Pakistan has always been an albatross around our neck, and our effort to get rid of it is not helped by this F16 decision that Pakistan will read as giving it more political space in pursuing its animus towards India

by Kanwal Sibal

India and the US held their 2+2 Inter-sessional meeting on September 7, 2022 to follow up on the India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in April 2022, as well as the 5th India-US Maritime Security Dialogue on September 8. Coinciding with these meetings for continued coordination between the foreign and defence ministries of the two countries on issues of shared strategic interest, the US announced on September 8 a $435 million package for upgrading Pakistan’s F16s, in what seemed an uncoordinated messaging on an issue of great sensitivity to India.

Why cast a shadow on a meeting intended to move forward on a positive strategic agenda by simultaneously announcing a move that undermines it? Is it that this was done to tell India emphatically that the US has wider strategic interests in the region that extend to Pakistan and India’s concerns will not be given undue importance. Both the Assistant Secretaries in charge of India in the State Department and the Pentagon present in Delhi had obviously processed this decision on F16s and the timing of the announcement could not normally have been decided without their knowledge.

India is faced with serious security threats on land and sea by two hostile powers — Pakistan and China — closely linked strategically against India, both questioning Indian sovereignty and claiming its territory, and having a robust defence relationship extending also to the nuclear domain. The US is fully cognizant of the threats that China presents to both its own security and that of its allies in the western Pacific, as well as to India’s security.

Indeed, the threat to India on land far exceeds in scope China’s threat to any other country. China’s threat to the US is essentially maritime in scope, of limiting the exercise of US maritime power in areas adjacent to its land frontiers so that it can dominate the South China and East China Seas, change the balance of power in the region that comprises of Japan, South Korea and ASEAN, open the doors to annexation of Taiwan and the oceanic expansion of Chinese naval power. The US is physically thousands of miles away from China.

The US focus is primarily on the maritime domain, which responds also to India’s security interests in view of China’s maritime strategies in the Indian Ocean affecting also our immediate neighbourhood. A vital part of this maritime strategy are the two land-to-ocean corridors from the Chinese mainland to the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Pakistan is key to China’s maritime strategy, represented by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that culminates at Gwadar, and the almost inevitability of China establishing a naval base in Pakistan, which Myanmar is unlikely to allow despite being pushed by the West into China’s arms because of military rule and human rights issues.

It is in the context of India and the US examining the scope of those Indian security interests that both countries should cooperate to protect within the larger framework of their respective regional interests, which include US policies towards Pakistan and the linked issue of Afghanistan, that the announcement of bolstering Pakistan air capability against India strikes a discordant note. This is so especially in the wake of US abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban and leaving behind security issues for India to cope with.

The supply of F16s to Pakistan has rattled India-US relations for decades. The US is fully aware of India’s sensitivities on this score, as well as the fact that these planes have always been intended by Pakistan for use against India, proved once again by their operational deployment in 2019 when India struck Balakot. The Indian air operations were constrained at that time because of the range of the AMRAAMS the F16s carried, as admitted by our then Air Chief, a gap filled now by the acquisition of Rafales and the advanced missiles that they are equipped with.

The argument that these planes are intended for counter-terrorism purposes begs the question how a country that is an epicentre of terrorism itself, one that sheltered Osama bin Laden, provided safe havens to the Taliban, was deeply engaged in terrorism against India as well as through the Taliban against US forces in Afghanistan, can still be relied to do so. In any case, what is the utility of AMRAAMS against terrorists?

That the upgrades intended do not change the military balance in the region, as stated in the Stae Department’s release, suggests that the idea of “balancing” India and Pakistan has resurfaced in US diplomacy in the region. What is also being lost in this argument is what this US move adds in substance to the depth of China-Pakistan defence ties that India has to contend with, covering joint production of jets (JF17), supply of J-10 jets, submarines, frigates, air defence systems, air to ground missiles, guided bombs, artillery, drones, tanks, etc. During the period 2017 to 2021, 47 percent of all major arms exported by China went to Pakistan.

The announcement of this upgrade that includes improved air-to-ground capability and retaining interoperability with the US — as the US State Department note acknowledges — suggests that US military operations from Pakistani soil or in collaboration with Pakistan through its air space aimed at targets in Afghanistan, as in the case of the al-Zwahiri operation, will now be pursued. Those in India who reasoned that after quitting Afghanistan, the US would lose interest in Pakistan and would pursue a tougher policy towards it, would have to revise their thinking and analyse afresh what this renewed US commitment to Pakistan means geopolitically for us.

If during the Cold War, Pakistan was geopolitically important for monitoring nuclear and missile developments in Russia and China, that is no longer the case. Russia is now geographically distant and China is Pakistan’s closest partner. That past utility of Pakistan in this respect no longer exists. It is not clear how the F16 upgrade serves the goal of keeping tabs on the Islamic State elements in Afghanistan. How much this decision on F16s presented as being in US’ national security interest has emanated from the current Pentagon chief, who in the past headed the Central Command, can always be a matter of speculation.

Some arguments being given in foreign policy circles in the US to justify the US decision are contestable. They may reflect elements of thinking in official circles also in view of the organic links between the two. Our neutrality on the Ukraine issue is a political position that may not assist US diplomacy in isolating Russia, but it does not in any way threaten America’s physical security. We pursue our national interest without endangering US national security. We are receiving arms from Russia and not supplying arms to it. These arms protect our security, including vis-à-vis China, but are not directed at the US. We are not arming any country hostile to the US. Our purchase of discounted oil from Russia meets our critical needs as the second largest oil importer in the world whose economy cannot sustain huge spikes in the price of oil. It is a defensive measure, not an offensive one against the US, especially as Europe is buying energy from Russia far exceeding anything India does. Besides, in 2021-22, the US was the fourth largest oil supplier to India, with Russia at ninth place.

All these years, despite its presence in Pakistan, the US has not been able to stop or even discourage its deepening strategic ties with China. Any argument that a renewed US engagement of Pakistan will help to wean Pakistan away from China is an illusion, as is the expectation that Pakistan will be a more reliable partner of the US in its anti-terror operations in Afghanistan circa 2022. Imran Khan’s US-baiting position and his hold on the Pakistani radicalised street should be a reminder.

Pakistan has always been an albatross around our neck, and our effort to get rid of it is not helped by this F16 decision that Pakistan will read as giving it more political space in pursuing its animus towards India. It is not as yet clear whether Pakistan will pay for the upgrade or it will be in the form of military aid. If Pakistan pays, it will be ironical that a country desperately seeking IMF debt relief has available funds to make military purchases. If it is aid, it will mean overturning Donald Trump’s decision to suspend military aid on account of lack of Pakistan’s cooperation on combating terrorism, and, instead, rewarding it in disregard of its known terrorist affiliations. This would have been done even while Pakistan is on the FATF grey list.

In conclusion, objectionable though this F16 decision is, it has to be seen in the wider perspective of our expanding ties with the US and the need to strike a balance with all maturity in our larger national interest. We would need at the same time to keep our foreign policy options open in all directions.

Kanwal Sibal is former Indian Foreign Secretary