India outed its nuclear bomb and yet remained the land of Gandhi. The same message of peace and power should follow the launch of its first ICBM.

With the successful Agni V test on Thursday, India appears to be aiming for status as much as security. Yet without credible reassurances, the by-product of this quest for prestige could be an increasingly insecure region.

Peaceful intentions

As so often in the past, India faces the challenge of reconciling its quest for military and nuclear status with the need to persuade the international community of its peaceful intentions. That India has the experience, skill and track record to do so is without doubt.

For decades, India's nuclear policy and discourse have been built on a curious mix of hard power and principle. The 1974 test was dubbed a “Peaceful Nuclear Explosion,” and successive governments opted to refrain from overtly developing a nuclear weapon capability. Following the nuclear tests of 1998, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee stressed that the tests and India's future nuclear policy would “continue to reflect a commitment to the sensibilities and obligations of an ancient civilization, a sense of responsibility and restraint.”

India's nuclear tests were a means of establishing India's international status and prestige. Yet refreshingly, they were not simply an act of conformity to the dominant might-is-right maxim of the international system.

A synthesis was formed with an enduring set of principled foreign policy values. In the wake of the tests, India stressed its peaceful intentions, announced a voluntary moratorium on further testing, limited itself to a minimum credible deterrent, and later pledged a no-first-use policy.

China reacts

These measures meant that India's tests were an enhancement rather than a negation of an essentially peaceable but unquestionably powerful Indian civilizational self. The clearest evidence for this is that India's gradual build-up of military and nuclear capabilities from the 1970s onwards have not resulted in new policies based on the use of force.

In a predictable echo of the nuclear tests of 1998, the launch of Agni V, India's first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), was a moment of national pride. It met with jubilation from Indian defence officials and the Indian media. So far, the near-unanimous hype has centred on India's scientific achievements and new ranking among only a fistful of other states with ICBM capabilities. But little effort has been made to quell the fears about the dangers the launch poses to an Asia on the brink of an arms race.

The official line of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has been that Agni V “is not any country-specific.” Official commentary on the test has had little else to say about India's intentions or the actual purpose, use and deployment of the missile.

Reading between the lines, many have inferred that strategic Chinese cities are potential targets within the extended range of Agni V. While Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin evenly declared that India and China were “not competitors but partners,” China's influential tabloid, The Global Times, ominously declared that “India should not overestimate its strength” and would not profit “from being arrogant during disputes with China.”

History suggests that an ill-judged, even if unintentional, provocation of China could spell disaster for the region. India and China's battle for status in Asia in the 1950s and 1960s ended catastrophically for India in the 1962 border war.

The nuclear issue

Since 1998, the nuclear bomb has been a symbol of India's power and prestige, but the nuclear domain has always stood as a site within which India's unique moral judgment could be applied and exhibited. Dominant thinking in international relations finds it hard to reconcile the two trends, and many have scratched their heads in puzzlement over the incongruity of India's peaceful intentions and hard power hype, or the juxtaposition of “the land of Gandhi” and the bomb.

Yet in practice, if not in theory, the international community has accepted India's nuclear ambivalence. The credibility of Indian claims to nuclear restraint and responsibility contributed without doubt to the exceptional civil nuclear trading rights India received, outside the bounds of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), through the India-U.S. civil nuclear agreement.

The launch of Agni V has yet to be tempered with the usual reassurances of India's peaceful intentions towards the Asian region and the world. Without this string to India's ICBM bow, the diplomatic resource of 65 years of nuclear restraint that makes India stand apart will weaken.

India's traditional status-seeking policy of nuclear restraint need not jar with its desire to shine in the eyes of the global nuclear elite. Back in 1952, G.S. Bajpai, a pioneer of the Indian Foreign Service and one of India's first “realists,” reconciled the two positions in his writings. He claimed that the acquisition of material power need not eclipse India's moral pre-eminence, and that power was indeed essential for moral projection.

With new declarations of strength must come new reassurances. Public statements from the highest level that explicitly reiterate India's abiding policy of nuclear restraint would go some way towards allaying international fears. An official review of India's 2003 nuclear doctrine and incorporation of guidelines on its ICBM capabilities would go even further. Whether Agni V will push India to new international heights or simply place it in regional danger, will depend on how quickly and credibly India restates its peaceful intent.

(Kate Sullivan is Lecturer in Modern Indian Studies, Contemporary South Asian Studies Programme, School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies at the University of Oxford. E-mail: kate.sullivan@area.ox.ac.uk)

Keywords: Agni VICBMDRDO

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