By: Neeta Lal

Although the administration of US President Barack Obama has rankled the Modi government in New Delhi with its proposed sale of eight nuclear-capable F-16 fighter and a cache of military goods worth nearly US$700 million to Pakistan, in fact India’s reaction is considered pretty much pro forma because the sale is so small that they don’t matter militarily to India, analysts say.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs, scoffing at the US’s excuse that the supersonic craft were being sold to “fight terrorism,” promptly summoned US Ambassador to India Richard Verma to express its displeasure over the imminent sale, which announced last week.

“We disagree with their (US’s) rationale that such arms transfers help combat terrorism. The record of the last many years in this regard speaks for itself,” read a terse statement from the ministry.

More than anything, however, the proposed sale represents the delicate political game the Obama administration is playing to try to triangulate its position as Pakistan draws closer to an increasingly friendly China, which last April offered Islamabad US$46 billion for road, rail, energy and other investments. Its takeover of the Gwadar port, previously to be built by Singaporean interests, gives China a blue-water opening to the Indian Ocean.

The feeling is that after Washington has poured US$40 billion into arming Pakistan since 1950, the current arms sale is too little, too late. Geographical proximity and the lavishness of Beijing – and personal wooing by Chinese President Xi Jinping – mean more than the Obama administration’s embrace. 

Besides, in 2005, the George W. Bush administration signed a 10-year defense framework agreement expanding bilateral security cooperation with New Delhi. Last year, for instance, Modi’s cabinet announced a major weapons deal with US-based Boeing to the tune of $2.5 billion to buy 22 Apache attack helicopters and 15 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters over Russian-made ones. The aircraft were bought to fortify India’s military capabilities along its disputed border with China. On its part, the US has invited New Delhi to join tri- and quadrilateral military-security exercises and planning with its principal Asia-Pacific allies, Japan and Australia.

Nonetheless, Washington’s position that the proposed sale dovetails with its foreign policy objectives and national security goals to empower a strategic partner in South Asia is being widely questioned in India. Many feel that the move will further embolden an already aggressive Pakistani Army to sponsor terrorism in the region as well as create instability at home.

“The US is unmindful of the criticism that its decision to supply the military equipment is being seen as an espousal of a terrorism-sponsoring country whose actions kill not just Indian civilians and soldiers, but also Americans,” said defense analyst Kirthi Reddy, formerly a bureaucrat in the South Block, as the ministry is known.  “Washington believes that Pakistan’s proximity to Afghanistan makes it an indispensible ally in its war against global terror, but the ground realities are very different. Islamabad shelters militant groups operating in India, and Afghanistan is still far from stable after US troops’ withdrawal.”

Islamabad is unlikely to use the proffered weaponry, designed for major country-to-country combat, to rein in terrorists. Even Pakistan’s former US ambassador Hussain Haqqani has stated that it’s more likely that the fighters will be trained at India rather than at militants.

“The Obama administration’s consideration of a nuclear deal with Pakistan, just like its decision a few months ago to sell almost US$1 billion in US-made attack helicopters, missiles and other equipment to Pakistan will fuel conflict in South Asia without fulfilling the objective of helping the country fight Islamist extremists or limit its nuclear arsenal,” Haqqani said.