NEW DELHI – India is planning to test launch a new nuclear-capable missile that for the first time would give it the capability of hitting the major Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai.
The government has hailed the Agni-V missile, with a range of 3,100 miles, as a major boost to its efforts to counter China's regional dominance and become an Asian power in its own right. The test launch was slated to come as early as Wednesday evening, but Indian media said a delay was likely because of poor weather conditions.
"It will be a quantum leap in India's strategic capability," said Ravi Gupta, spokesman for India's Defense Research and Development Organization, which built the missile.
China is far ahead of India in the missile race, with intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching anywhere in India. Currently, the longest-range Indian missile, the Agni-III, has a range of only 2,100 miles and falls short of many major Chinese cities.
India and China fought a war in 1962 and continue to nurse a border dispute. India has also been suspicious of Beijing's efforts to increase its influence in the Indian Ocean in recent years.
"While China doesn't really consider India any kind of a threat or any kind of a rival, India definitely doesn't think in the same way," said Rahul Bedi, a defense analyst in New Delhi.
India already has the capability of hitting anywhere inside archrival Pakistan, but has engaged in a splurge of defense spending in recent years to counter the perceived Chinese threat.
The Indian navy took command of a Russian nuclear submarine earlier this year, and India is expected to take delivery of a retrofitted Soviet-built aircraft carrier soon.
The new Agni, named for the Hindi word for fire, is part of this military buildup and was designed to hit deep inside China, Bedi said.
Government officials said the missile should not be seen as a threat.
"We have a declared no-first-use policy, and all our missile systems, they are not country specific. There is no threat to anybody," Gupta said. "Our missile systems are purely for deterrence and to meet our security needs."
The launch window for the missile test, which is being conducted on Wheeler Island off India's east coast, opened Wednesday evening and closes Friday, Gupta said.
The Agni-V is a solid-fuel, three-stage missile designed to carry a 1.5-ton nuclear warhead. It stands 57 feet tall, has a launch weight of 50 tons and was built at a reported cost of $486 million (25 billion rupees). It can be moved across the country by road or rail.
"Agni-V is a game-changer and a technological marvel," V.K. Saraswat, scientific adviser to the defense minister, was quoted as telling The Hindu newspaper.
The missile could also be used to carry multiple warheads or to launch satellites into orbit.
The planned test comes days after North Korea's failed long-range rocket launch. North Korea said the rocket was launched to put a satellite into space, but the U.S. and other countries said it was a cover for testing long-range missile technology.
One Delhi-based Western diplomat dismissed comparisons with the international condemnation of North Korea's launch, saying that Pyongyang was violating U.N. Security Council resolutions requiring it to suspend its missile program, while India is not considered a global threat. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on India's security affairs.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States urges all nuclear-capable states to exercise restraint regarding nuclear capabilities.
"That said, India has a solid non-proliferation record," he told a news briefing. "They're engaged with the international community on non-proliferation issues."
Even if India's test is deemed a success, the missile will need four or five more trials before it can be inducted into India's arsenal at some point in 2014 or 2015, Bedi said.
Some reports characterized the Agni-V as an intercontinental ballistic missile -- which would make India one of the few countries to have that capability -- but Gupta and analysts said its range fell short of that category.
India has no need for such sophisticated weapons, said Rajaram Nagappa, a missile expert and the head of the International Strategic and Security Studies Program at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore.
"I don't think our threat perceptions are anything beyond this region," he said.