The Arms Race Myth - NYTimes.com A handout photograph released by the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) shows a surface-to-surface Agni V missile being launched from the Wheeler Island off the Eastern State of Odisha, India, 19 April 2012. The test last Thursday of the Agni 5, Indiaâ€™s first missile capable of striking any part of China, was met with something approaching hysteria in the national media. The normally sober Hindu noted how the missile â€œlifted off majestically,â€ and the Hindustan cheered â€œJai Hindâ€ (Hail India!). Perhaps irked by this jingoism, the state-run Chinese media mocked the Agni as a â€œdwarf,â€ and warned that, â€œfor the foreseeable future, India would stand no chance in an overall arms race with China.â€ Itâ€™s fast becoming received wisdom that such a competition is underway. The New York Times, like others, reported the Agniâ€™s test as â€œthe latest escalation of an arms race in Asia.â€ The problem is that this term is being thrown around too loosely. It is fair to say that Chinaâ€™s expanding economic and military power has spooked its neighbors, many of whom are now moving closer to the United States or modernizing their own military. But Indiaâ€™s test of the Agni 5 was less about a race than about playing catch-up. Indiaâ€™s political and military leaders understand that they cannot sustain a true arms race with China. Arms races occur when rivals try and outdo each other for more or better weapons, in the belief that small relative advantages make big differences to security. Chinaâ€™s economy is about three to four times larger than that of India, and China spends around three times as much as India on arms. A decade from now, China will field more advanced fourth-generation combat aircraft than the total number of aircraft in the Indian Air Force. Given Indiaâ€™s slowing growth rate and the sheer scale of the gap with China, India has no choice but to accept its relative disadvantage and focus on mitigating some of its own vulnerabilities. In the context of its border dispute with China, which has flared up since 2005, and the strategic competition around the Indian Ocean, India is taking steps to counter a growing Chinese presence. China is not especially worried about what India is doing, nor taking military countermeasures. The Agni 5, of course, is more provocative because it is a nuclear missile aimed at China. Yet there, too, the gap between China and India is yawning. China has up to 90 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles â€“ India has none. India and China have both long held to a doctrine of â€œminimum deterrence.â€ Delhi and Beijing â€“ unlike, say, Pakistan or the United States â€“ view nuclear weapons strictly as tools for deterrence, only to be used in response to a nuclear strike. That requires nothing more than â€œsecond-strikeâ€ capability. Before the Agni 5, India did not have ballistic missiles with the range to make a â€œsecond strikeâ€ attack against Chinaâ€™s most important cities, Beijing and Shanghai. Now it does, which means the development of the Agni 5 jibes perfectly with Indiaâ€™s minimum-deterrence ethos. True, India has doubled the size of its nuclear arsenal over the past decade. But, despite its pretensions to great power status, India has been relaxed about having fewer weapons than Pakistan. Pakistan has leapt ahead, both in terms of the types and numbers of its nuclear weapons. But that isnâ€™t a race â€“ itâ€™s a lonely sprint. As the Manhattan Projectâ€™s director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, noted, â€œour twenty-thousandth bombâ€ will not â€œin any deep strategic sense affect their two-thousandth.â€ Of the Agni 5, the Hindustan Timesâ€™ foreign editor, Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, estimates that India will add, â€œat best, two such missiles to its arsenal every year.â€ This will have virtually zero impact on Chinaâ€™s retaliatory capacity. There is, therefore, no reason to suppose that Beijing will scramble to respond in the way that Washington and Moscow would have done in response to one another. Under these conditions, having more survivable and robust means of retaliation, like the Agni 5, can be stabilizing. Such missiles can be moved around by road or rail, which makes them less vulnerable than those in fixed silos. This enables India to shift away from less reliable and more trigger-happy delivery systems like aircraft. The more confident India feels in its ability to respond, the calmer it can be in handling crises. Of course, sobriety and stability are not guaranteed. China has understandable concerns about developments that could blunt its retaliatory capacity. One example is missile shields, which both India and other Asian counties are exploring. Another is MIRV technology that could be fitted to the Agni missiles. MIRVs refer to multiple accurate warheads that fit onto a single missile. India does not need them for deterrence, and they could slightly heighten Chinaâ€™s fears that its own weapons might be wiped out before they get off the ground. An open and sustained Sino-Indian conversation over such issues is necessary. But dark visions of arms races are alarmist, at a time when the Asian strategic balance is in quite enough flux.