US actions of late could strengthen India’s commitment to multipolarity

Synopsis

America can treat Russia as an enemy, but India has no reason to treat a historically friendly country as such under US pressure. Moreover, the governing class in the United States, which – besides the administration and the Congress – includes its think tanks, academics, the non-governmental organisations and the media, has elements that view India negatively because, apart from entrenched prejudices, India is not seen as compliant enough.

Though India-US relations have made impressive strides in recent years, steadily overcoming the doubts and distrust that have long plagued ties, they need careful nurturing as America’s impulse to dominate and India‘s attachment to independence in decision making may rock the boat.

The United States gives primacy to its own interests but if other countries seek to do the same, tensions result. America sees partnership in the dynamic of an alliance, whereas India sees partnership as shared interests in specific areas, without limiting its right to build partnerships with countries outside the US orbit.

The conflict in Ukraine pitting the United States against Russia has exposed some of these underlying issues in India-US relations.

America can treat Russia as an enemy, but India has no reason to treat a historically friendly country as such under US pressure. Moreover, the governing class in the United States, which – besides the administration and the Congress – includes its think tanks, academics, the non-governmental organisations and the media, has elements that view India negatively because, apart from entrenched prejudices, India is not seen as compliant enough.

This explains in part the decision by the United States to refurbish Pakistan‘s F-16 fleet (of 86 aircraft) that includes electronic combat elements, engine improvement, and software modifications.

The United States claims that this support gives no new capabilities to the aircraft, yet it also says, in seeming contradiction, that the air-to-ground capability of the aircraft for counterterrorism operations will be improved.

Retaining interoperability with the United States is also mentioned as an objective.

It is ironical that a country recognised as a hub of jihadi terrorism, one that sheltered Osama bin Laden, the Taliban terrorists and facilitated their takeover of Afghanistan in cooperation with the United States, is eligible for improvements in performance of F-16s for “counterterrorism” purposes.

If these aircraft serve the national security objectives of America, do they serve India’s national security interests?

The need for interoperability implies US operations from Pakistani soil.

The argument that such a boost to Pakistan’s air force does not alter the military balance in the region is particularly insensitive to Indian ears as this repeats the old Cold War justifications for arming Pakistan.

These aircraft have always been intended for use against India, as we saw during the Balakot operation, with the AMRAAMS they carry imposing constraints on India’s air power.

The US decision will inevitably rekindle in India doubts about America’s reliability as a partner, reminding New Delhi that Washington’s logic of power and self-interest can always collide with India’s legitimate interests.

India-US strategic ties lose half their meaning if India’s concerns about its threats from its west (in collusion with China) are disregarded.

The administration of US President Joe Biden must have carefully weighed the reaction in India to this decision, as the supply of F-16s to Pakistan has a long history of causing India-US political strains.

It could have concluded that the fallout in India could be managed.

In his book ‘The Back Channel’, William Burns, the former US ambassador to Russia and CIA chief at present, recalls how his warnings in 2007 about the dangers of crossing Russia’s red line on Ukraine were rejected by a hubristic Washington confident that the Russian reaction could be handled.

The United States could well believe that the stakes India has developed in its ties with the country for its own progress and the many strategic areas in which the two now collaborate would leave India little choice but to pragmatically swallow this bitter pill.

India’s commitment to multipolarity could, however, become stronger as a result.

Sunday, 11 Sep, 2022

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