News of the Obama administration’s decision to sell Pakistan eight Block 52 F-16 C/D fighter jets for $700 million was met with dismay in Delhi. Technically, however, the announcement does not mean that the sale has been concluded. By law, the White House is required to inform the Legislature of its intent which then has 30 days to block or modify the decision. The last time a similar proposal was floated, barely five weeks ago, it was stalled in the US Congress when lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, questioned the White House’s policy to sell advanced weaponry to a state known to aid and abet terrorists.
The White House and the Pentagon have argued that the sale will enhance the Islamic Republic’s capability to fight terrorism by allowing its air force to operate in all-weather, non-daylight environments, sustain a greater operational tempo, and provide area suppression potential. Their story has few buyers: several influential leaders from across the political spectrum have written to the president expressing concern that the nuclear-capable F-16 is an obvious weapons platform against India and of much less utility against terrorists.
Pakistan already fields 76 F-16s in its air force. In February 2014, it purchased 13 of the fighter jets from Jordan with Washington’s tacit blessings: US military exports policy prevents recipients of US equipment from selling arms to third parties without approved end user certificates. In essence, the United States possessed a veto over Jordan’s sale of F-16s but did not use it. Islamabad has also been upgrading its older versions of the fighter jet with help from Turkey.
Eight new planes would buttress Pakistan’s aerial capabilities but not measurably alter its strategic balance vis-a-vis India. However, were this deal to be successfully concluded, it would have enormous symbolic value for Pakistan. At one stroke, it would negate much of the unfavourable publicity the country has received regarding its ties to international terrorism, illicit nuclear activities, and political volatility, replacing it with the image of a robust state with a modern military and the confidence of the world’s superpower.
India’s response to the whole affair has been predictable. It’s public expression of disappointment is just that, a formality it has performed every time the United States has given Pakistan military aid; a private admonishment delivered to US ambassador to India, Richard Verma, is unlikely to have much more potency either. Time and again, Delhi has exhibited an inability to sufficiently influence US policy towards South Asia enough to stem the flow of weapons to its regional rival. The timing of the sale, however, in the midst of an uptick in Indo-US relations, is certainly intriguing, especially so soon after rumours surfaced – though quickly quashed – that the United States was considering offering the South Asian irritant a civil nuclear cooperation deal similar to the one it had offered India in 2005.
Nonetheless, Delhi’s role in furthering the United States’ myopic policies towards South Asia must also be acknowledged. Whatever may have been the differences between the two countries during the Cold War, the years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and India’s economic liberalisation has undeniably seen a significant convergence of interests. Unfortunately, substantial segments of Indian society – bureaucrats, outdated politicians, ‘intelligentsia’ – still prefer to get their endorphin rush from moral grandstanding than a pragmatic pursuit of national interests. For all the talk of warmer Indo-US relations, the two countries are like awkward teenagers at a Formal.
Historically, the United States has shown that its foreign policy is amenable to reason given the appropriate incentives. In the late 1950s, the Eisenhower administration grew closer to Pakistan as the South Asian state joined a series of American-led defence pacts and began receiving military assistance from Washington. This was largely influenced by Pakistan’s vital role in US reconnaissance efforts over the Soviet Union and China and its sideshow insurgency in Tibet. In the late 1960s, when Islamabad’s utility had diminished, Lyndon Johnson did not hesitate to impose sanctions on his ally during the Second India-Pakistan War in 1965. Yet within a few years, when Pakistan emerged as the preferred conduit for secret negotiations with Mao Zedong, the United States was willing to overlook one of the gravest genocides of the latter half of the 20th century. This pattern repeats itself twice in Afghanistan, once during the Soviet invasion when Washington looked the other way on Islamabad’s nuclear programme and again after militants attacked the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11.
In contrast, India maintained its “strategic autonomy” from the United States and did not make common purpose with Washington even on issues that most concerned Indian security. As a result, its usefulness to the United States remains only theoretical and therefore a second-class relationship albeit with plenty of pleasing revisionist rhetoric about shared values and a multipolar global order in the 21st century.
Of the many disagreements between India and the United States. three issues involving regional security are Delhi’s role in bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan, the alphabet soup of military agreements that facilitate closer operation of the Indian and American armed forces, and a greater role for India in the regional security commons. On the first issue, India has preferred the sanctimonious high ground even as its advantages in the post-Taliban Afghanistan slip away; an ideological holdover from the Nehruvian era seems to be preventing bureaucrats and politicians from mutually augmenting military capabilities on the second item, and on the third point, India is pretending to go it alone for no discernible reason.
It might be argued that Delhi is trying to avoid over-dependence on the United States, but this cautious approach was nowhere in evidence when over 70 per cent of the Indian armed forces were supplied by the Soviet Union. Notwithstanding, India should not work itself into a situation whereby it finds its options constrained by an American veto but there is no danger of this at present engagement levels.
India’s commitment to regional security, be it in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, or in Afghanistan, must also be a reflection of its capabilities. While it may be desirable for Delhi to take a more pro-active role in its region, the fact is that the country’s military capabilities simply do not presently support this broader view of security after decades of being assured that only a “kleinindische Lösung” would be pursued.
Were Delhi to jettison its quaint residual anti-Americanism, there is a much greater chance that it would find in the United States a much better partner for a Pax Indica. The country’s political structure, history, and economic interests are not seen as a threat in Southeast Asia and some states would no doubt welcome the development of Indian power in the region. With a greater role in regional security and a larger economy will come greater engagement and more influence with the United States; finally, Delhi may be able to have its concerns heard in Foggy Bottom. Until then, as long as India remains an undecided bystander in regional geopolitics (even at the cost of its own national interests), the United States will be forced to seek willing if imperfect partners that further its goals in the region and there will be further sales of F-16s and other equipment over India’s objections.
This post appeared on FirstPost on February 15, 2016.