For all the talk of India and the United States being closer than ever before, the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi still made a rather unexpected move on Saturday. American ambassador to India Richard Verma was summoned by the Foreign Secretary, S Jaishankar, so that New Delhi could lodge a complaint about the US selling F16 fighter jets to Pakistan.
“We are disappointed at the decision of the Obama Administration to notify the sale of F-16 aircrafts to Pakistan,” the ministry said in a statement. “We disagree with their rationale that such arms transfers help to combat terrorism. The record of the last many years in this regard speaks for itself.”
This disappointment comes after the US State Department approved the sale of eight F-16 fighter jets and other equipment worth $699 million to Pakistan. “We support the proposed sale of eight F-16s to Pakistan, which we view as the right platform in support of Pakistan’s counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency operation,” an official said.
You did it first
The sale still has to make its way through the US Congress, where a few lawmakers have suggested they will oppose it. But the deal is nevertheless expected to go through, with both America and Pakistan justifying it by pointing to important “counterterrorism” needs.On Sunday, Pakistan decided to respond to India’s expression of disappointment over the deal by resorting, basically, to whataboutery, i.e. you did it first.
“We are surprised and disappointed at the Indian Government’s reaction,” the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. “Their army and arsenal stock is much larger and they are the largest importer of defence equipment.”
Pakistan must take action (with our planes)
The US in turn tried to pivot in such a way that it appeased both of the nuclear-armed neighbours. After spending 45 minutes with Foreign Secretary Jaishankar, US ambassador Verma the next day justified the sale by basically saying someone had already decided on it beforehand (never mind that President Barack Obama has been in power for the better part of the decade now).
“Over the years, our equipment [sale] to Pakistan has been a mix of civilian and military equipment,” Verma said at an event in Mumbai. “[The latest decision] is part of a legacy announcement. The reality is that there are dangerous groups operating within Pakistan… More action needs to be taken by Pakistan on terror groups. Safe havens need to be eliminated.”
The cumulative effect of these statements is to remind us that, no matter how much has changed since Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come to power, there hasn’t yet been a fundamental shift in India’s relationship to its western neighbour or the US.
Plus ça change
New Delhi knew that something like this might be coming, but was nevertheless hopeful that, in the aftermath of the Pathankot attacks and just as Pakistani-American David Headley pointed to the culpability of Pakistan’s intelligence in the Mumbai attacks, the US might not rush into providing Islamabad with state-of-the-art conventional warfare technology.
Yet the US seems to be going ahead once more, spurred on in part by lobbyists for the manufacturer that builds the F16s. Congress may still present an obstacle to the deal. Congressman Matt Salman has written to Obama pointing out the potential for Pakistan to use the jets to hit India with nuclear weapons.
US lawmakers Ted Poe and Tulsi Gabbard asked the government not to use taxpayer money to subsidise arms for Pakistan, not after “the United States has already supplied Pakistan with over USD 30 billion in foreign assistance from FY2002-FY2016 and Pakistan still has not changed its behaviour in any significant way”.
India’s connection to the US will continue to grow, but in part only because of market forces. The US government, for its part, has spent the last year making it harder and more expensive for Indians to get work visas, fought India over trade and climate change policies and now continued to offer military equipment to Pakistan, despite Pathankot.
There’s nothing new in the US selling Pakistan more equipment that can be used against India. But then, that’s exactly the point: With this government, we were supposed to get something new.