India has China in its rangeNEW DELHI - Even as India celebrates the successful test-firing on Thursday of its home-grown Agni-III intermediate-range ballistic missile - capable of delivering a 1.5-tonne nuclear or conventional payload over much of Asia - officials admit that the test had the tacit approval of the United States.
The US is striving to build India as a strategic counterweight to China, along with Japan and Australia.
Last May, during a period of frenzied negotiations on a civilian nuclear deal with Washington, New Delhi postponed testing of the Agni-III so as not to invite the ire of nuclear hawks in the US Congress, which was deliberating the nuclear pact that now stands approved.
According to reports last year, Washington put pressure on New Delhi to agree to a future moratorium on testing of dual-use missile technology that could be used to deliver a nuclear payload and testing another atomic bomb as a quid pro quo for the civilian nuclear deal.
India, however, rejected such a commitment as a back-door entry to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. India has not signed the CTBT as it feels that the treaty came into existence after those who possessed nuclear weapons had developed the know-how.
Strategic equations have obviously changed now, with a combination of business interests, India's record as a responsible democratic nation, and the China factor coming into play.
Agni-III, given its range of 3,000 kilometers, has been specifically designed to build a minimum nuclear deterrence against China, with cities such as Beijing and Shanghai very much in the radar. Agni-III is said to possess a high degree of accuracy with a medium-to-large nuclear payload.
Beijing reacted immediately to the Indian firing, saying it hoped that India, "as a country with an important influence in this region, can work to maintain and promote peace and stability in the region". Indian officials have said Agni-III is not China-centric, but an effort to build overall security.
India, of course, has traditional rival Pakistan already covered via its Agni-I (700-800km range) and Agni-II (2,000km-plus range) missiles that are now being inducted into the armed forces. As per the agreed norms, New Delhi informed Islamabad about Agni-III prior to the test.
Not to be undone, Pakistan, with help from China and North Korea, is in the process of inducting the nuclear-capable Shaheen-II missile, tested for the first time in March 2004, which can strike Indian targets over a range of 2,000km.
Apart from gaining more security muscle in the region, the success of Agni-III is significant on other counts. The maiden test of Agni-III failed last July 9, so Indian scientists had to work on the technical glitches.
The Agni is one of five missiles that have been developed by India. The others are the short-range surface-to-surface Prithvi, the surface-to-air Trishul (Trident), the multi-purpose Akash (Sky) and the anti-tank Nag (Cobra) missile.
It would seem that India is also now reasonably sure of its acceptance as a nuclear exception among the global community that will allow it to purchase nuclear fuel and technology from the international market. Indian efforts have now moved to turning around nations that form part of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), with success on this count. India needs approval from the NSG so that it can implement its nuclear agreement with the US.
Heavyweights France, the United Kingdom and Canada have already backed the deal. The business potential and diplomatic efforts have had important countries such as China and Australia rethink their approach. Those two countries have hinted that they will not be averse to doing nuclear business with India. Russia has already chalked out its nuclear-power engagement with India.
South Africa and Brazil have been co-opted by promises of New Delhi's support in securing business deals and expertise in software and information technology.
Japan has been difficult, but Indian officials are sure that given the massive business opportunities, especially in software to upgrade Japanese companies, and extensive diplomatic efforts, Japan will come around and has already considerably softened its stand. Tokyo is pretty much clued into a US-India-Japan "axis of democracy" to counter the might of China.
Thus the timing of the Agni-III test seems to be right. Politically, the Congress-led New Delhi government has been criticized for being feeble to India's internal and external security threats, because of repeated terrorist attacks and the need to tread carefully in dealing with Beijing.
Given the ongoing detailed negotiations on the nitty-gritty of the nuclear pact with the US as well the benefits of nuclear power that will flow in times to come, it was only prudent for New Delhi to gain a few political points given the immediacy of electoral politics.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the success of the Agni-III missile is an "impressive illustration" of India mastering the strategic high technologies to uphold national security.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.