The new US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, will arrive in India today before coming to Pakistan tomorrow. This will be her first tour of the region as secretary of state. Ahead of her visit, reports appearing in the South Asian press indicate Dr Rice is likely to offer both India and Pakistan the F-16 fighter jets. India, which is in the process of upgrading its “ageing” fleet, is definitely interested in buying state-of-the-art fighter aircraft. Currently, its options include the Swedish JAS-39 C “Gripen” and France’s Dassault Mirage 2000-5. But New Delhi has indicated that it would prefer the newer versions of the F-16s (Cs&Ds) if it can get them from the United States and can also build the aircraft under license from Lockheed Martin Corp.
The State Department gave the nod to Lockheed last November to sell the planes to India. That takes care of the technical hitch. India is reportedly looking at a package of 126 aircraft, out of which it wants to get only 18 straight from Lockheed and build the rest in India.
For its part, Pakistan is also desperate to upgrade its air force which is inferior in numbers and quality to the Indian Air Force (IAF). Islamabad has been casting around for the French Mirage as well as the Gripen. It has 32 older-version F-16s (As & Bs) but wants the newer models. There have been reports in the past few months that the US might relent on its previous reluctance to sell these aircraft to Islamabad. India has been trying to block the sale on the grounds that F-16s would enhance the offensive capability of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). It says the sale poses a danger to the balance of power in South Asia. Now the US seems to have found the perfect answer to its dilemma: sell F-16s to both. What does this mean?
The sale of F-16s to both India and Pakistan gives an indication of the contours of America’s South Asia policy which has been evolving since the late 1990s but has begun to precipitate since September 11, 2001. It has three broad salients: South Asia, India and Pakistan. At the level of South Asia, the US wants a cooperative framework that can allow the region to gel better. For this it needs better Pakistan and India relations. So it is working both with Islamabad and New Delhi to improve its own ties with the two and simultaneously using improved linkages for impacting bilateral ties between India and Pakistan. The peace process forms the most important link in this policy framework.
With India, the US is developing strategic ties; with Pakistan, it requires turning the country around and keeping it secure. Its relations with India cover a much-broader ambit — political, economic and military; with Pakistan, the primary aim is to monitor the country and keep it on the track where General Pervez Musharraf guided and put it since September 13, 2001. Pakistan also, in this policy thrust, becomes a very important state in the “war against terrorism”. This necessitates give-and-take within a framework in which Indo-US relations do not undergo any unnecessary and avoidable friction. In any case, the idea is to improve US ties with the two while also nudging them to improve their own ties and become less suspicious of each other’s motives. The policy has worked fairly well for the US until now.
Given this, if the US is ready to sell F-16s to Pakistan, there is no real reason for Pakistan to object to their sale to India. Indeed, the only sales that Pakistan can, and should, object to are those that are likely to dilute deterrence in South Asia. This, for instance, would include the sale of the Patriot ABM system or the US-Israel jointly-developed Arrow 2 ABM. Offensive systems are not much threat as long as the balance-of-terror can be maintained; it’s the defensive systems that should be a cause for worry.