Hong Kong: Two decades after developed nations agreed to halt the proliferation of strategic missile technology, China and India are leading the most significant modernization of nuclear-capable ballistic missile and cruise missile forces in Asia since the Cold War, according to arms control analysts.

The growth in the sophistication and number of strategic missiles across the region in recent years, the analysts said, underscores the impotence of global missile nonproliferation initiatives and heightening risk of missile and nuclear force competition between major powers.

“We are on the cusp of a new level of strategic rivalry in the region," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, based in Washington, DC. “India and Pakistan are about to move beyond short- and intermediate- missile range capabilities. China too is slowly exploring more advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles."

A file photo of the launch of the Agni-111 missile

On April 12, just a week before the Missile Technology Control Regime marked its 20th anniversary, India carried out the first test of a developmental missile, monitored by navy ships in the Bay of Bengal. With the test of the missile, the Agni-III, Indian officials said they had confirmed a capability to deliver a nuclear or conventional warhead as far away as Beijing.

While the Indian missile test generated a brief flurry of news reports around the world, the anniversary of the 1987 missile nonproliferation initiative, established by the Group of Seven, passed days later with barely a mention.

“It has largely failed in its primary objectives," said Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu, an arms control analyst at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, referring to the nonproliferation initiative. “Everyone thinks their missiles are part of the solution. It’s the other guy’s missiles that are part of the problem."

Analysts said the ineffectiveness of missile control initiatives is most apparent in East and South Asia, where several countries are rapidly expanding arsenals of new types of ballistic and cruise missiles. Few countries in the region are signers to any of the international nonproliferation agreements aimed at inhibiting missile and missile-technology development and exports.

Leading the way in the development of new missiles are the region’s established nuclear powers—China, India and Pakistan—all of which have embarked on significant modernization of nuclear-capable missile forces to improve the range, precision and survivability of weapons. This will bolster the credibility of the nuclear deterrence of these countries in the coming years and underscore their growing strategic power.

But the region also has to contend with the missile ambitions of North Korea and Iran, which have for a number of years invested heavily in trying to acquire long-range ballistic missiles with mixed success. Last year, North Korea carried out an underground nuclear test, although it has yet to show it can mount a warhead on a missile. Iran is suspected of pursuing a nuclear weapons programme.

In addition, several Asian countries that do not have aspirations to join the nuclear club are looking to buy or develop their own conventional strategic missile capabilities, in particular cruise missiles able to strike at targets from distances of several hundred kilometres. The spread of cruise missiles has become an issue of increasing importance and grave concern on the nonproliferation agenda.

In both the indigenous development of ballistic and cruise missiles, India has emerged in recent years as a formidable power. It is also being looked to as a major supplier of state-of-the-art cruise missiles to friendly countries.

The importance of the Agni-III test in April would not have been lost on Beijing. Since they fought a border war in 1962, the two countries have established stable relations, despite the unresolved border issue.

The explicit purpose of the Agni-III, which has a range of 3,500km, or 2,200 miles, is to have the option of targeting Chinese cities and maintaining a policy of minimum nuclear deterrence. Indian defence experts say a second test firing of the Agni-III is expected before the year is out. India has also developed a generation of shorter-range missiles to target Pakistan.

Kapil Kak, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in New Delhi, said India’s armed forces are likely to add a submarine-launched ballistic missile to strategic nuclear forces in the coming decade.

Kak said India was discussing with Russia the possible loan of one or two nuclear submarines to build up technical and operational skills for the eventual domestic construction of a vessel.

Both the submarine-launched missile and the Agni programmes are “vital for the credibility of minimum nuclear deterrence," said Kak, a retired Indian Air Force vice-marshal.

India has separately developed a supersonic cruise missile, which Kak described as a “quantum jump" in cruise missile technology. Built by BrahMos Aerospace, a joint venture between India and Russia, it is capable of travelling at 2.8 times the speed of sound and has a range of 290km. By contrast, the US Tomahawk travels at subsonic speeds.

This year, Indian newspapers quoted Sivathanu Pillai, the BrahMos chief executive, as saying that 1,000 of the land-and-sea-launched missiles could be exported over a decade, with the first deal signed as early as December.

Malaysia and Indonesia have been cited as among the potential customers in Asia.

Military analysts said the significance of the BrahMos missile is that its supersonic speed makes the air defence systems on surface ships extremely vulnerable.

Aircraft carriers would be forced to operate much further back from potential conflict zones to stay out of missile range.

The Indians are not alone in the region in sharply improving missile technologies.

In the field of cruise missiles, China, Pakistan and Taiwan all have well-advanced indigenous development programmes.

At the end of August, Pakistan tested an air-launched cruise missile known as Ra’ad, or Thunder, with a range of 350km.

A statement issued by the Pakistani military said the missile was capable of carrying “all types" of warheads and had a stealth design to minimize radar detection. India plans an air-launched version of the BrahMos soon.