Geopolitics of Asian missiles


The Asian continent is where economic power is shifting from Western Europe and North America. China, India, and South Korea dealt with the global financial crisis of 2007-8 better than many European states. China is already the second largest world economy; India is noted for having pulled a hundred million people out of extreme poverty. These are impressive achievements even as both China and India are showing signs of a slowdown and the latter still has 450 million people below the poverty line.

Interestingly, China achieved phenomenal economic success without giving up the authoritarian grip of the communist party on power; India has taken great strides forward in the din of its rather chaotic democratic politics. The Asians seem to be able to work any economic model with aplomb.

Economic achievements, however, are not matched by success in creating a harmonious political order in Asia. Bandung’s five principles of coexistence (Panch Sheela) have not led to a resolution of contentious issues left behind by the colonial era. India and Pakistan are the prime examples of this failure as they have fought wars and staged huge military confrontations short of war. China has not been able to settle the border with India not only because of differing territorial claims but also because of unstated approaches to Tibet.

Many Asian analysts argue that the worst violence seen by the continent came from armed interventions by outside powers — the French colonial war in Indo-China, taken over later by the United States; Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; Israel’s western-backed occupation of Palestine and other invasions of Arab lands; Saddam Hussain’s western-inspired invasion of Iran and American military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to this interpretation of Asian history, India-Pakistan conflicts were made more intractable by their conflicting alignments with opposing global power blocs during the Cold War.

The major Asian countries are spending staggering amounts of money on the acquisition and production of arms. China’s gross defence outlay is larger than that of India though, according to Jane’s Defence Weekly, India’s aggregate defence procurement spending between 2011 and 2015 would exceed $100 billion (Dh367 billion). Cash-strapped Pakistan still feels obliged to commit an unaffordable percentage of GDP to national security. Very often, defence expenditures are driven not by real threats but the perception of ruling elites that military power is vital to national esteem, sense of identity and, above all, to the creation of spheres of influence.

Nasr Cruise Missile

As emblems of Asia’s militarisation, indigenously manufactured or purchased missiles abound. International commentaries on the Indian missile test of April 19 highlighted the Indian capability to hit Beijing and China’s great economic hub, Shanghai, with conventional or nuclear weapons. It altered the old maxim that large scale warfare between India and China across the Himalayas was impossible.

By testing Agni-V, India has joined the exclusive club of powers capable of producing inter-continental ballistic missiles. It also demonstrated its capability for an ambitious space programme. India already possessed Pakistan-specific Prithvi series, medium-range Agni series and other effective systems. It can launch conventional and nuclear weapons from land, air and sea.

Outclassed in conventional forces, Pakistan has developed a range of nuclear-capable missiles that effectively counter-balance India. Its medium range Hatf series and a cruise missile can reach most targets in India. Pakistan’s latest test of an improved Hatf-Shaheen A-1 missile was carried out only six days after the Indian test. It is also building short range missiles like the 60-km Nasr, an entry into the tactical weapons field to bolster its deterrence. Hit hard by Iraq’s Scud missiles, Iranian planners took up missile projects with vengeance. While Iran’s nuclear programme has mysteries, it practices high transparency in missile development as a deterrent-enhancer.

Iran’s Shahab-3 missile and the Sejjil series cover the Gulf region well and can reach targets in Israel. Of particular interest to Iran’s neighbours and other maritime nations is its arsenal of surface to sea missiles. Iran’s Safir rocket has lifted satellites into space and can, theoretically, lead to long range missiles. Just as India and Pakistan have reached a theatre balance, the regional Arab states are investing heavily in purchasing western missile systems for delivery and interception.

Consider that external actors do not necessarily seek early reduction of tensions. Washington wants to de-fang North Korea and expects a regime change prior to reconciliation between the two Korean states. It wants India to share the strategic burden of limiting Chinese outreach and influence. Its Iran policy is very complex; its arms deals with Arab states constrain Iranian ambitions and weaken the grip of hawkish elements in the Iranian state. Iran is probably still the main prize that Washington wants to win by diplomacy, coercion or even a limited war.

Deterrence stability has served India and Pakistan well. It can also be effective in the Gulf region. The pre-condition is robust diplomatic engagement between Iran and the GCC states under a strategic overhang. In the final analysis, missiles will end up as promoters of peace or as instruments of huge damage depending upon how human agents negotiate present differences.

—(Gulf News)

Tanvir Ahmad Khan is a former Pakistani foreign secretary and ambassador to several states.

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