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India's "Agni-III" Missile in the Eyes of Chinese Strategic Experts

The official reaction from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to India’s successful flight test on 12 April 2007, of a nuclear-capable “Agni III” Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) with strike range of more than 3000 km and payload of 1.5 tons, has been prompt, but subdued. On the same day, the spokesperson of the PRC Foreign ministry while taking note of the test, expressed hope that ‘India, as a country with an important influence in the region, can work to maintain and promote peace and stability in the region’. Later, the official Xinhua News Agency (16 April 2007) took cognisance of the statement made by the Chief of the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation that India is ‘working to update the Agni III as an Inter Continental Ballistic Missile’ (ICBM) with the range reaching 5500 km and same pay load’.

There would have been no surprise at all if the PRC has been critical of India on the Agni III issue. This is so, as it should have become clear to Beijing by all means that the test has given ability to India to target for the first time the Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai with nuclear weapons. Also, while Beijing may have noted the remarks made at senior official levels in New Delhi that the test was not a threat to the PRC1 , it could still remember the past evaluations of Indian experts that Agni III is a deterrent against China2. The fact that China instead chose to adopt a cautious line, avoiding any official criticism of India on the Agni III issue, is most striking; there is still no evidence at government levels in Beijing suggesting any potential in Agni III to endanger China’s security.

The reasons seem to be obvious. Firstly, for the PRC, relations with India have become an important component of its neighbourhood policy. In the background of the unsolved boundary issue continuing to affect bilateral relations, it may not want to make any new addition to the problems with India. Secondly, Beijing may feel unnecessary to confront New Delhi on the missiles question, at a time when China has already been able to build up a strategic missile force providing a credible and survivable nuclear deterrent and counter strike capability. It would however be not correct if the PRC’s muted response is taken to mean that China is oblivious of the gains to India out of the test -capability for a ‘minimum credible deterrence’, as identified by New Delhi.

While treating contentious issues with other nations in general, China has always been found to follow a two-pronged approach – maintaining official caution wherever necessary and allowing simultaneously critical analysis by the State-controlled media and think tanks. The former is followed in China’s diplomatic interests, while the latter serves the purpose of indirectly conveying China’s sensitivities to the concerned nations over issues involved. For such nations, it becomes imperative to factor the unofficial views, evidently brought out with Party/Government blessings, in their policy responses. Approaching Sino-Indian relations from this perspective, the importance to India of certain comments on the Agni III made recently in a Chinese strategic affairs journal, comes out clear.

An article (17 April 2007) in Chinese language, in the website of the Beijing-based China International Institute for Strategic Studies (CIISS)3, has assessed that India’s missile programme now is aimed at attaining a capacity to attack any global target. Comparing the Agni III to that of the Soviet SS-24 missile developed twenty years back in the cold war era, it has found that India could now further update the Agni series giving them a capacity to reach most of the Asian regions, including China’s Beijing and Shanghai. Stating that the development of Agni III far exceeds India’s defence demands, the write-up has pointed to India’s ongoing efforts to increase the range of its long-range missiles to the level of 5000 km and above and develop thereafter the more powerful ‘Surya’ ballistic missile system.

Quoting estimates of the US and Pakistan, the article observed that India’s planned Surya III missiles could reach even a range of 20,000 km, with ability to target any part of the world. Acknowledging that India is now well advanced in strategic areas like nuclear research, nuclear capable missiles, satellites etc and could establish an effective military-industry combine, the article opined that as such, it would be difficult to expect India’s stopping of further up- gradation of its Agni-III programme. It concluded by saying that India has grand strategic aims of which development of Agni III is a part and the ‘Surya’ series, as a successor to that of Agni, will have the capacity to target places far and wide.

