South Asia's Cold War Heats Up as Pakistan Tests a Missile

April 6 launch of a missile able to reach much of India raises stakes for two rivals.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

An arms race between south Asia's two nuclear-armed neighbors, India and Pakistan, escalated another step this week, ringing alarm bells in Washington and elsewhere.

Pakistan test-fired its first medium-range missile April 6, the first demonstration of a weapon capable of penetrating 937 miles into India.

The name of the missile, "Ghauri," is not lost on India's new Hindu-led nationalist government. Ghauri is named after a 13th-century Muslim warrior who defeated a Hindu prince.

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The United States, which has long urged both India and Pakistan to restrain their missile programs, expressed its regret over the test.

India said the test was not "unexpected" and that it was "capable of dealing with the situation in Pakistan."

Both countries are believed to be capable of producing nuclear weapons. India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974. Pakistan, which has never tested a nuclear device, has a large nuclear research facility at Kahuta, which may have been the site of the test.

Last year, New Delhi decided to begin arming some of its military units with the "Prithvi" missile, which can reach 160 miles.

India's 'provocation'

Pakistani officials said they were prompted into launching the missile following what one described as "recent provocative statements" from the recently elected Indian government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

The BJP has made a commitment to re-evaluate India's nuclear weapons program, keeping open the option of declaring India a nuclear-weapons state, though it hasn't given a time frame.

History of wars

Pakistan has fought three wars with India in the half-century since it was created out of the partition of British India. Two of those wars were over the division of the Himalayan territory of Kashmir. A third of the predominantly Muslim Kashmir is controlled by Pakistan while the rest is under Indian control.

Thousands of people have been killed in an almost decade-long insurgency on the Indian side, which New Delhi says has continued due to weapons supplied to Muslim activists by Pakistan, a charge denied in the capital, Islamabad.

Almost a quarter of Pakistan's annual budget goes to national defense to maintain a half-million-strong military, which is glaring testimony to security fears.

A popular missile test

Most analysts said the April 6 launch would be well received at home where public opinion largely favors a strong defense.

The missile test "is a very appropriate response to the threat Pakistan faces, and I don't think there's anyone in Pakistan who would oppose it," said Nasim Zehra, a widely read columnist on security, in an interview.

Pakistan, which is about one-fourth the size of India, was quick to extend an olive branch, suggesting that it was willing to cooperate with any other country including India to work for peace in the region.

Tariq Altaf, Pakistan's foreign office spokesman, told journalists: "We are willing to go the extra mile to achieve regional peace and security."

He denied the Ghauri was specific to any country, adding, "We have developed this in terms of our own security needs...."

In the past, the United States has claimed China helped supply missile technology to Pakistan, a charge both countries deny.

After the missile test, opinion is divided over whether the two countries should resume a dialogue between senior officials that was effectively suspended last year.

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral had ordered the resumption of formal discussions between their foreign secretaries. But in recent months, the prospects for continued discussions have been diminished.

No warming in sight

Pakistani officials say that the BJP's hostile words, such as the recent statement on the nuclear issue, have made it almost impossible for Islamabad to foresee relations warming up any time soon.

One government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said: "If India, the bigger neighbor, continues with harsh words, it would be very difficult for us to consider resuming our dialogue."

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