India shouldn’t get provoked by Pakistan’s conventional defence acquisitions

ARMS BAZAAR: Like India can’t be tied to any country, Russia’s desire to sell arms to Pakistan should be seen as an attempt to increase its customer base

by Vivek Katju

In an interview to a Russian news agency last April, Khurram Dastigir Khan, the then Pakistan’s defence minister, expressed his country’s desire to acquire a ‘wide range of Russian weapons technology’. He particularly focused on T-90 tanks and said ‘it is not going to be a one-time purchase but it is going to be a long-term commitment’. Eight months later, Indian ‘military and intelligence’ sources told PTI that Pakistan ‘has drawn up a mega plan to procure more than 600 modern battle tanks’. While 220 tanks would be made in Pakistan with Chinese help, 360 tanks, including the T-90, would be purchased from ‘leading global manufacturers’.

Clearly, one of the purposes of the ‘military and intelligence’ sources was to draw attention to the ‘modernisation of the Army’s armoured corps’ moving ahead only at a ‘snail’s pace’. By comparing it with Pakistan’s ambitious plans, the ‘sources’ obviously hope that the powers that be will impart greater energy in fulfilling the Army’s needs so that India’s superiority in conventional force levels with Pakistan is maintained. Other important implications of these reports relate to growing Pakistan-Russia ties, including in the defence sector, and their potential impact on India. Should Indian security managers be concerned? Before that query is addressed, a quick look at what has occurred in the Pakistan-Russia relationship over the past few years.

Pakistan-Russia ties have moved ahead in a positive direction from 2012 when a gradual but intensifying process of regular and serious political and military interaction began between the two countries. It has included the foreign ministers and the army chiefs of both countries. The intensification of bilateral ties in the economic and military sectors led Russia to overcome its previous inhibitions in the area of defence equipment supplies to Pakistan. Consequently, it sold four MI-35 Hind attack helicopters to the Pakistan army. In view of India’s decades-long and close defence relationship with Russia, this was a significant move; Russia would have obviously factored in Indian unhappiness at the development.

Apart from bilateral ties, Pakistan and Russia have been discussing the Afghanistan situation and over the past couple of years have found common ground. This constitutes a dramatic reversal in the positions of the two countries, all through the 1980s, Pakistan, as the staging ground for the Afghan jihad, was a principal factor in the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan. Later, in the 1990s, Russia’s view on the Taliban and its expansion was at odds with that of Pakistan. Indeed, Russia materially supported the anti-Taliban forces. Now both countries have similar views on the Afghanistan issue. Russian officials are publicly asserting that Pakistan is playing a positive role in Afghan affairs. There are also credible reports of Russia helping the Taliban. All this is supposedly out of fear of ISIS’ growing footprint in Afghanistan.

At this stage of its domestic development and when it has begun to be counted as an emerging global power, despite its numerous problems, India’s national interests demand that it meaningfully engages all major powers but not be influenced by any. It is in this light that India needs to evaluate its ties with each of these powers. Hence, the need to make it clear that their mutual quarrels, including the imposition of mutual sanctions, will be disregarded in India’s decision-making. Naturally, the application of this principle would require agile diplomatic navigation and management of contradictions.

Indian interests require a continuing and vibrant relationship with Russia in the critical areas of defence, space and civil nuclear energy. There are also important economic sectors such as hydrocarbons, where cooperation with Russia is in line with India’s interests. The recent agreement for the purchase of S-400 air defence systems, despite the threat of US sanctions, is a step in the right direction. Naturally, Russia has also to understand that India would acquire high technology and its products, including in sectors where it sources some of them from Russia, from any country it deems fit. It cannot be tied to any one country.

The desire of Russia to sell defence equipment to Pakistan is an attempt to get more buyers for its defence products. As defence supplies have strategic aspects and are not ordinary sales, it would be appropriate for India to indicate strategic and security difficulties which may arise for India from Russian sales of some defence products to Pakistan. This is obviously because of Pakistani adversarial postures against India. In such cases, it would be natural for India to expect Russia to take Indian concerns into account.

India’s superiority over Pakistan in conventional forces is substantial. (The Pakistani challenge comes from terrorism.) It should not be therefore overly concerned by Pakistan getting defence systems from Russia that it can source from other countries. In any event, its main defence and strategic partner is China and this will continue to be so. The Sino-Pak nexus, getting stronger with CPEC, is the main source of India’s strategic difficulties.

At the global level, the convergence between China and Russia is getting strengthened. India is keeping its links open with the group, as was witnessed during the India-China-Russia summit on the margins of the G-20 meeting in Argentina. India is also associated with the two countries in BRICS and SCO groupings. At the same time, the first India-US-Japan summit, also on the margins of the G-20 meeting in Buenos Aires, was a significant indication of India’s growing importance in the Indo-Pacific region. The major powers want to make India part of their respective groups indicating its emerging status. In such a situation, it should not get provoked by Pakistani conventional defence acquisitions; that country is no longer in its league.