Australia and India are emerging great powers that are the core of the Indo-Pacific strategic architecture, yet they do not have as strong bilateral ties as history, culture, politics, common threats and interests would suggest. In this collaborative essay with an Indian journalist, we explore some of the issues involved in their incipient strategic relationship, along with the prospects for closer ties in the near future.
So let’s get this straight: North Korea attempts to launch a ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and the international community goes ballistic, claiming it is a serious provocation that has grave consequences for regional and world peace. The UN condemns the launch and humanitarian assistance is suspended in retaliation for it. The North Koreans, who have twice tried to detonate an underground nuclear device with only partial success, fail yet again with their missile test (the booster misfired three minutes into the test flight and fell harmlessly into the Yellow Sea where it undoubtably is the object of foreign salvage efforts). In doing so they confirm that they are a considerable ways off from posing a nuclear-armed ballistic missile threat to anyone. That does not mean that they are not paranoid, bellicose and dangerous, but if that is the criteria by which states are measured than pretty much anytime the US has a Republican president it should be subject to UN sanctions and international boycotts.
A week after the North Koreans embarrassed themselves with that fizzle launch (the best technical term for the mishap that I have read is “projectile dysfunction”), the Indians did it right. They successful tested a ballistic missile with a range of 5000 kilometers that is designed to carry a nuclear warhead. The range of the missile means that it can strike targets in Europe and Central China. It is, in a phrase, a full-fledged Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). The Indians, of course, are already a nuclear capable state, having successfully conducted dozens of tests both above and below ground. Like the North Koreans, India shares a “hot” border with a long-term adversary, Pakistan, that is also nuclear-equipped (the North Koreans are confronted by nuclear-armed US troops as well as South Korean conventional forces). It has fought conventional wars with Pakistan and border skirmishes are fairly common. And yet the international community has remained placidly silent about what is a clear message of aggressive intent on the part of the Indians.
Why the hypocrisy? If the international community is really serious about nuclear non-proliferation its should be condemning ALL ballistic missile testing. If that seems unreasonable given that the boosters can also be used to launch satellites, then it is patently unreasonable to froth about the North Korean test and ignore the Indian one (and the latter was not construed as anything but a military application). The hard truth is that the Non-Proliferation Treaty is a porous joke that is enforced–and I use that word very loosely– selectively against a few pariah states such as Iran and North Korea but not against others. Nor does it do anything to disarm nuclear-capable states. What reductions in nuclear arsenals have occurred have happened as the result of bilateral negotiations rather than within the framework of the NPT.
I am not a fan of the Kim regime in North Korea. I cannot say I am too enthused about Iran acquiring a nuke. But I understand fully why they attempt to do so. Nuclear weapons are designed to be deterrents, and if that fails to be used as a response to aggression by military superior forces or in the face of imminent conventional defeat. Given their circumstances and the balance of forces in with they operate, North Korea and Iran are eminently rational in their pursuit of that deterrent, as is India even if its threat environment is not as dire (after all, ongoing low-level cross-border clashes with Pakistan cannot be considered to be in the same league as having hostile US carrier task forces and large ground-based contingents just off-shore and across the border) .
That makes the hypocrisy of the international community all the more salient. India is no more and no less rational a state actor than Iran or North Korea. It has interests that it seeks to advance via military capability as well as diplomatic and economic means. Iran and North Korea do not have the diplomatic and economic weight of the Indians–far from it–so they emphasize the military aspect of their defenses. That includes rhetorical broadsides that are designed for domestic consumption and to demonstrate resolve to potential adversaries.
I would think that if the international community was serious about stopping the Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons development programs it would start by moving to enact restrictions on all ballistic missile testing that is not clearly designed for satellite launching purposes. It could also work a bit harder, within the NPT, to reduce extant nuclear arsenals in places like India, Pakistan, Israel and the great powers. Readers will undoubtably think “that is never going to happen,” and they would be right. But is that is the case, then it is unreasonable to expect that Iran and North Korea stop their ambitions with regard to producing an indigenous nuclear deterrent. They may not conform to international standards of behavior as defined (mostly) but the West, but they are eminently justified, on realist-deterrence grounds, to pursue that option.
Interestingly, that champion of nuclear non-proliferation, New Zealand, has been silent about the India ICBM test even though it condemned the North Korean launch. I get the feeling that under the current government NZ righteousness with regard to non-proliferation is inversely proportional to the possibilities of securing or maintaining a trade deal with states engaging in such testing. Thus, with regard to India there is silence. With regard to Iran there are meek pleas for “cooperation” with the IAEA. And with regard to North Korea there is a chorus of boos no doubt in part occasioned by the fact that South Korea enjoys a favored bilateral trade status with NZ whereas North Korea does not.
It is said that diplomacy is the art of disguising hypocrisy and self-interest in moral-ethical appeal. When it comes to the issue of nuclear proliferation, it seems that particular costume has worn threadbare thin even in places like NZ.
PS: And sure enough, true to form, Pakistan responded to the Indian test with one of their own. So there you have it: two nuclear armed states sharing a border that have fought conventional wars with each other and which continue to maintain a simmering territorial dispute that has involved the use of unconventional armed proxies sequentially test multi-stage long range boosters that are clearly designed to carry nuclear warheads. One of the countries is a major source of armed violent extremism and a safe haven to militants of various stripes. The international community remains silent.