New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - India's test firing of an intermediate range ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead up to 2,500 kilometers may escalate an arms race in Asia, analysts said on Friday.
The testing of Agni-II missile, which could reach targets deep inside China, was carried out a few hours before China's second most powerful leader, Li Peng, ended an official tour of India on Wednesday.
China is believed to collaborate with India's arch-rival, Pakistan, in its nonconventional weapons program.
"The Agni test signals India's determination to build strategic autonomy and deter China," said Brahma Challaney, a defense analyst with the Center for Policy Research.
"As Beijing further modernizes and develops cruise missiles, it will have continuing incentive to sell its older technologies to Pakistan so as to checkmate India and earn extra funding for research and development."
Challaney said President Clinton's decision to forgive China for its past missile exports was bound to embolden Beijing to continue playing its "proliferation card" against India.
Islamabad-based security expert, Riffat Hussain of Quaid-e-Azam University, said the tests would have an adverse impact on the regional climate and did "not augur well for the international concerns between India and Pakistan."
"The Agni-II testing is a precursor to the ultimate goal of acquiring ICMB capability," he said.
In its annual publication on proliferation, released last week, the Pengaton reports that: "New Delhi's ballistic missile program is extensive and indigenous, while Islamabad, driven by its perceived need to counter India's conventional superiority and nuclear capability, receives aid from abroad.
"During the last several years, Pakistan has received assistance in the production of nuclear weapons and missiles from both China and North Korea, which will help it attain goal of self-sufficiency."
The report said both India and China were expected to continue improving their nuclear and missile forces.
"In effect, the slow-speed Indo-Pak nuclear and missile arms race is underway, with consequences that are difficult to predict and potential for spill over beyond the sub-continent."
While both India and Pakistan maintain that they want to avoid war, the report said, "they could easily stumble into conflict by misinterpreting intentions or military postures along the international border" or because of military exchanges across the border between the two countries' territories in divided Kashmir.
Pakistan's foreign ministry said the test was part of India's "ambitious nuclear and missile program, which poses a direct threat to Islamabad's security and has been a matter of concern for the international community."
India's prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, said the missile test was aimed at ensuring national security and not targeted at any country.
"There is no threat to any country. Whatever steps we have taken, we have taken in self-defense. We have no aggressive designs," he told reporters.
Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes claimed the successful test-firing would not escalate the regional arms race in the region. "We see it as an effort to acquire a credible minimum deterrent needed for India's security."
India and Pakistan became the world's newest declared nuclear powers with tit-for-tat test detonations in 1998.
Both sides have refused to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, saying they need a "minimum deterrence" given the ongoing military dispute over Kashmir, a Himalayan territory divided between them in 1947 but still claimed by both. India and Pakistan had three times since independence gone to war, twice over Kashmir.
Secretary of State designate Colin Powell has told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the U.S. needs to "engage more broadly with India.
"We have to do what we can do to constrain their nuclear program at this time. We have to work harder and more consistently to assist India, while not neglecting our friends in Pakistan."
India's draft nuclear doctrine says the country needs to develop land, air and sea-based nuclear deliver platforms.
The Agni-II, launched from a mobile launcher, forms part of the land-based nuclear deterrent. The air force has multi-role fighters such as the Sukhoi-30 and Mirage-2000, capable of fulfilling an air-based nuclear role.
The Indian Navy is currently negotiating with Russia for the purchase of four Tu-22 long-range aircraft, known for their nuclear capabilities.