Courting a pair of South Asia partners
Daily Times Monitor
NEW DELHI: Much was made on Friday of the Bush administration’s long-awaited announcement that it would sell F-16 fighter planes to Pakistan, initially about two dozen, ultimately an unspecified number, New York Times reported on Saturday.
But Washington needs both India and Pakistan, albeit for different post-Sept 11 purposes. So, less noticed on Friday, Washington also made India a valuable offer: the chance to shop from a broad menu of American fighter planes, including jets that could be built in India, the newspaper reported. The two offers spelled a fundamental shift in the American approach to nuclear South Asia, one that feeds a potentially dangerous arms race in a region rife with conflict.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1947, when they were violently separated at birth, and approached the brink of a fourth in 2002. Both were roundly criticized by the United States when they detonated their twin nuclear bombs in May 1998. Today, relations between the countries, always up and down, remain tense but promising.
Though the dispute over Kashmir remains unresolved, Indians and Pakistanis will be allowed to travel across Kashmir for the first time in a half-century when a much-touted bus service starts running April 7. There have been suggestions in recent days of an accord on the disputed Himalayan territory, the Siachen Glacier. Not least, Pakistan’s leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is scheduled to come to the Indian capital to watch the grand finale of the India-Pakistan cricket series later in April.
Washington is clearly banking on the improved relations, and it took pains on Friday to point out that it was not playing favorites. The administration appears not to want to insult either country; it needs Pakistan’s cooperation in fighting terrorism, and it sees long-term gains in a strategic partnership with India.
At the same time, India and the United States have competing interests on Iran. The United States seeks international unity in pressuring Iran to give up uranium enrichment for nuclear use, while India is keen to build a gas pipeline from Iran.
Pakistan, which has waited 15 years to buy the F-16’s, welcomed the Friday announcement, calling it a vindication of the close ties that its General Musharraf has built with the Bush administration since Sept. 11. The sale was announced even as many questions remain open about the nuclear black market run by AQ Khan.
Information Minister Sheik Ahmed Rashid, on state-run television early Saturday, saluted the sale, saying, “The credit goes to President Musharraf.”
Meanwhile, the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, expressed his “disappointment” with the F-16 sale to Pakistan, but then New Delhi is wont to denounce any military gains by its neighbor.
Early Saturday morning, an Indian Foreign Ministry statement enumerated the opportunities in Washington’s offer to New Delhi. For one, the statement pointed out, American defense companies will be allowed to sell India 126 “multirole combat aircraft,” including F-16’s and F-18’s.
India wants to manufacture at least some of those planes, something that the Bush administration has not ruled out.
“Long term, it would mean moving toward manufacturing here,” one American official said Saturday. “We want India to become a serious global power.”
India also pointed out that Washington had said it was willing to share nuclear technology for civilian use. With its vast appetite for energy, India badly wants nuclear reactors to generate power.
Indian-American military cooperation has expanded drastically in recent years. India increasingly buys American weapons, and joint exercises by the two militaries have become commonplace. If New Delhi ultimately takes up the American offer on fighter jets, it will be the first time India buys a major weapons platform from the United States. C. Raja Mohan, a defense specialist who teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University here, read Friday’s announcement by Washington as an endorsement of India’s strategic importance, not just vis-à-vis Pakistan but also as a weight to counter China’s growing military might. “It’s saying we want India to be strong,” he said. “The message to Beijing is quite strong. It’s not just a balance between India and Pakistan.”
The sale of the F-16’s to Pakistan is unlikely to significantly tilt the balance of power in South Asia, some analysts say. It would, however, allow both sides to claim Washington as an ally and to keep the rival in check. “Symbolically it is sort of a litmus test for the credibility of Pakistan’s relationship with the US,” said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and an analyst, in a telephone interview from Islamabad. “If we are genuinely allied to the U.S., it must also revive its sales of F-16’s.