Will Pakistan and India’s Back-to-Back Missile Tests Spoil the Mood?

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Reuters

A Hatf-VI (Shaheen-II) missile with a range of 2,000 km (1,242 miles) takes off during a test flight from an undisclosed location in Pakistan, April 21, 2008.

Another nation decided to flex its ballistic muscle this week in what is shaping up to be a missile-happy month in Asia. On Wednesday, Pakistan announced it had successfully launched what it called an intermediate-range ballistic missile into the Indian Ocean, just days after India conducted a similar test launch of its long-range missile, the Agni-V. Like that weapon, Pakistan’s Hatf IV Shaheen IA is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and is part of Islamabad’s ongoing strategy of deterrence in the region.

Islamabad gave New Delhi due warning that it would be testing the new missile this week, as did New Delhi before its test of the Agni-V, in accordance with a 2005 agreement that the neighbors would notify each other before missile tests. Like India, Pakistan has been developing an indigenous missile program since the 1980s, but analysts have questioned the the veracity of some of Islamabad’s claims about its military’s homegrown technological achievements in the past.

The back-to-back launches look awkward — particularly as both governments have been openly hopeful about their warming ties. On April 8, Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari made his first outing to India since the 2008 attacks on Mumbai.  Both sides played down the visit – Zardari’s lunch with India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was billed as secondary to his private visit to a shrine – but the leaders’ meeting generated plenty of speculative ink and official chatter about a new era of cooperation, particularly in trade. “It was clear from the conversation that both countries consider the dialogue process and the improvement of bilateral relations as being in the mutual interest of the people of India and Pakistan,” S. M. Krishna, India’s Minister of External Affairs, said in a speech today.

Pakistan’s government did not immediately disclose or confirm the exact range of the Shaheen 1A, but it said it was an upgrade over its predecessor, the Shaheen 1, and can reportedly hit targets up to 750 km (465 miles) away. India’s Agni V has a range of 5,000 km, putting several major Chinese cities well within range for the first time. Indian newspapers crowed over last week’s successful test, which puts it in the small club of nations with intercontinental ballistic missiles. China openly dismissed the event. “Even if [India] has missiles that could reach most parts of China, that does not mean it will gain anything from being arrogant,” stated an article published in the state mouthpiece the Global Times. “India should be clear that China’s nuclear power is stronger and more reliable.”

Observers say the two tests won’t derail the recent progress that Pakistan and India have made since Zardari’s visit. “These two launches are very different,” says C. Raja Mohan, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank. “For India, this is about acquiring some kind of parity with China to develop credible minimum deterrence.” Pakistan, for its part, has had missiles that could hit India, and therefore meet the deterrence requirement, for decades. Testing a slightly longer range missile doesn’t make much difference. “It doesn’t matter how many weapons Pakistan has,” says Mohan. “The problem [for India] is that Pakistan supports terrorism.”

The last few weeks have been full of optimism that increasing trade ties will be a tool to start chipping away at that and other sources of tension between the neighboring states. The countries are hoping to quadruple their $2.8 billion trade, according to the AP. Pakistan has promised to open its border to Indian trade by the end of the year and grant India “Most Favored Nation” status, while India has promised to lift a ban on Pakistani investments and is looking at exporting electricity over the border, among other things. “The foundation will always be shaky,” says Mohan. “But we are beginning to do new things.”

And while China may not have welcomed India’s recent military achievement, it did welcome that diplomatic one. Beijing lauded the meeting of the two leaders earlier this month in keeping with its relatively new policy of encouraging more stability in South Asia. It’s a move brought on largely by the U.S. slow withdrawal from Afghanistan and its pending pivot to Asia. It’s a development Delhi is watching warily, but as Mohan wrote last week in the Indian Express, “As Delhi carefully scruntinzes Beijing’s new logic, it has every reason to welcome it.”

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