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New Delhi needs to adopt dual-track policy to stand up to the challenge of more potent Chinese missiles in the neighbourhood as a result of the collapse of the US-Russia treaty on land-based ballistic missiles. While India’s military-industrial complex recalibrates its strategy and response, there is a need to dampen machismo in the global air by examining the possibility of a fresh missile limitation initiative.

THE Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, scrapped recently by US President Donald Trump, doesn’t ring a bell in India. Neither should it. The painfully achieved Cold War-era pact was between Russia and the US and it required both to destroy their stockpiles of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 km and 5,500 km.

By all accounts, the treaty was a success. It led to the dismantling and destruction of over 2,500 missiles of both countries, quarterbacked by a rigorous verification regime that lasted till 2001 and followed by 30 meetings of their Special Verification Commission.

The treaty was stuttering till Trump dealt a death blow against the shadow of a wide-ranging decline in bilateral ties after Russia entered Crimea and allegedly interfered in the 2016 US presidential election. But the actual reason for scrapping the treaty was China. And once the US begins a missile race with China, India will soon feel the heat. Its only possible response, given the mindset of narrow regionalism in South Block, would be to deploy more missiles of its own.
Why does China become a factor, and why should India get dragged in when it was a US-Russia bilateral treaty that was scrapped? The logic was in the past. During the Cold War, China had no rocket force to boast of and so the focus of the risk de-escalators among diplomats was to shut out the possibility of US-Soviet rivalry sideswiping the world with nuclear weapon-loaded missiles. Since then, China developed a nuclear and conventional missile inventory, 95 per cent of which is in the INF Treaty-banned ranges of 500 to 5,500 km.

Trump feels the treaty cramps the US from setting up all sorts of missiles on the ground in its bases in Japan and Korea: a loophole prohibits missiles on earth, but allows sea and space-based missiles. Trump has left no scope for doubt by stating that his abandonment of the treaty was a ‘threat’ to “China and whoever else wants to play that game.”The hardliners in the US had been circling the wagons for months. Xi Jinping’s exhortation to the People’s Liberation Army to be prepared for war and his gauntlet to independence seekers in Taiwan need to be seen in this backdrop. 

Once the US installs land-based missiles around China, Xi’s hard line abroad will compel him to respond in the language of confrontation, putting immense pressure on India to step up research in hypersonic missiles and also respond with more missile systems. Pakistan will then respond similarly. Trump’s strategy of countering China will drag India into stepping up the potency and quantity of its rocket forces.

The INF Treaty has positioned India at the interstices of a Cold War 2.0. As the recent G-20 Summit showed, India was the only country that held separate triliterals with Japan and the US and the other pairing of Russia and China. It can capitalise on its position to exploit both binaries emerging from the collapse of the treaty. The military-industrial complex can reorient to the opening up of new security threats while South Block attempts to play the extra-regional peacemaker by attempting an enlargement of the treaty to reduce nuclear missile stocks worldwide.

This need not entail a change in regional policy behaviour of being largely a subcontinental security seeker. Thirty years after the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s attempt at a security system-reforming moment with a global disarmament plan, there is another opportunity to seek a reversal of the ballistic missile race that is blighting our part of the world more than any other: of the nine states known to possess both nuclear weapons and over 1,000-km-range ballistic missiles, six are Eurasian (not counting the US). Another 22 possess non-nuclear-tipped missiles with a range that does not fall within the INF Treaty limits.

All three postulates of the India-presented ‘Action Plan for a Nuclear Weapon-Free and Non-Violent World Order’ remain valid: (i) ballistic missiles do not distinguish between combatants and civilians, (ii) they hold others to inhuman threats and, the most relevant (iii) India will have to divert more of its limited resources away from other pressing needs to match improved Chinese (and later, Pakistani) weapons and delivery systems. This approach will ensure India’s complete involvement with the Asian system which is being attempted piecemeal.

The world at this stage needs to give a rest to the balance of power concept in which security geopolitics has been marked by escalation. A persuasion-based model of politics has become inevitable and India is bound to find allies in Europe that has been uncharacteristically taken to insular continentalism. Barring England and France, whose missile arsenals will come under scrutiny, other old powers like Germany, Spain and Italy, despairing of US-induced tensions on Russia’s periphery, may welcome an attempt at checking the enthusiasm of an externally induced missile race on their territory that has the potential to consume its citizens. The proposal to globally extend the INF will also find takers in Africa and Latin America that have no missile-dependent security calculations.

International politics can’t be left to its devices and the whims of strongmen. The contradictory US reaction to the missile proliferation issue — walking out of the treaty with Russia, rewarding Pyongyang with talks and throwing the book at Tehran — needs an overdue correction. India needs to keep its flanks guarded, but the world needs a fresh breath of ethical ethos to keep its moral compass in place.


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