The Bigger Picture

The truth about US clearing over $600 billion to boost defence ties with India

America's policy on South Asia is under review but you can be sure, its focus will not be India, but Afghanistan and Pakistan.

 |  The Bigger Picture  |  4-minute read |   17-07-2017
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It speaks for the narcissism enveloping the country when a news item in a national TV website declares “To boost defence ties with India, US House clears over $600 billion (Rs 38.5 lakh crore) Bill”. The reference is to the passage of the humongous US defence budget by the lower House of Representatives.

It needs to be passed by the upper house, the Senate, before going to the president to be signed into law.

Mere amendment

One would imagine from the headline that the entire purpose of the legislation is to promote India-US relations. But the actual fact is that the India part is just in the form of an amendment moved by Indian-American Congressman Ami Bera, tacked on to the Bill, with no financial implications at all.

All it calls for is that the US State and Defence departments develop a strategy for advancing defence cooperation between India and the US within 180 days of the Bill becoming law.

Two other amendments by Dana Rohrabacher and Tom Poe call for the US secretary of defense to certify, prior to making reimbursements to Pakistan, which could be of the order of $400 million (Rs 2,57,000 lakh) per annum, that Islamabad is taking demonstrable steps to take on the Haqqani network and ensure security of supply convoys going to Afghanistan.

These amendments gather one-day headlines and are thereafter ignored. What the final shape of the US defence budget Bill will be can only be determined after the Senate passes its version and the two are reconciled. These amendments may simply fall off the map. Even if they get through, which it is likely they will, they mean little.

For India, a legislative roadmap, minus any financial or legal commitment means little. For Pakistan, there is a good case to argue that the amendments actually enable US aid, not block it. No legislative directive can alter the realpolitik with which a US administration has to deal with Pakistan. And neither, despite its fulminations about Pakistani “betrayal” can it alter Islamabad’s strategic calculus.

moditrbd_071717102323.jpgThe new Trump administration has yet to reveal its hand on South Asia.

Past instances

We have been there before. In 1985, in a similar move to stop Pakistan from developing nuclear weapons, the Pressler Amendment was passed. It demanded an annual certification from the US president that Pakistan “does not have nuclear weapons.” Despite evidence to the contrary, the US president routinely gave the certification because US was locked into a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Only after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1990 did the US president refuse his certification. By that time it was way too late. Looked at carefully, the Pressler Amendment was actually an amendment to enable the US to give Pakistan aid, not to block it. If the US Congress really feels strongly about Pakistani betrayal and so on, they can simply pass an amendment to block aid to Pakistan. All this business about certification is eyewash.

Actually, to go by the law, Pakistan remains a Major Non-NATO Ally, a legal category involving some 17 countries which gives them a range of benefits. They can establish cooperative projects with the US Defense Department for R&D, get priority delivery of US surplus equipment, get finance, loans of equipment and materials to lease certain equipment and so on.

Future hope

Israel is an MNNA, but it is specially privileged through a US-Israel Partnership Act that allows the United States to share and exchange research technology, intelligence, information, equipment and personnel. Israel’s status is unique and it is designated as a “major strategic partner.”

Since 2016, India has been designated as a “major defence partner” of the US. So while in statements, the US has said that it will treat India “at a level at par with that of the United States’ closest allies and partners,” the only legislative commitment we have is through Ami Bera’s amendment in this year’s Defense Department bill which calls on the Pentagon and State Department to develop an India strategy.

No doubt, we will get there some day, but not right now. The “major defence partner” designation was mentioned in the 2016 budget and formally conferred by the Obama administration a month before it left office. The new Trump administration has yet to reveal its hand on South Asia.

For the past several months the US national security adviser, HR McMaster, is reviewing the US South Asia policy which includes issues relating to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The review has been delayed, but you can be sure, its focus will not be India, but Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As for India, relations are on an even track and it is unlikely that there will be any dramatic change in any new US policy towards the region.

(Courtesy: Mail Today.)

Also read: How Modi is using patriotism bogey to justify India’s arms race


Manoj Joshi Manoj Joshi

Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.

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