New Delhi: As states grow stronger, they ought sensibly to become quieter about their strategic intents and capabilities. State strength is measured by capability. Intent and the focus of strategic capability need not be made explicit. The party or parties against who the capability is directed would get the message long before the intent is spelt. Making intent explicit often produces avoidable and basically unproductive disequilibrium. The explication of intent adds to the disequilibrium already produced by enhanced strategic capability. If this added disequilibrium is unintended, then the resultant aggregation can become tricky to handle. When applied to the realm of nuclear weapons and long-distance missile platforms, these matters become the more sensitive and carry greater risks of misunderstanding.

This writer has been vastly distressed by Indian media jingoism of the Agni V tests. The media has exulted that the northernmost part of China is now within range of Indian nuclear missiles. The government has not encouraged this jingoism. Indeed, the Union Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, ducked questions about the Agni V tests at a public commemoration of the Bangladesh War victory. The media, however, has been relentless. Where the government may be faulted is in not urging restraint on the part of the media.

Being a totalitarian state, China does not have a sophisticated understanding of the role and position of the media in a democracy. For long, it has assumed media commentary and analysis (including some articles published in this magazine) to be fed by the government or at least being reflective of its views. It has failed to grasp that the Indian media can often take an independent line, with sensationalism providing its own various motives and justifications.

Against this backdrop, it was inevitable that China would take the jingoism of the Indian media seriously, and so it has. Some hours prior, China put out a threatening statement of its own, and it said, “We have noted reports on India’s test fire of Agni V ballistic missile. The UN Security Council has explicit regulations on whether India can develop ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.” It went on to say, “China always maintains that preserving the strategic balance and stability in South Asia is conducive to peace and prosperity of regional countries and beyond.” The reference to “strategic balance and stability in South Asia” is China’s way of hyphenating India and Pakistan and keeping India boxed in as a mediocre middle power in South Asia.

There is nothing really shocking about China’s stand. Equally, China’s position on India does not necessarily make it true. The point this writer is trying to make is a little different. Why gratuitously provoke a strategic competitor? Why not use the space and latitude available to India to develop missiles of longer range and larger payload capacity than Agni V? Why define the enemy by identification? Why not define it by capability? The Indian government has, of course, effectively riposted China on Agni V. But the Chinese-Indian communication duel should underline the harm of Indian media jingoism. Deterrence is a serious matter. Serious nuclear powers do not talk loosely. This is a lesson India should permanently learn.

That said, the entire deterrence matter should be addressed rationally. The fact is that beyond a point, the size of India’s deterrent against China will cease to matter. China is not insane to ever want to start a nuclear war with India and neither is India. Nuclear weapons are no longer possessed by states with an object to use and this includes Pakistan. At the same time, deterrence cannot and will not end strategic competition. China and India will continue to be rivals in the foreseeable future whatever the size and extent of their rivalrous deterrent. This strategic equation will apply to Pakistan as well. There are no easy solutions available to contentions between states even in the nuclear age.

In other words, there is no silver bullet available to India to counter China. Probably, the government realizes this better than the media but there is no harm reinforcing this truth with repetition. The Cold War rivalry between the United States and Soviet Russia amply demonstrates that victory is neither clear cut nor easily won and requires great strategic articulation and execution. As brilliant as George Kennan’s containment strategy was, it stretched America’s powers to the limit, and often subverted Kennan’s core moral aesthetics. Nuclear weapons and strategic rivalry are serious business. Let this country not reduce it to simple-minded and idiotic jingoism.