New Delhi, India, Dec. 22 (UPI) -- India on Wednesday claimed partial victory in spoiling Pakistan's F-16 jets shopping spree by saying that Belgium had agreed to New Delhi's request not to sell the fighter jets to Islamabad.
"The issue of Pakistan's formal request to Belgium to procure F-16 jets was taken up with the Belgian authorities in September 2003," Indian Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee told lawmakers in the parliament on Wednesday.
"Given the sensitivity of the geo-political situation in South Asia, the Belgian government took a conscious decision not to sell F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan," Mukherjee announced amid thumping of desks by the lawmakers.
Indian government had been lobbying with the United States and Belgium over the last several weeks not to fuel an arms race in nuclear-armed South Asia by supplying sophisticated weapons and jets to Pakistan.
"The range of the F-16s would cover a number of civilian and military facilities of northern India," Mukherjee said, adding, "The increase in strength of F-16s with Pakistan would adversely affect the current balance of air power between the Indian and Pakistan Air Forces."
Pakistan has been pressing Washington in the recent months to supply it with the promised fleet of fighter jets.
While Washington has pledged a $1.2 billion arms package to Islamabad, it has not categorically said if the deal would include the F-16 jets.
Last month, the Bush administration had notified Congress of its intention to sell sophisticated weapons to Pakistan, including eight P-3C Orion planes to beef up surveillance of its coasts and borders.
Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was in Indian capital, where he was told by New Delhi that any sale of fighter jets to Pakistan might affect India-U.S. relations.
Washington has to tread carefully in South Asia, where Pakistan is America's launching base in its war against terror in Afghanistan. On the other hand, India is the biggest democracy and home to world's second-largest Muslim population after Indonesia.
While India is lending its hand in rebuilding the war-devastated Afghanistan, it has stayed away from the war on Iraq, which now many Americans feel was not worth fighting.
Last week, the United States tried to placate an incensed India over Washington's impending arms sales to Pakistan by offering to sell more weapons to New Delhi.
The U.S. ambassador to New Delhi, David Mulford, said Washington wants to be a very big supplier of military equipment to India.
"We would like to have a very important economic and military relationship with India. We would like to be a big supplier of military equipment to India," Mulford told reporters in the Indian capital.
Mulford dismissed New Delhi's apprehension that arms supplies to Pakistan would have negative impact on bilateral ties as well as on the India-Pakistan peace dialogue.
"I don't see why it (arms supply to Pakistan) should have any impact on the dialogue," he said."
Pakistan wants to buy up to 25 F-16s, which cost around $25 million each, to add to its F-16 fleet. The United States has yet to make a decision on the sale. Pakistan has been waiting since 1990 for the planes. The Presser Amendment banned military transfers unless the U.S. administration could certify that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear weapons program. Pakistan paid for the undelivered aircraft until 1996 and then demanded the return of about $620 million.
Islamabad had also approached Belgium for two squadrons of used F-16s, a deal that needs U.S. approval under an agreement between Brussels and Washington.
Pakistan, however, had rejected Indian objections as "incomprehensible," saying that its modest defense requirements should not irk New Delhi.
A Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman said in Islamabad that India itself had an ambitious arms buying program.
"These statements (from India) are disturbing," Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan told a news conference. "India's weapons acquisition and weaponization program is very ambitious. They have been buying weapons and sophisticated technology from all over the world."
Khan described Pakistan's program as modest compared to that of New Delhi, which it said spends billions of dollars on weapons. "We do not want to match India gun-for-gun, missile-for-missile, aircraft-for-aircraft," he said.
Besides the F-16 jets, Pakistan also wants to acquire P-3 Orion surveillance planes, Phalanx rapid-fire guns, and TOW missiles, but New Delhi says the weapons could also be against India.
The Pentagon, however, argues that the weapons it intends to provide would enhance Pakistan's search surveillance-and-control capability in support of maritime interdiction operations and increase their ability to support the U.S. Operation Enduring Freedom operations.
It's a watershed case for Washington on how to keep Islamabad in good humor without annoying New Delhi.
Washington keeps playing a seesaw game in the region, depending on the timings. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Washington offered F-16s to Pakistan on an exclusive basis. But in the early 1990s, it imposed restrictions under the Pressler amendment.
After 2000, Washington warmed up to India by offering a next generation "strategic partnership." Then, post 9/11, it designated Pakistan a major non-NATO ally, taking India by surprise.
And now, the United States wants to sell deadly weapons to both India and Pakistan.
"It's downright foolhardy for Washington both to supply new weapons to India and Pakistan and then expect them to negotiate peace," newspaper columnist Praful Bidwai said in an article. "The logic of the first process - escalation of military preparations and hostility - sharply differs from the logic of dialogue and reconciliation.
"Washington's double standards have harmful strategic consequences. They aggravate India-Pakistan rivalry. In particular, they could put a spoke in the current peace process," Bidwai said.
Both India and Pakistan are involved in a series of confidence-building measure to overcome five decades of war, hostility and suspicion. The two have fought three wars since gaining simultaneous independence from Britain in 1947.