Vajpayee’s invitation to Musharraf came in the aftermath of significant changes in the relations of major powers. The new structures of global politics will affect India-Pakistan relations. Sino-American relations have clearly deteriorated due to initiatives by both sides. Missile defense may be a long way from reality, but the U.S. initiative clearly reveals its intention to limit Chinese military power, and to sustain a difference of status between the U.S. and China. India’s reaction to the initiative has been more favorable than that of any other power. This is because India has the least to lose from U.S. missile defense efforts. The initiative will prompt China to build more long-range missiles, but its shorter-range missiles can already deliver hydrogen bombs to all of India. Any move toward Indo-American military cooperation will make the Chinese angry at India. But then the Chinese have been giving nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan while not angry at India. Reconciling the positions of India and Russia will be tricky, but Russia can overcome any defense the U.S. can build for decades. The U.S. will face pressure to compensate Russia for its modest loss of security from missile defense.
The U.S. is embarking on the largest technical project in its military history. The challenge is to actually hit an incoming missile with a missile, at a closing speed of ten kilometers per second. Tests to date are not encouraging, but not hopeless. It is likely that Congress will at least demand high engineering standards, which will add to the size of the required workforce. This project is commencing after engineering and computer science enrollments in U.S. universities have declined from their peak in 1986. The shortage of technical graduates was easily overcome in civilian high technology by bringing in immigrants. But foreigners do not get security clearances. The IT crash will release some talent for missile defense, but when IT recovers it will compete harshly with the missile defense project. The delay and cost explosion in a minor project, the advanced F-22 fighter plane, presages what lies in store for missile defense. In short, the U.S. cannot build a workable missile defense on its own, and probably not without India.
The larger picture is that India is simultaneously building ties with the U.S. and Russia. Moscow is competing to retain its position in India’s foreign relations by offering more of its conventional weapons technology. Since bright scientists in Russia do not have anything better to do, military technology in Russia has advanced rapidly since the end of the U.S.S.R. U.S. officials have now openly said they are building ties with India to balance China. In an era of globalization, this means that the U.S. will try to upgrade its economic and military ties to India to limit its growing dependence on China. If China continues to boom, India will benefit both from rising trade with it and with the U.S. A modicum of India-China hostility will continue so long as China patronizes Pakistan. But if that patronage and hostility can be contained, the Chinese boom will be a good thing for India.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s international and domestic position is in visible decline, in spite of expressions of support from China. The U.S. is moving toward viewing Pakistan as a highly irresponsible power, if not a rogue state. Washington has begun to pay attention to the exchange of Pakistani nuclear technology for North Korean missile technology that Benazir Bhutto initiated in 1995. The pro-Pakistan lobby has not disappeared, but Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has clearly defected from it. Pakistan’s financial vulnerability is mounting. If Pakistan calculated its national interest as other states do, it would be under sufficient pressure to make major concessions on Kashmir.
While Pakistan is sensitive to conventional national interests, it has unusual priorities. The political passivity of the Pakistani masses makes them exploitable. The military establishment has been shifting the costs of its policies on to them, and the Asian Development Bank estimates nearly half of Pakistanis are now poor, more than double the rate of a decade ago. Nonetheless Pakistan’s military budget and capability have also declined. Even the generals at this point are questioning the sustainability of their policies. Vajpayee’s gamble is not a hopeless one.
Much has been made of jihadi pressure on the Pakistani army to continue its Kashmir policy. These outfits remain marginal to Pakistani society. Their power derives mainly from their usefulness to the army in Kashmir. So long as they do their job, they are allowed some extra activities, such as killing Shias. Jihadi outfits have grown, so they have gained some power. Still, if the generals themselves were to change course, they could suppress the jihadis.
The invitation has its benefits and costs. Pakistan has been withholding covering fire for jihadis along the line of control, and this has reduced infiltration. Full-scale counter-insurgency operations have resumed in Kashmir. The invitation may be the concession India is making in the hope that Pakistan will continue its restraint. Under such circumstances, the number of active militants in Kashmir would decline. This would be Pakistan’s way of backing out of its position without appearing to do so. The aftermath of the invitation has yielded more open bickering between Musharraf and jihadis. Still, Vajpayee’s credibility, as well as India’s, on crucial issues stands diminished. And the military dictatorship has received a critical mark of recognition.
Sanjoy Banerjee teaches International Relations at San Francisco State University. He writes about India, America, and the world.