When India first tested its three stage Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Agni V on April 20, 2012, China’s reaction was remarkably restrained. “China and India are both emerging powers. We are not rivals, but cooperative partners. We should cherish the hard-earned momentum of cooperation,” Liu Weimin, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson said. She added: “The two countries have a sound relationship. During the (recent) fourth BRICS meeting the leadership of the two countries agreed on a consensus to further strengthen cooperation.”
Even the normally aggressive Chinese Government mouthpiece, Global Times , was relatively restrained. It asserted: “India should not overestimate its strength. Even if it has missiles that could reach most parts of China that does not mean it will gain anything from being arrogant during disputes with China. India should be clear that China’s nuclear power is stronger and more reliable. For the foreseeable future, India would stand no chance in an overall arms race with China.”Change in tune
When India conducted the fourth and final pre-operational test of the Agni V on December 26, 2016, China’s reaction was belligerent and hostile. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Hu Chunying, referred to UN Security Council Resolution 1172 of June 6, 1998, issued after nuclear tests by India and Pakistan. The resolution called on India and Pakistan to immediately stop their nuclear weapons development programmes; to refrain from weaponisation and the deployment of nuclear weapons; to cease development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons and end any further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. Hu also asked India to spell out its “intentions”.
China seemed to have forgotten that the Security Council Resolution was a “Chapter 6” Resolution, which was not binding on India. The reaction of Global Times was vicious. Referring disparagingly to India’s economic potential and pointedly equating India with Pakistan, Global Times observed: “Currently there is a vast disparity in power between the two countries and India knows what it would mean, if it poses a nuclear threat to China”.
Responding to China’s assertion that India’s missile programme affected nuclear stability in South Asia, India’s Spokesman Vikas Swarup noted: “India’s strategic autonomy and growing engagement contribute to strategic stability”.Challenge to China
There are a number of reasons for the change in the Chinese reactions to Agni V missile tests between 2012 and 2016. China militarily seized the Scarborough Shoal, located within the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines, in 2012. It, thereafter, contemptuously rejected a verdict of the UN Tribunal, which declared its maritime boundary claims along its so-called “Nine Dotted Line” as a violation of International Law. The Tribunal held China’s territorial claims on Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, as similarly being in violation of International Law. China has, in the meantime, converted a large number of rocks across the South China Sea into Islands, where it has based missiles, armed personnel and military aircraft, using its military might.
The Obama administration took virtually no action in response to Chinese belligerence against the Philippines — a longtime military ally. Worse still, the US recently acquiesced in the seizure of one of its unmanned underwater vehicles close to the Philippines. Chinese belligerence is paying off. President Duterte of the Philippines has quietly acquiesced to Beijing’s territorial demands. ASEAN countries such as Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand and Cambodia are following suit.
It is clear that a belligerent China is no longer prepared to tolerate any challenges to its dominance and hegemony across Asia. The Agni IV, currently operational, with a range of 4,000 km can hit targets in Southern China, while the Agni V, with a range of 5,500-8,000 km can hit even at the farthest points in China. The submarine launched Sagarika missile has a range of 750 km. Its variants, currently under development, can hit across China from the Bay of Bengal.
China, in turn, has transferred the designs and knowhow of the Shaheen range of missiles to Pakistan. These missiles can hit targets across India. Moreover, Karachi and Gwadar will be used not only to base the eight submarines China is supplying to Pakistan, but also serve as bases for Chinese nuclear and conventional submarines. The range of missiles being developed by India clearly signals to China that it will find any effort to use Pakistan as a nuclear proxy against India very costly and perhaps unaffordable. The Agni V is virtually invulnerable, as it is mobile and housed in canisters.The way of dialogue
New Delhi needs to be far more active in insisting that a comprehensive nuclear dialogue with China is essential for strategic stability across Asia. China is loathe to enter into such a dialogue, as it wishes to not formally accord recognition to India’s nuclear weapons status, even as it peddles nuclear weapons and ballistic missile designs and materials to Pakistan, while helping Pakistan to develop both uranium and Plutonium based nuclear weapons. These transfers to Pakistan are in total disregard of China’s responsibilities under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. India has been far too defensive and avoided exposing the Sino-Pakistan nuclear/missile nexus in important world capitals. A far more determined effort on this score would be necessary once the Trump Administration assumes office and settles down to looking at the world.
Within Asia, Chinese hubris and arrogance would need far closer consultations and dialogue with countries such as Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia. There appears to be sentiment growing slowly in Tokyo that in the face of Chinese territorial and geopolitical ambitions, Japan should review its nuclear policies. The incoming Trump Administration has also indicated that allies such as Japan need to do more to defend themselves. A nuclear-armed Japan can certainly play a key role in moderating Chinese behaviour and hubris. This is an issue that needs to be looked at carefully. All this has to be combined with a vigorous dialogue with China.
The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan