Inside Story
India: Flexing its military muscle
As India fires an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting China, we ask if an arms race is brewing.
Last Modified: 20 Apr 2012 14:34

India has fired a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

The Agni-V missile has a range of 5,000km - which would give India the capability to hit most major cities in China, Iran and south-east Asia.

The weapon, which has been in the works for over 20 years and cost the Indian government more than $500m, is among India's most sophisticated.

But the launch has attracted none of the criticism from the West that North Korea faced when it tried to send up a similar rocket last week.

"If you want to be a big player and to be at the top table nowadays you've got to be a nuclear power. And secondly, you must have intercontinental ballistic missiles which can carry nuclear warheads. If you have these two, you're really a big boy and you're listened to. Therefore, it was inevitable that India would, in fact, attempt to attain that status."

- Martin McCauley, an international affairs analyst

China is now criticising the West's silence, saying it is ignoring India's disregard for nuclear treaties.

India wants to join the elite group of countries that openly have long-range weapons that can carry nuclear warheads. That club includes the US, Britain, France, Russia and, of course, China.

India began by testing the Agni-II, which had a range of 2,000km, more than a decade ago. It has since tested other missiles that can travel much further.

In comparison, China's vast military arsenal includes the Dongfeng 5A with an estimated range of 13,000km. China also has 66 land-based intercontinental missile launchers, while India has none.

India says the Agni-V is the answer to China's missiles deployed in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Rahul Bedi from Jane's Defence Weekly told Al Jazeera's Prerna Suri: "India is developing the missile as a dissuasive deterrent against China because all its nuclear programmes, as well as missile programmes, are focused on China. In fact, when India carried out its 1998 nuclear tests, it declared that it was doing so in response to what the Chinese were doing as far as their nuclear weapons were concerned."

But India's nuclear programme has come a long way since 1998, when it last tested a nuclear device. Sanctions that were previously slapped against it were withdrawn when India and the US signed a Civilian Nuclear Agreement in 2008.

And these latest tests are not expected to attract any new sanctions, partly because of this tacit support.

But in a country where more than half of the people live on less than a dollar-and-a-half a day, many are questioning the high costs. In 2011, India spent more than $46bn buying weapons. That compares to a little over $11.5bn spent on education and $6bn on health.

So, does this open the door to a new arms race with China? And is that really in the interests of either country?

Joining Inside Story to discuss this are: Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University; Richard Hu, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong; and Martin McCauley, an international affairs analyst from the University of London.

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