Sending messages through missiles was a feature of the Cold War that had divided the world along ideological lines since the end of World War II till the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991.
Many were the treaties — the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty(SALT) and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to name a few — through which both the United States and the Soviet Union tried to neutralize the threats to each other from the missiles they possessed.
Superpower talks aimed at averting another major war became imperative, especially after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis that brought the world to the brink of a nuclear apocalypse.
Even after the end of the Cold War, one of the main contentious topics in any US-Russian summit is the missiles which are capable of reaching any part of each other's territory. Though the two countries have agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenal and nuclear-weapon compatible missiles, Moscow was disturbed by US moves to set up anti-missile missile systems in the Czech Republic and Poland — Russia's backyard countries which switched allegiance to the United States after the end of the Cold War. Although Washington has said it has abandoned its missile defence projects in eastern Europe, Russia apparently does not want to take any chances. In December last year, it test fired a short-range missile interceptor and is developing a gigantic 100-ton Ballistic missile capable of crossing the Atlantic.
While these developments do not augur well for world peace, an equally disturbing missile politics is besetting South Asia. A week after India test-fired its Agni V — its longest-range nuclear-capable missile, which can travel more than 5,000 kilometers — Pakistan on Wednesday responded by test-firing an updated version of its medium-range nuclear-capable Shaheen-I missile with a trajectory extending up to 650 kilometres. The two missile tests carried powerful messages.
While India's message was addressed to China, the destination of Pakistan's message was India. Agni V, dubbed by sections of the Indian media as "China Killer", can now reach Beijing and Shanghai. Agni means fire in Hindi.
India's new status as the latest member in the 5,000 km missile club — the other members of the club are the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Israel — has sent an indirect message to Pakistan that New Delhi no longer treats Islamabad as the threat number one. However, Islamabad's message to New Delhi was that India may possess 5,000 km missiles, but Pakistan's missiles are capable of reaching the Indian capital and beyond. Pakistan's missile message to India also seems to convey, "You may try to become a superpower, but we will try to maintain a rough parity with you."
With whatever threat from nuclear-power Pakistan being well taken care of, India now focuses on moves to neutralize the threat from China, whose growing military strength is sending shudders even down Washington.
The previous US administrations under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush pursued a strategy of promoting India as a monolith against the growing Chinese threat. The Barack Obama administration is continuing the same policy though initially it believed in open engagement rather than secret confrontations with China.
Thus it was no surprise when the United States, which two weeks ago slammed North Korea's botched missile test, endorsed India's latest missile test. The endorsement came at a news conference where State Department spokesman Mark Toner said India had a solid nonproliferation record and "no first use" policy on nuclear weapons.
China, which shares a 3,500 km-long border with India and which fought a border war with India in 1962, played down the Agni V test and described India as "not a competitor but a partner", though the Chinese media scoffed at the 50-ton projectile as a dwarf missile and questioned its accuracy and mobility. Perhaps, such mockery stems from China's ability to send its ballistic missiles to a target 10,500 km away and submarine-based missiles to a target 2,500 km away.
Despite this disparity, the Agni launch signals that India, a growing economic power, is apparently preparing for a superpower role with a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council in a fast-approaching multi-polar world. But the price it will have to pay is huge. The missile race is not going to stop at India's Agni or Pakistan's Shaheen. It is going to escalate amidst an Asia-wide arms race in which countries such as South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia are increasing their defence expenditure and rushing to enhance their defence capabilities, largely to counter China's growing military strength.
According to the latest report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the world's military spending continued to grow last year despite economic recessions and austerity measures. The cuts, of course, came in the allocations for education, health care, housing and other social services. Take for instance Greece, despite its near bankruptcy, it is reported to have placed orders worth billions of euros for Leopard tanks from Germany and Eurofighter aircraft from a consortium controlled by Germany, Britain, Spain, Italy and Austria. No wonder, Germany has become the biggest player in Greece's bailout deals.
In Asia, China which has the world's second biggest military budget, spent more than US$ 143 billion last year on weapons and has vowed to increase its military growth by a double digit in the coming years. India, according to SIPRI, spent US$ 49 billion last year or more than 2.5 percent of its GDP, thus becoming the seventh in the world in military spending and the third in Asia after China and Japan. Pakistan's defence budget was around US$5.1 billion or 2.8 percent of its GDP, and it is seeking to increase the defence budget in an attempt to keep up with its giant neighbour India, thus not allocating enough money to improve health and education sectors. Even India's huge defence expenditure comes at the cost of some 500 million people living below the poverty line.
But search for pride and parity of status appears to supersede the need to improve social welfare. In this self-destructive search, some countries survive for some time while others find the sick bed early if not death.