The sale of F-16 fighters to Pakistan by the US should come as no surprise to India. The deal had already been finalized in the 1980s, only to be blocked in 1990 by the US administration because of Pakistan's nuclear ambitions. Last year, the remaining sanctions on India were lifted by the government of President George W Bush in view of the country's growing economic presence in the world. Similarly, India should have expected conciliatory moves from the US toward Pakistan after it literally allowed the US to dictate its foreign policy since September 11, 2001.
So when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed "great disappointment" at the F-16 deal, it pointed at another incidence where Indian diplomacy has failed to foresee a rather obvious event.
On her recent visit to India, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, "What we're trying to do is break out of the notion that this is a hyphenated relationship somehow, that anything that happens that's good for Pakistan has to be bad for India, and vice versa." India's vehement and open opposition to this deal and the dejected expression that followed it will only pour cold water on the country's aspirations not to be equated with Pakistan in most geopolitical discussions pertaining to South Asia. India looks on itself as a rising regional, and possibly global, economic and military power, yet an indifferent attitude to this deal would have gone a longer way to bolster that image than the sniffles of a child who didn't get his cookie.
There are reasons to believe that this deal would do little to alter the strategic balance in the subcontinent. First, as a US State Department official put it, India had been contemplating a "very large" purchase of fighters long before this deal was sanctioned. Models in the race include French Mirage 2000-5s, Swedish JAS-39 Gripens and Russian MiG-29s. Thanks to the recent announcement by the US, India can also add F-16s and F-18s to this list.
Lockheed Martin has also gone a step beyond and confirmed that it will be willing to upgrade the F-16s to Block 70 levels, especially catering to the particular needs of India, very much as the Russians did with the Su-30. Moreover, even without this new purchase, India already operates fighters at par with if not superior to the F-16 Block 52 being offered to Pakistan, the MiG-29, Mirage 2000 and Su-30MKI. It does not appear that a few dozen F-16s will change the entire dimension in favor of Pakistan.
Second, although India has constantly denied that it wants to get sapped into an arms race, indulging in one would not necessarily be bad for the long-term interests of the country. After all, one of the reasons the Soviet economy never reached the levels of the US was the massive amount it spent on military hardware. India can do the same - draw Pakistan into an arms race by making some big purchases. Owing to nationalist pressures, Islamabad will be forced to do what it can to match India's rapidly growing capabilities. The defense-spending ratio already stands at 5:1 in favor of India - Pakistan would not feel safe to let it slip further.
Once the Pakistani economy was under pressure owing to this race, India could push for economic concessions, such as a South Asian free-trade area, a policy long torpedoed by Pakistan owing to fears of Indian competition. With less money at its disposal to fund infrastructure projects or invest in the economy to create jobs, Pakistan may have no choice but to sign a trade accord and let Indian companies provide jobs to its economy.
Third, India should remember that "friends are not permanent, interests are". Pakistan has been favored by the US for the past half a century or so for valid strategic reasons. During the Cold War, it acted as a deterrent to a pro-Soviet India. During the Afghan war, it helped the US and the mujahideen throw the Russians out of the country. After September 11, 2001, President General Pervez Musharraf went out of his way to help in the "war on terror". Even after being exposed to life-threatening attacks by extremists in his country, he has cooperated with the coalition forces in whatever way he can. It is still not clear whether India definitely wants to join the US camp - so why shouldn't the US have an "insurance" partner in Pakistan in the region? It makes sense to the strategists at the Pentagon.
What India needs to do is make itself more attractive as a partner than Pakistan. India's obvious advantage lies in its rapidly growing and very large economy. India needs to liberalize quicker and give foreign firms (especially US firms) incentives to invest in India, beyond software and information-technology services. A preferential trade agreement between the US and India would open up huge avenues for businesses on both sides.
Once India made its presence felt in the business lobbies in the United States, its weight as an ally would decisively shift vis-a-vis Pakistan. To put things in context, US-India trade in 2003-04 hovered around the US$20 billion figure, compared with a nearly $300 billion figure for US-China trade. The US attitude toward Taiwan has been affected directly as a result. These days the Pentagon often issues restraining calls on Taiwan, and is surprisingly quiet on China's harsh labor regulations since US companies might be affected as a result. A booming bilateral trade between India and the US would not only be beneficial for a large number of Indians, but would also help the country establish itself as a firm US ally in the region, and ensure US support or neutrality in any future disputes with Pakistan.
As has so often been the case, the Indian media are sounding alarm bells even before the planes have been transferred to Pakistan. They will probably be delivered in batches, with the entire fleet being handed over probably within the next five years or so. Also, what is evident is that amid all this apparent disappointment and protest, there remains an inferiority complex in the Indian press. What India needs to do is stop crying over spillled milk, and make the most of the good options it has with Uncle Sam.