Another CIISS article in Chinese language (25 June 2007) has alleged that for the use of its military, India is to start building of a network of spy satellites in space from August 2007. This network has the task of carrying out surveillance on China-Pakistan missile troops and military bases. The planned CARTOSAT 2A satellite under this network can photograph important targets in China and Pakistan continuously for 24-hours, including the missile bases and airports, from a height of 630 km. The article added that such ability would mean that India’s spy satellites standards could become equal to those of US and Russia. It further remarked that India is also seriously planning to set up an Aerospace Command, to help fight space wars of which building up anti-ballistic missile systems would be a part. In conclusion, the write-up said that several Asian countries including China and Pakistan are ‘concerned’ with Agni III and nations beyond Asia are ‘strategically concerned’ with India’s plans to build its own ICBMs.

An interesting similarity is being seen between the present case of Chinese treatment to Agni III at the levels of government and strategic experts and what the PRC did in 1998 at the time of India’s nuclear tests. Officially, China indeed condemned the tests, but balanced the same with a stand against imposition of sanctions on India. On the contrary, Beijing allowed its strategic media and think tanks to go critical on India’s motives behind the tests. For e.g, a Liberation Army Daily article alleged that India’s military strategy was to seek hegemony in South Asia and contain China and that the PRC’s Central and South regions had come within the range of India’s Agni missiles4. Comments from China’s Defence Science And Technology Information Centre on their part saw in Indian Agni I and II missiles, a direct threat to China.5

The findings of experts in the PRC that Asian nations including China and Pakistan are ‘concerned’ with India’s Agni III missile and that India is trying for a global missile reach through planned ICBMs, making nations beyond Asia ‘strategically concerned’, could be signs that Beijing may choose to harden its official position on the Indian nuclear and missiles issues if India conducts its ICBM trials. Also, the US regional missiles posture has already started affecting the Chinese official thinking; Beijing has specifically become hostile to US plans for a joint missile defence system in Northeast Asia with the possible inclusion of Taiwan. This is being matched by the PRC’s growing suspicions of the emerging Indo-US nuclear and missile defence cooperation. The refrain of its State controlled media has been that the US is ‘drawing India against China’. China may also not forget that India had supported the earlier US plan for a Nuclear Missiles defence (NMD) system in Northeast Asia.

Beijing may thus perceive that the atmosphere concerning missile defence is becoming unfavourable to it in the entire region stretching from Northeast to South Asia. To this, the Chinese can respond with further augmentation of its strategic missiles strength. Pakistan is expected to do the same. The US is at the moment non-committal on India’s Agni III. But it may turn unhappy if India goes for ICBMs. There are reports to suggest that India is capping its missiles programme at the instance of the US, paving the way for final signing of Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement. Under such situation, it would be necessary for New Delhi to understand the full implications of the Chinese stand on the Agni III issue, by gaining a composite view of the nature of official caution and critical evaluation of strategic experts. India’s response must be in the way of developing such a missile programme, which can inspire confidence among its neighbours and conform to international non-proliferation norms.

(The writer, Mr.D.S.Rajan, is Director of the Chennai Centre for China Studies,Chennai,India.He was earlier Director in the Cabinet Secretariat,Government of India. Translation of Chinese material into English was done by the writer. Email: dsrajan@gmail.com dsrajan@c3sindia.org)

Notes

1. Bruce Loudon, “ Indian test no threat to China”, The Australian,13 April 2007

2. K.Subramanian, “Don’t stop now”, Daily news and Analysis, 24 July 2006, www.dnaindia.com/report.asp? NewsID=1043575&CatID=19; Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, “Nuclear India” Institute of defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi, 1998,page 6

3. China International Institute for Strategic Studies, Beijing, publishes its articles in its Chinese language website www.chinaiiss.org, which was established in October 2002, with the stated aim of contributing to research on the PRC’s International Strategy. The Head of the site is “Zhongguo Zhanlue”(China Strategy), apparently a pseudonym for a high level cadre. The site’s Expert Group has one Li Peng as member. Whether or not that person is former Premier Li Peng, needs check.

4. Liu Yang and Guo Feng, ‘‘What Is the Intention of Wantonly Engaging in Military Ventures—India’s Military Development Should Be Watched Out For,’’ Liberation Army Daily, May 19, 1998

5. FBIS-CHI-98-204 Daily Report, July 27, 1998

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