|27 March 2005|
By Siddharth Varadarajan
NEW DELHI, MARCH 26 . The Bush administration's decision to sell the F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan, even if packaged with `sweeteners' like the offer of advanced multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) to India or a dialogue on civilian nuclear cooperation, is likely to have an adverse impact on the security environment in South Asia, highly-placed sources in South Block told The Hindu today.
Alarmed at how the announcement about the sale of F-16s to Pakistan might impact Indian public opinion, the External Affairs Ministry last night put out an upbeat spin on the prospects for a major upgrading of the strategic relationship between India and the U.S. Privately, however, the mood is not so optimistic. "What the Americans have announced is the actual, physical delivery of F-16s to Pakistan and a bunch of nice promises for India," an official said. "It is possible that some of the promises may be transformed into reality. But at this point, one cannot give them the benefit of the doubt. Only tangible outcomes count, and that is the transfer of the planes to Islamabad."
Expenditure will go up
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who conveyed India's disappointment to U.S. President George W. Bush, is particularly concerned that Washington's decision will needlessly push the region towards greater expenditure on armaments. Offering India the chance to buy U.S. planes is not the answer, given the socio-economic priorities and commitments of the United Progressive Alliance government. India will be forced to spend more on advanced weaponry and Pakistan too will feel obliged to do the same. "What we are looking at really is an arms race triggered by America," the sources added.
If there is to be an arms race in South Asia, the U.S., clearly, would like its weapons manufacturers to do the selling. But although Washington's offer of "even working towards defence co-production" would be a first for India, especially if this involves either the F-16 or the F-18, the Indian side is not very clear that it wants U.S. MRCAs in the first place.
The Indian Air Force considers the French-made Mirage a far more attractive prospect and there is also the Sukhoi bid.
`Deeply unfriendly act'
Shortly after he fielded Mr. Bush's telephone call about the sale of the F-16s to Pakistan, the Prime Minister discussed the matter with Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Though the party will issue a statement on Sunday, senior leaders have termed the U.S. decision a "deeply unfriendly act," as the only target against which the advanced fighter can be used is India.
In Washington itself, the announcement about the sale of F-16s to Pakistan was "balanced" with an off-the-record briefing by a senior State Department official — presumably Philip Zelikow, named as senior adviser by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last month — in which he said the U.S. was offering to upgrade its strategic interaction with India as part of a plan to "turn India into a major world power in the 21st century."
Mr. Zelikow, who helped conduct the Track-II Aspen dialogue with India on security issues, is a familiar and friendly face as far as Indian strategic elites are concerned. But there is a gap between what he might be willing to offer and what the U.S. system would be prepared to give. Above all, there is need to consider the cost of the bargain that Washington is promising to put on the table — especially the effect this will have on the peace process with Pakistan and India's emerging relationship with China.
The U.S. announcement of the sale of F-16s to Pakistan and the offer of an expanded strategic partnership with India come on the eve of crucial visits to New Delhi by Pakistan's President, Pervez Musharraf, and China's Premier, Wen Jiabao. The Pakistani military establishment might feel emboldened by Washington's decision and put roadblocks in the composite dialogue process.
And forcing India into the position of denouncing big-ticket arms sales to Pakistan on the eve of an important summit meeting between the two countries is not going to help in creating a conducive bilateral atmosphere.
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