The United States has announced its intention to sell F-16 fighter planes to Pakistan. The decision thwarts decades of Indian diplomacy against such a move. The sale of two dozen advanced versions of the plane would dramatically increase Pakistani air power. The planes could play various roles in a Pakistani nuclear attack upon India. Restoring the existing force ratio would require several billion dollars in Indian military spending above what has been planned. I had predicted two months ago in this space that America would not transfer F-16s to Pakistan for fear that a future coup leader would use them to obstruct U.S. efforts to secure Pakistani nuclear weapons. U.S. policy in this regard is necessarily secret. However, the known material facts suggest little progress. Details of the F-16 sale have not been finalized; some packages would be far more lethal than others. Most likely, the fighter package is under negotiation in exchange for Pakistani cooperation on nuclear proliferation matters. Pakistan will nonetheless retain and seek to upgrade its nuclear arsenal. In the end, America is giving Pakistan greater nuclear capability against India as a reward for restricting its nuclear smuggling and pursuing some of the terrorists it had actively supported earlier.
Meanwhile, bus passengers have begun to cross the line of control joyously in Kashmir. That marks a fundamental improvement in India-Pakistan relations. But so did the Simla Treaty in 1972. There were several years of calm afterwards, but matters deteriorated in the 1980s, and got much worse in the 1990s. The main factor governing India-Pakistan relations has been the vicissitudes of Pakistan’s domestic politics. The current improvement is due to the falling out between Musharraf and the jihadis. The United States does deserve credit, as its steady pressure undermined the trust between Musharraf and the jihadis. The majority of Pakistanis place a much higher priority on peace with India than the army has in the past. However, Pakistani masses remain passive and excluded. The real political system is driven by coups and the fear of coups. Bad turns in Pakistani politics remain a distinct possibility. Pakistan has the world’s largest pool of armed religious organizations, nuclear weapons, unstable militarist politics, and a history of strategic over-optimism against India. It is this combination that makes even a limited supply of F-16s so dangerous for India.
Following the F-16 offer to Pakistan, the United States has offered to India co-production of F-16s and F-18s and cooperation in nuclear power and missile defense. The American bid for the large fighter plane purchase planned by India adds only modestly to what India could achieve otherwise. Russian weapons technology has advanced significantly since the end of the Cold War, despite its economic setbacks. The MiG-29 package being offered to India is not far inferior to the F-16. Russia, notably, has not sold weapons to Pakistan. The French Mirage 2000 is also competitive. In missile defense, the United States is offering to sell India the older Patriot-2 missile, not the more advanced Patriot-3. The Russians are able to make a competitive offer with their latest S-400 surface-to-air missile system, which is also likely to be effective at over 200 miles against aircraft of the F-16 class.
There have been some suggestions from U.S. officials that the United States will help India become a major military power. Clearly, the United States does consider China to be the most threatening rival in the future, and considers India to be a useful counterweight. The F-16s for Pakistan can also be seen as America’s insurance that a powerful India is not tempted to overrun Pakistan before it can assemble its normally disassembled nuclear weapons systems. America is the sole superpower seeking to manage the world and maintain its position. India is a rising power seeking a more influential place in the world order and a proportionate military balance in relation to a disproportionately militarized neighbor. There are very difficult negotiations between Washington and Delhi ahead.
India and China recently announced an agreement to resolve their border dispute and step up trade, promising an era of “peace and prosperity.” China’s transfer of weapons to Pakistan has been limited in the last few years. They just announced joint production of a new fighter plane, the JF-17. But the fact is they have no engine for it. The Russians had provided China a small number of engines for the development of the JF-17, but have refused to provide a regular supply for Pakistan. In recent months China has suffered a series of diplomatic setbacks at the hands of Japan and the European Union, both supported by the United States. China’s need for new friends has increased. India has for years viewed China as menacing and America as far more benevolent. India’s main complaint against China has been about its transfer of nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan. The American F-16 offer to Pakistan narrows the gap between China and America in India’s assessment.
U.S.-India relations stand at a cusp. If Washington offers Pakistan a less lethal F-16 package, India can live with it. A more lethal package, with radar and missiles for fighting beyond visual range, would force deep changes in Indian military and diplomatic policy. India is one of the few large parts of the world where America’s standing has risen in recent years. To sacrifice those gains now in pursuit of an exclusive American national interest would be counterproductive.
Sanjoy Banerjee teaches international relations at San Francisco State University. He writes about India, America, and the world.