May 4, 2001


 Search the Internet
E-Mail this column to a friend

Print this page
Recent Columns
The Clinton shadow
     over India
An irreparably
     damaged PM
Setting Agni on
     Li Peng's tail
The People's Liberation
     Army is the main
     obstacle to a stable
     relationship with
Clinton's parting gift
     to Asia

Brahma Chellaney

The Bush Advantage

US President George W Bush's publicly announced plan to push ahead with defences against nuclear missiles reflects his administration's unilateralism to assertively advance national interests and add muscularity to policy. From repudiation of the Kyoto Protocol to the readiness to abrogate the 29-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Bush team is signalling America's intent to utilise its global pre-eminence to full advantage.

Bush's presentation of an ambitious National Missile Defence plan involving a triad of land, sea and air defences should not come as a surprise. Just the way Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government conducted nuclear tests in keeping with his coalition's pre-election nuclearisation pledge, Bush has agreed to do what he had committed to do during the presidential campaign. But just as India's tests came as a shock to many, Bush's NMD plan has jolted and dismayed a number of world capitals.

India's positive reaction to Bush's missile defence plan and his call for a broad strategic rethinking of the role of nuclear deterrence does not appear impulsive and hasty, contrary to what critics say. Rather, it seems like a product of a larger understanding or deal with the Bush team.

This is evident not only from Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage's visit to New Delhi next week, but also from the more significant trip to India towards the end of this month by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry H Shelton. Moreover, the Bush administration appears set to lift some important sanctions against India, including in the military and space fields, raising the possibility of New Delhi buying American weapon systems.

India's subtle endorsement of NMD -- one of the few nations to openly back the plan -- has certainly opened new opportunities for co-operation with the United States, even as it has embarrassed India's traditional friend, Russia, and riled foe China. The timing of the Indian statement on NMD was unfortunate, as it came on the eve of the Russian foreign minister's important visit to New Delhi.

Russia will always remain a natural ally of India. But while India has to revive its sagging relationship with Moscow, those ties cannot come in the way of building an Indo-US strategic partnership -- a partnership critical both for Indian security and Asian stability.

India's positive response to the NMD plan has clearly been driven by a careful consideration of India's options and long-term interests. India has to make the best of a bad situation. Its largest neighbour, China, will use NMD to further build up its already expanding nuclear and missile arsenals. With or without NMD, India's security will be adversely affected by the growing Chinese armouries and Beijing's continued nuclear and missile transfers to Pakistan. But with NMD, India will be squeezed further as China will have a justification to further accelerate its build-up and flout international norms and conventions.

So what can India do in such circumstances? Should India abandon its plans to build a nuclear deterrent force at very modest levels and begin building up its capabilities? Or should it look at other options?

Few can mistake Bush's single-minded dedication to build an NMD as a shield against intercontinental ballistic missiles as well as to construct a theatre missile defence system in East Asia for limited-area protection against shorter-range missiles. Potentially, America could arm itself with the capacity to both unleash a first strike and protect itself from retaliation, upsetting the balance of nuclear terror.

Bush's plans will change the concept and practice of deterrence -- a traditionally offence-based posture that aims to retain a balance between mutual vulnerabilities. So far, deterrence has been pivoted on the premise that 'if you hit me, I'll hit you back in a manner that you'll regret.' NMD threatens to change that to: 'I can hit you, but you can't hit me back, so you better behave.'

In terms of focus, NMD symbolises a shift from offence to defence. Without offence being given up, deterrence is to be constructed on the principles of defence to calculatingly tilt the balance between mutual vulnerabilities in favour of one side.

Unfortunately for India, it is has to face these emerging changes even before it has put in place a fully operational deterrent force. The biggest expansion of missile capabilities anywhere in the world is being done by China, which is building a new generation of solid-fuelled, multiple-warhead missiles, such as Dongfeng 31 and Dongfeng 41. These are precisely the kind of destabilising systems that the START 2 treaty seeks to eliminate. As US House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman has pointed out, China has deployed a large number of short-range missiles and 25 intermediate-range missiles with nuclear warheads in Tibet against India.

NMD and TMD carry serious implications more for China than for Russia. Unlike China, Russia's huge strategic nuclear force cannot be undercut. China has only two dozen US-reachable ICBMs, with the rest of its 500-odd nuclear weapons comprising shorter-range systems of consequence only to its neighbours like Japan, India and ASEAN states.

Any plan that can possibly contain China's growing power and arrogance should aid Indian interests. To see the Chinese rattled by US missile defences cannot but be a agreeable sight for India. The problem, however, is that China is likely to respond by going on a frenzied nuclear and missile build-up.

India's existing deterrent capabilities will be gravely undermined as China builds up its nuclear and missile armouries. The Sino-Indian asymmetry will increase to the extent that New Delhi will be compelled to initiate an ICBM program. Moreover, once China begins to build more sophisticated missiles armed with decoys and other penetration aids to neutralise TMD and NMD, it will have greater commercial motivations to recover some of the costs by selling Pakistan its older technologies.

India may have to arm its own missiles with decoys and other countermeasures. But it is inevitable that it will be attracted to missile defences and to potential collaboration with the United States.

NMD's potential benefits could help strengthen and expand US-led security arrangements. If NMD is seen to work, the United States could extend a "missile umbrella" to its allies the way it presently holds out a nuclear umbrella.

India, as a potential strategic partner of the United States, could avail of such benefits in a manner to reduce its burden of deterring burgeoning Chinese missile might. When nations as dispersed as Japan, Taiwan and Israel have expressed interest in defences against a potential missile attack, India has all the reason to seek co-operation in that field with the United States. In a world marked by rapid change, it is conceivable to think of a future India with its own nuclear force but under a US strategic missile-defence umbrella.

On balance, India thus is right to take a supportive view of Bush's missile defence plan. US missile defences will not threaten India's security but could yield potential benefits. The action-reaction cycle triggered by missile defences is likely to drive India closer to the United States.

Brahma Chellaney

Tell us what you think of this column