The world sat up and took note of India’s Agni V missile-launch on April 19, even as Indian scientists celebrated the country’s first ICBM launch. Indeed, the Agni-V has a 5,000 km-range and can deliver multiple warheads across the whole of Asia, 70 per cent of Europe, and Eastern Africa. This is India’s third consecutive strategic missile launch in three years. In February 2010, India had test-fired the Agni III, followed by the Agni-IV test in November 2011. While the Agni-III missile has a range of 3500 km, the Agni-IV’s 3000 km strike-distance bridged the gap between Agni-II (2000 km) and the Agni-III.
The Agni-V launch is a significant milestone for the Indian scientific community as this is the first missile with a strike-range covering major Chinese cities including Beijing and Shanghai. Some experts point out that it is not quite an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), as is being claimed in sections of the media. Going by the accepted classification of ballistic missiles, an ICBM must have a minimum range of at least 5500 km (even though the Chinese metric puts the figure at 8000 km). Technically, therefore, the Agni V is a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) and a ‘theatre weapon”.
In practical terms, however, India’s latest strategic missile covers an almost equal expanse to that of a “legit ICBM”. Indian scientists claim that, with suitable modifications, its range could even be increased to cover sites half-way across the world. They are understandably thrilled over the Agni-V’s successful launch, claiming that it makes India "a major missile power". Soon after the launch, a visibly pleased Dr. V. K. Saraswat, the DRDO Director General, dubbed the Agni V as a “game-changer” and suggested a two year time frame for its eventual induction.
More interesting, however, was China’s reaction, which appeared to lend a little twist to this seemingly straight-forward tale of a nation’s quest for greater global recognition. The Chinese media initially reacted with characteristic intemperateness over the Agni’s launch, shrugging it off as a “non-event”. In an article titled “India swept up by missile delusion”, the Global Times, a state-run newspaper, said India might have missiles that can reach most parts of China, but it was way behind the latter’s might. India, it averred, would gain nothing by stirring "further hostility", but would be well advised to not overestimate its strength, as it "stands no chance in an overall arms race".
But in a U-turn a day later, Chinese military experts reversed their earlier appreciation and called the Agni-V test as an event of great geo-strategic portent. As they tried hard to play-up the strategic implications of the event, Chinese pundits went to great lengths to point out that the missile "actually has the potential to reach targets 8,000 km away". There is more to India's successful long-range nuclear-capable missile Agni-V, they suggested, than what was being admitted by New Delhi.
Given its strategic situation, India’s missile development, admittedly, constitutes an important element of its national defence preparedness. But the launch of the Agni V, especially the timing of the test—coming right after the North Korean missile launch failure—has put the West in a political quandary. The US, Britain, France and Australia, which support India’s rise and see it as a potential counter-weight to China, now seem to openly acknowledge that when it comes to strategic missile tests, some countries are more equal than the others. This is exactly what appears to have riled Chinese strategists. Needless, to say, the latest Agni launch may not just end up impacting the balance-of-power equation in the subcontinent, but also the broader India-China relationship.
Such an outcome may be unfortunate. Despite being dubbed as an ‘enigma’ by political and strategic pundits in both countries, India-China relations have, in recent days, witnessed a turn for the better. The two nations regularly engage in dialogue and have declared their intention to build a stronger bilateral relationship, even undertaking a dialogue on maritime security. However, mistrust persists, even as the enduring legacy of the border dispute continues to hold the relationship hostage. To make matters more complicated, each country has seems to have established stronger security relations with the other's primary potential adversary.
While Beijing is worried over India’s emerging relationship with the US, India continues to regard China's ties with Pakistan with suspicion. Given the history of Beijing’s assistance to Islamabad in nuclear and missile technology, India’s is an entirely valid apprehension. China's growing assertiveness in the Indian Ocean has been giving India the strategic ‘heebie-jeebies’ and many Indian experts remain convinced that Beijing’s “strategy of encirclement of India” is no conspiracy-theory. Meanwhile, China remains anxious about India’s supposed interference in Tibet and on its increasingly assured assertions on the border issue. Sadly, the somewhat ‘partisan’ media on both sides continues to sensationalise issues and stokes passions, much to the chagrin of the politicians (at least in India).
Interestingly, whilst the political class in India appeared keen to downplay the strategic implications of the Agni V’s test, the Indian scientists seem to have adopted a more strident tone, thus lending credence to the belief that India not only regards the missile launch as a national achievement, but is also intent on sending out a strong message to its supposed adversaries. India, it would appear, is happy to join the “elite ICBM club” and will do everything in its power to press home the advantage. But New Delhi will, doubtless, be aware of the perils of overstating the potency or significance of the Agni V, lest it is misinterpreted by anyone, especially India’s Himalayan neighbor, as a strategic signal.
China’s reactions to the event, on the other hand, provide evidence that strategic missile capability remains a crucial determinant of strategic equations between powerful nations. Strategic weapons, in a sense, continue to mediate the hierarchy of power and geo-strategic clout among the top global players. India’s rapid economic growth and military rise has catapulted it onto the international centre-stage. But even as New Delhi urges the other occupants of the high table to take a balanced view of the Agni V test, many will interpret it as an act of ”strategic messaging”.