Nuclear weapons have been shaping the conduct of power politics in South and Southern Asia particularly since Indian and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998. Pakistan-India-China is a unique triangle in the world where all these three nuclear weapon states share the geographical boundaries with each other. These states do have reasonable missile capabilities too. There are some variations amongst these states in regards to their nuclear weapons holdings however; every state is anticipated to have a minimum of around 100 weapons each. It has also been reported that states like Pakistan are making progress in the field of development of tactical nuclear weapons too.
Nuclear deterrence apparatus mainly constitutes of nuclear weapons and a weapon delivery mechanism. All these three states are developing/constantly upgrading various forms of delivery mechanisms. To bring completeness to their deterrence potential these states are developing/have developed Nuclear Triad capability. Such a capability includes land, sea (submarine) and air based platforms for nuclear weapons delivery.
Missile technology is one arena where India is making concentrated efforts for many years. India initiated Integrated Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) in 1983 and currently has a range of missiles in its weapons stockpile. Some of India’s missiles are nuclear capable too. Amongst various missiles Agni missiles belong to the family of short, medium to intercontinental range ballistic missiles (SRBM, MRBM, ICBM). Mainly, India’s Defence Research Development (DRDO) organisation is responsible for the development of this programme. These nuclear ballistic missiles are in various stages of development (some of them like Agni-I, Agni-II and Agni-III are already operational).
On 14 December 2016 and at the beginning of 2017 India conducted successful tests of two of its Agni series missiles, namely Agni-V and Agni-IV. Agni-V is India's longest range nuclear capable intercontinental ballistic missile with an approximate range of 5,500 km while Agni-IV has a range of around 3,500/4000 km. India has been testing these missiles for the last five to six years. The recent tests were part of the process of moving towards making missiles fully operational. Agni-V (capable of carrying 1.5 tons nuclear tipped warhead) reasserts India’s capability in the arena of intercontinental ballistic missiles field. This missile was first test-fired in 2012 and now this time it was successfully launched in its final phase of canisterised testing. Now, India’s Strategic Forces Command is expected to conduct two more tests before inducting this missile into its weapon arsenal. At the same time, the surface-to-surface missile Agni-IV has undertaken one failed and five successful tests, and is almost ready for induction.
Interestingly, China probably for the first time, after DRDO stared test-firing Agni IV and V missiles, has raised concerns. India has been reasonably open about its missile programme for all these years and is known to follow various prevalent international norms (like issuing prior warning from the aviation safety point of view etc.). After recent tests, China has suddenly claimed that India’s testing is against the United Nations resolution. The statement issued by China after the test lacks specifics. Probably, China is referring to a UNSC resolution (No 1172) which was passed after the conduct of nuclear tests by both India and Pakistan in 1998. This resolution mentions that both these states should not develop ballistic missiles that are essentially platforms for delivering nuclear weapons.
The question is - Why is China raising objections now almost five years after India first test-fired the Agni V missile? Naturally, there would be some political and strategic thinking behind China raising these concerns. At the same time it is also important to take note of unnecessary display of brashness mainly by the Indian media. India has been officially presenting a much nuanced position about the country’s deterrence programme for all these years. As per the External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson, Mr. Vikas Swarup, “India's strategic capabilities are not targeted against any particular country. India abides by all the applicable international obligations and hopes that all other do the same. India's strategic autonomy and growing engagement contributes to strategic stability.” However, Indian media’s (both print and electronic) eagerness to unnecessarily display ‘bravado’ that now we can attack any part of China could have played some role in shaping Chinese thinking and response. Perhaps China decided to respond when the international media also started to circulate similar stories.
Clearly, media pressure should not be considered the only reason for China to react more brashly. China is as such uncomfortable with India gaining prominence in the nuclear arena. Probably, it is not able to digest the fact that India, in spite of not being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime, is getting preferable treatment from the rest of the world (the US, Russia and EU). India has been welcomed in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) while it is unlikely that China would get entry into this regime. However, since China is in a position to stop India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), it might well want to ensure that India does not get easy access to nuclear trade and commerce. China is using the current opportunity to please its friend Pakistan too. It is fully aware of Pakistan’s proliferation record (actually same is the case with their own record too) and is conscious that just because India has got certain waivers the same could not happen in the case of Pakistan. But, still it is pushing Pakistan’s case for similar treatment. China has not raised any concerns about Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons programme. On the other hand, India’s strategic engagement with Vietnam is not going down well with China.
Though China has raised concerns about Agni tests, it would be of interest to know that in 2016, China's newly formed Rocket Force (rebranding of the Second Artillery Corps as PLA Rocket Force) had launched 100 around ballistic missiles. This Rocket Force is anticipated to be responsible for activities like reconnaissance, global positioning operations, space-asset management and cyber related activities.
PLA’s army, navy and air force have conducted various major exercises (inter and intra-state) in 2016. In recent times, a Chinese submarine is also known to have visited the Pakistani port of Gwadar and its covert presence, very close to the Indian border, is obviously a cause of concern. Also, there are some recent (conflicting) reports with regard to Pakistan test-firing its first submarine-launched nuclear capable cruise missile.
For the past few years, China was found playing down India’s progress in the nuclear and missile arena; however, now China is seen to be taking a more aggressive posture (diplomatically). In regards to Agni V missile testing, China is fully aware that India would need two more test launches before inducting this missile into the armoury of the Strategic Forces Command. Also, India is yet to fully operationalise its submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) programme. All this indicates that India would require some more time to suitably establish its Nuclear Triad structures. But, at the same time China also understands that now it is only a matter of time that India’s Triad mechanism becomes fully operational. Once such mechanism is in place, it is bound to influence the strategic balance in South Asia much to China’s dislike. Also, Triad mechanism would allow India to join the exclusive club of nuclear weapon states with ICBM capability. Particularly, now with the Trump administration likely to not favour China, it is expected that China would use every opportunity to corner India just to demonstrate its regional supremacy.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.