Pakistan’s decision to procure advanced air defense equipment and jet fighters from Russia shows how profoundly international alignments have changed in South Asia.
For India and Pakistan, warm relationships with yesterday’s time-tested allies have turned cold. In contrast, countries other than immediate neighbours have become noticeably friendlier, as new East-vs-West tensions play out in the region.
The major change, with Russia and Pakistan enjoying their most cordial relationship in recent decades, has been dictated by an equally dramatic shift in Indo-US relations.
Today, the US considers India its “strategic partner” in South Asia -- a far cry from 1970-71, when its mighty Seventh Fleet approached the Bay of Bengal, as Bangladesh wrested its freedom from Pakistan.
This has certainly affected India’s earlier non-aligned foreign policy more profoundly than that of Pakistan, which had joined pro-West military blocs. At present, major sections of public opinion in both countries are critical of their present foreign policy directions.
Pakistan is seeking to rev up its punching power by acquiring latest Russian-designed tanks. It had earlier ordered four attack helicopters, and new Russian engines for its PAF JF-7 fighter jets.
The two countries have conducted joint army exercises, causing Indian eyebrows to rise. A comprehensive energy deal involving an investment of $10 billion, including the construction of a long gas pipeline within Pakistan, is also on the cards.
Such bilateral decisions, insofar as they prove anything, point to the dangers inherent in politicians trying to write instant history. Observers well recall the triumphalist gloating of the late Benazir Bhutto, following the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
To a wildly cheering American audience, she had said: “Together you, the US, and we, Pakistan, fought side by side to defeat the Soviet Union. Together, we drained it of its will to survive as an independent nation.”
How political fortunes have changed, especially for the new resurgent Russia since those times. In view of today’s reconstructive narrative of Pak-Russia relations, had she been alive, no doubt the PPP leader would have looked somewhat like a poor Rip Van Winkle in 2018!
It needs stressing that the morphing of Pakistan as a new ally of Russia has paid rich dividends to Islamabad. Not only does it help the country maintain a combative spirit vis-à-vis the larger neighbour it loves to hate, India, it enjoys a full member status within the anti-NATO SCO (Shanghai Co-operation Organization) grouping, working in tandem with Iran. Its continuing bonhomie with China remains an added political bonus.
This certainly puts off the US and the EU, which are fed up with Pakistan’s not-exactly-secret support to Islamic terrorist groups. However, Islamabad takes care not to alienate Washington’s most trusted all-weather ally, Saudi Arabia.
After initially refusing, Pakistan has now agreed to send troops to serve under Riyadh’s command near Yemen’s border areas, as the US-backed Saudi war against non- Sunni civilians continues.
Pakistani leaders, for all their domestic economic difficulties and image problems within the international community, are therefore not totally isolated. Accustomed as successive Pakistani administrations have been to lean on and play off, one power bloc against another for its survival, their leaders do not stand on diplomatic niceties when sending a strong message to their detractors and critics.
Only weeks ago, Pakistani generals, mocking US warnings to cut off financial aid and other help, reminded Washington that the Chinese would stand by them as their trusted friends. In fact, they responded with a taunt of their own. Referring obliquely to recent developments in Syria and Ukraine, they added that the West had declined as a power bloc. Militarily or economically, the joint alliance between China and Russia was now more powerful.
“This was the first clear indication of Pakistan declaring that it was no longer scared of antagonizing the West anymore and their generals did not mince their words,” says Kolkata-based observer Charubrata Ray.
Such bilateral decisions, insofar as they prove anything, point to the dangers inherent in politicians trying to write instant history
Friends with benefits
Recent history also played a role. What Mrs Bhutto failed to appreciate was that Pakistan’s strategic value to the West plummeted as the USSR collapsed, giving way to a politically reduced Russian Federation.
For the West, the need to build up India as a counterweight to growing Chinese domination in South Asia was clearly a far more urgent task.
With the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party taking over in India, Indo-US relations have grown exponentially. There have been joint army, navy, and air exercises involving the US and India since 2005, when the epochal bilateral nuclear deal was signed. Since then, it has been bilaterally agreed to increase trade from an earlier $100bn to $500bn during the next few years.
A $10bn defense deal involving the supply of C-130 planes, C-17, and P-80 types of aircraft was drawn up. Further, to make sure China does not dominate the Indian Ocean region, the US, Japan, India, and Australia have agreed to work in close coordination.
Clearly the intention was to send a strong message to China, that it did not enjoy a monopoly of military strength. Despite India’s active involvement in the SCO and its membership in BRICS, frosty undercurrents continue to affect the uneasy Indo-China relationship. The shooting war may have ended in 1962, but periodic recurrence of border tensions continue.
Also, the shift towards adopting a closer position to the US did not begin with the BJP’s present tenure beginning in 2014. It had started in India earlier, during Dr Manmohan Singh’s tenure as prime minister during Congress rule.
Left-wing critics of India’s present policies point out that in the name of “helping India stand up against China,” the US has consistently walked away with tangible benefits of improved bilateral ties, especially in financial terms.
President Obama had ended his India visit with a five-year-long contract for Indians buying equipment from the ailing Westinghouse company, to say nothing about India buying (slightly outdated) US made arms.
Ditto for President Trump, who for all his apparent bonhomie with Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not made things easier for technically competent Indian visa seekers to enter the US or secure promotions in their US work places.
On the contrary, he has publicly pulled up India for its import duties in US-made motor bikes and other items, despite India reducing some of them. As for selling India its upgraded weaponry, while Israel and Japan do not find it difficult to buy the latest F-35 fighters, their sale is not discussed in talks with India.
Neither Obama nor Trump ever responded to India’s repeated urgings to get easier access to the large US market nor to secure much advanced technology.
Russia, in contrast, has already offered to sell its latest Mig-35 fighter jets to India, and even Bangladesh has expressed interest in discussing a possible purchase.
So what do these facts indicate?
In the West, the colonial perception that the East is East and the West is West refuses to die? Readers can judge for themselves.
Ashis Biswas writes from Kolkata, India.