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The phrase “nuclear overhang" is often used when talking of the turbulent phases—not uncommon—of India-Pakistan relationship. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recent trip to the US took place under a “nuclear overhang", albeit of a different kind. The Washington Post and The New York Times reported, in the run-up to the visit, on a civil nuclear deal with Pakistan being explored by the US, ostensibly to arrest the alarming surge in the former’s nuclear arsenal.

The initial ambiguity in the US state department’s response to the reports has finally—after Sharif’s meeting with US President Barack Obama—given way to a categorical denial of any negotiations with Pakistan on a 123 Agreement. The Obama-Sharif joint statement noted “Pakistan’s efforts to improve its strategic trade controls and enhance its engagement with multilateral export control regimes".

While India will heave a sigh of relief, New Delhi has not many reasons to celebrate. The joint statement rakes up Kashmir, a reference which will irk the mandarins in South Block. It will be fair to mention, however, that the statement recognizes India’s insistence that all disputes, including Kashmir, be resolved bilaterally between New Delhi and Islamabad. Also, in a quid pro quo, Obama has got Sharif to make a paper promise of acting against Lashkar-e-Toiba, a terrorist group blamed for the 2008 terror attack on Mumbai and other anti-India activities.

The biggest shocker of the joint statement is the part urging India and Pakistan to address “mutual" concerns on terrorism. With this, the US has accorded a gratuitous and reckless equivalence to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in India and unfounded allegations of Indian involvement in Balochistan and Sindh.

The New York Times has also reported on the Obama administration’s plan of selling eight F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. While it won’t be easy to secure the support of the US Congress on this sale, Obama is willing to walk the extra mile for Pakistan. The US aims to please Pakistan’s army in the hope that Rawalpindi will help resume the negotiations between Taliban and Afghanistan, paving the way for exit of international forces. Amid the resurgence of violence, Obama was forced to delay the drawdown of forces. A flawed exit strategy has meant that Obama will neither be able to stabilize the situation given the inadequacy of troops on the ground already, nor fulfil his campaign pledge to end the US’s involvement in Afghanistan.

In the end, he decides to fall back on Pakistan, a blunder too often repeated by Washington. These developments can be seen through three different prisms.

The history of US-Pakistan relations

Right from the time of inclusion in Cold War alliances and till today as a “major non-Nato ally" in the fight against terror, Pakistan has always extracted more than it deserves from the US. While guilty of genocide in East Pakistan which led to the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, the Yahya Khan administration continued to receive military support from the US because Pakistan served as the conduit for the US opening to China. Pakistan’s nuclear programme notwithstanding, US president Ronald Reagan continued to waive the sanctions imposed by the Pressler Amendment in the 1980s as Pakistan was deemed crucial after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. After the 9/11 attacks, successive US governments have continued to ignore the nefarious conduct of Pakistan at a huge cost to American strategy and increasingly, American lives.

Obama’s Asia strategy

Obama came to power and immediately sought a “G2" partnership with China. Not only did it create anxiety among American allies in Asia and countries like India, the G2 partnership did not fructify as well. Beijing’s long-term strategy was to displace, not to cooperate with the US. Obama’s pivot/rebalance to the Asia-Pacific has little to show as allies like Japan are increasingly worried about the US commitment to Asia. The US finally seems to be waking up to the dangers posed by China’s man-made islands in South China Sea.

Former defence secretary Leon Panetta once called India a “lynchpin" for the US’s strategy in Asia. On the other hand, the US seems interested in building India as a maritime security provider while maintaining a continental balance of power in South Asia. Defence partnership has undoubtedly grown by leaps and bounds, but is yet to reach anywhere close to what India and Russia already do in terms of co-development. The US’s rigidity on technology transfer is as much to blame as the poor business environment in India.

For small tactical gains in Afghanistan, the US continues to ignore its long-term strategy in Asia. The US has to understand that helping all competing players in the region gain enough partial victories is not a sound strategy, but a lack of it.

Modi’s foreign policy record

Some important achievements aside, the celebration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy victories has been quite premature. The focus on the neighbourhood, while successful in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, has not secured effective results in Nepal and Maldives. Modi surprised many—given the past denial of visa by the US—by doubling down on the relationship with the US. However, this has not got India a place at the negotiating table in Afghanistan. Moreover, it has pushed Russia to sell arms to Pakistan now.

The US continues to remain an unreliable partner of India—the Obama-Sharif joint statement and the sale of F-16s offering the confirmation to the doubtful. With the collective wisdom gained from history, Modi could have done with more hedged bets on the US.

Kunal Singh is staff writer (views) at Mint.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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