNI-II had been in the pipeline for quite some time. In late-1997, when the United Front was in power at the Centre, Defence Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav had informally told mediapersons that work on the project had reached an advanced stage. After the BJP-led Government took over, there were expectations that Agni-II would be tested by end-1998, given the BJP's nuclear hawkishness and its stated commitment to putting in place a credible nuclear deterrent force. But the ongoing "nuclear dialogue" with the United States apparently forced the Government to put its plans on hold. In January 1999, some neighbouring countries were intimated about possible missile tests over the Bay of Bengal, and a prototype of Agni-II was displayed at this year's Republic Day parade. However, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott was to visit Delhi at the end of January, and the Americans were throwing tantalising hints that some of the sanctions imposed on India would be lifted. Following this, the launch was pushed pack to February, but for unstated reasons it was again deferred.

In addition to pressure from the West, the Government also had to contend with the stated opinion of the Indian External Affairs and Finance Ministries that conducting the missile tests at this juncture would not be well-received by foreign governments and investors. Indian Foreign Secretary K. Raghunath, who was in Tokyo in February, was told that Japan would react adversely if India carried out new missile tests. The Japanese Government is worried about an escalation in the missile race in the Asia-Pacific region; Japan itself is under the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The Japanese Government also believes that missile tests in the Asian subcontinent will make it difficult for Tokyo and Washington to cap North Korea's missile arsenal. North Korea has in recent times demonstrated its missile technology, which has the capacity to target Japanese cities. It also claims that its long-range missiles can target the U.S. west coast.

Nuclear hawks and strategists in India who sought to rationalise the Pokhran-II tests had been calling for the testing of Agni-II. Many of them alleged that the BJP-led Government had put the test on hold under pressure from Washington. With time running out, and with the prospect of the collapse of the Government becoming very real, the Government finally gave the go-ahead for the Agni-II test. It perhaps felt that it could project the test as an "achievement", but as West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu said, it was no more than a "political stunt".

The timing of the launch also coincided with the crisis in the Balkans, which left the Clinton administration preoccupied with the U.S.-led air strikes on Yugoslavia. Further, the administration seems to have assured India and Pakistan that both countries could acquire "minimum deterrence" capability provided they signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). This may explain Washington's comparatively mild response to the missile tests. The Indian Defence Ministry's Annual Report for 1998-99 states that "there is greater international acceptance of India's need for developing a credible minimum deterrent." Even so, the Vajpayee Government's action in linking the Agni-II test with the declared policy of nuclear weaponisation has heightened the prospect of a missile and nuclear arms race in the region. Pakistan's response only confirmed this fear.

THE Pakistan Government initially reacted adversely to the Agni-II test. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said that his country would immediately test-fire its own missiles to restore parity and that India was to blame for triggering another arms race in the subcontinent. Chief of the Army Staff Gen. Pervez Musharraf said that the Agni-II test warranted an immediate response and that Pakistan had the defensive and offensive capability for "frustrating aggressive designs". His Indian counterpart, Gen. Ved Prakash Mallik, had said that Agni-II was not a threat to any country, including Pakistan, and that the test was aimed only at strengthening India's "defence capabilities".

Musharraf told newspersons that Pakistan would not try to match India in respect of the number of missiles produced, but would retain just enough missile capacity to reach "anywhere in India and destroy a few cities, if required".

On April 14, Pakistan test-fired what it called the Ghauri-2 missile from a site near Jhelum city. Islamabad claims that Ghauri-2 has a potential range of 2,300 km, but the range achieved during the test was only 1,500 km. On April 15, Islamabad tested Shaheen, which has a range of 800 km. A Pakistan Foreign Office statement said that the Shaheen ballistic missile test had concluded "for the time being" and congratulated the scientists and engineers who had "mastered the sophisticated technology and skills necessary for the production of such missiles."

After Pakistan's missile tests of April 14 and 15, Musharraf claimed that a "proper command and control system" for the nuclear and missile programmes had been evolved.

Not all the rhetoric emanating from Pakistan was, however, belligerent. After the Ghauri-2 test, Nawaz Sharif said that "for 50 years we have wasted our resources and time. Pakistan and India should settle all their problems, including Kashmir."

Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto said that Pakistan and India should stop the "tit-for-tat" missile tests and instead focus on their respective economies. "Pakistan should not let India dictate its foreign policy," she stressed, criticising India for re-starting an arms race in the subcontinent.

Agni-II being test-fired on April 11.-

In the wake of the tests, influential sections in the Pakistani media commented that the new arms race is risky and unnecessary. An editorial in Dawn said: "Both countries should be concentrating on other things and improving their economic performance, instead of pursuing chimerical and quixotic notions of power and global importance."

A spokesperson for the Pakistan Foreign Office told mediapersons after the missile tests that India was not amenable to concluding a strategic restraint agreement with Pakistan; such an agreement, he said, had acquired "greater validity" after the recent tests of ballistic missiles. The "restraint regime", the spokesperson said, was intended to define "the minimum deterrence, both nuclear and conventional", required for the security of the two countries.

India's reaction to Pakistan's missile tests was characterised by restraint. External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh said that the tests by the two countries would neither accelerate a regional arms race nor hinder peace talks. Indian officials had conveyed to their Pakistani counterparts an assurance that Agni-II is not "Pakistan-centric" and that one reason why the Dhanush, the naval variant of the Prithvi, had not been tested was that the shorter-range version could be construed as being "Pakistan-centric".

THE Clinton administration expressed its happiness over the "positive" statements from Indian and Pakistani leaders after the tests. Briefing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the wake of the tests, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Karl Inderfurth said that India had a "special responsibility" in starting a missile and nuclear race in the subcontinent. "Clearly, Pakistan is responding to Indian actions, not only in terms of the missile tests but also in terms of the nuclear tests," he said. The State Department also "regretted" the tests conducted by Pakistan. It said: "We remain concerned that the cycle of action and reaction of missile tests could lead to an accelerated arms competition in South Asia." U.S. congressional sources indicated that the missile tests are likely to delay the legislation in the U.S. Congress to lift the sanctions against both the countries.

Japan expressed its apprehensions and "extreme regret" with regard to the tests. "The missile testing could be detrimental to peace and stability in the region," a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said. The suspicion that Pakistan's missile programme is based on North Korean technology has given Japan additional cause for worry. If the allegations are true, Japan fears that considerable amounts of money are certain to have changed hands and some of the money could have been diverted to enhance the already formidable North Korean missile programme.

Pakistan's response, Ghauri-2, being launched on April 14.-

China's reaction to the missile tests was also somewhat muted. Expressing regret and concern, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson who briefed newspersons after India's test said that the Agni-II test "could trigger a new round of arms race in South Asia" and that it had violated the spirit of the U.N. resolution calling on India to stop the development of nuclear-capable missiles.

Beijing also expressed the hope that India and Pakistan would "continue a meaningful dialogue with patience and sincerity" and resolve their differences peacefully. News of the Agni-II test was featured only on the inside pages of leading official Chinese newspapers. Interestingly, the Indian Defence Ministry's Annual Report, prepared when George Fernandes was Defence Minister, states that "India does not regard China as an adversary but as a great neighbour". The report goes on to add that "while China's assistance to Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme and the transfer of missiles and missile technology to Pakistan affect the security situation in South Asia, India would like to develop mutually beneficial and friendly relations with China."

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor