The term “arms race” might seem a bit archaic at first glance. After all, the quest for bigger bombs and missiles with longer range was the mechanism that made MAD, or mutually assured destruction, a real possibility. Yet the notion of an arms race is not just an ancient relic, a throwback to a time when grade-schoolers practiced huddling under desks and the Commies were our arch-nemesis. The arms race is alive and well.
Last week, India announced that it had successfully tested a missile with a range that put Shanghai within reach. Called the Angi V, it can hit targets in a 5,000 kilometer radius.
Now why would India do this? One obvious reason is to establish a sense of parity with China. Now China has made no secret of its desire to become a major military power. In recent years, it has announced double-digit increases in military expenditures, tested advanced tactical jets and beefed up its navy. Whatever China’s intentions may be, they have India glancing warily at the creeping sphere of Chinese influence. This missile is one way for India to push back.
India is not alone in reacting in a less-than-positive way toward Chinese ambitions. Burma, now Myanmar, has turned strongly toward the West and away from its Chinese patron over the last year — an outcome that has surprised many international observers. Vietnam is conducting navy exercises with the West this week. Countries in the region, while not openly clamoring for an increased American military presence, certainly didn’t complain when President Obama announced a renewed commitment to maintaining strength in the Pacific.
So India’s missile test heralds the beginning of an Asian arms race, yes, but it also reflects the underlying wariness of other Asian countries to the prospect of a dominant China. However, India’s test also brings other issues into play.
The first is the issue of Pakistan. Long bitter enemies, it probably won’t be long till Pakistan tests its own long-range missile in an effort to match India’s capabilities. The prospect of two nuclear-armed neighbors with long-range missiles who also happen to be rivals with a history of armed conflict is not a pretty one.
Another issue is the ongoing efforts to negotiate with Iran. Why shouldn’t Iran say, “Well, hey, if India can acquire these weapons, why can’t we?” An extension of this argument might be,
“Well, hey, if India and Israel and (insert nuclear-armed country here) can have nuclear weapons, why can’t we?” And, quite honestly, they would have a point. A distinction can be made about the fact that India is a democracy and Iran is not, and further that India is a less threatening, more stable country. Yet an arms race in Asia will certainly not help negotiations with the Iranians, and there’s a good chance it will hurt these efforts.
Finally, there’s the simple question of why a nation with close to 40 percent of its citizens living in poverty would want to be devoting enormous sums of money into an arms race. The idea that the best way to achieve parity is through weapons has plenty of holes. Wouldn’t the best way to maintain parity be to build a nation that has a burgeoning economy, a highly educated populace and a high standard of living? I don’t know about you, but spending all that money on, say, a better higher education system in India or an infrastructure program just seems like a better idea.
Of course, all this logic applies here in America, as well. We spend over $500 billion a year in defense-related expenditures. I’ll let you figure out all the other things we could be doing with that money (hint: one of them is reversing the gutting of our higher education system throughout the country).
So congratulations, India. You’ve managed to make the world that much less safe, all with one simple missile test. Talk about a big bang for your buck — no pun intended.
JONATHAN NELSON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.