Home / News / World /  Disappointed by US Decision to upgrade Pakistani F-16s: Meera Shankar

Former Indian envoy to the US Meera Shankar questioned the US’s modernisation of Pakistan’s F-16 fighter jets, and said its domestic divisions threaten to undercut its global power. In an interview to Mint, she highlighted numerous challenges in the relationship and added that differences could also emerge over India’s desire for independence in foreign affairs and tensions in the US-Russia relationship. Shankar said India’s geopolitical balancing gets harder when partners like the US and Russia clash. Edited excerpts from the interview:

You entered the foreign service in the early 1970s, and served as ambassador in Washington from 2009 until 2011. What are your reflections on how India’s relationship with the US has changed over the last four decades?

Certainly, I think there’s been a transformation in the India-US relationship. If you look at the relationship post independence , it was conditioned by our divergent approaches to foreign policy. The US was looking at building alliances to contain communism and the Soviet Union and China. India,as a newly independent country, was looking to create more space for itself to take its own decisions in its own interest. Two factors were responsible for enabling a shift. One was the economic reforms which India carried out in 1991. Interacting with the global economy became a much more important factor in India’s overall economic approach and the US, as the world’s largest economy, became important for India in this process. For the US, the fact that there were now new opportunities in the previously closed Indian market made it look afresh at India as an economic partner. On the other hand, you also had the collapse of the Soviet Union. That shifted global geopolitics very, very fundamentally and India reassessed its foreign policy approach. That has led to where we are now. As Strategic Partners - we have cooperation and dialogues between India and America on strategic and security issues, trade and economic engagement, technology, education, health, energy and climate change. The relationship is broad and not just between the two governments. It’s between businesses on both sides, particularly in the IT and high tech sectors, and between people, given the large Indian-American community.

Could you give us a sense of the abiding strengths and challenges in the relationship?

I think the abiding strength of the relationship is that it is broad based. There is a bilateral consensus in the United States between Republicans and Democrats that they need to build the relationship with India. Even Nixon, who in 1971 was seen as tilting towards Pakistan, in his memoir wrote that the next century is going to be one of competition between India and China, and that he hoped that the US would support democratic India. It speaks to how far the Americans had moved in terms of their perception of what the challenges were likely to be in the coming century and also their belief that India would be an important partner. In India too, the major political parties recognise the importance of the relationship with America. In terms of the challenges - the US is a global power and it has global interests. And those global interests may not necessarily be in harmony with what India perceives as its interests, for instance with regard to Pakistan The asymmetry of power with the US can sometimes be a challenge when there are divergent views. However, we have learnt to handle these differences in a more mature fashion, rather than letting each difference grow into a make or break issue between the two sides.

The US recently approved a $450 million sustainment program for Pakistan’s F-16. This has conjured up this old image of a United States that acts as a sort of “fair weather friend" and plays both India and Pakistan. Your sense of the issue?

I’m disappointed that the US has resumed the upgradation of these F-16s. The fact that the US should engage with Pakistan is understandable. It is perhaps in our interest not to have Pakistan completely dependent on China and for there to be balancing influences like America. However, economic assistance to Pakistan at this stage, when the economy is in such a dire state, might have been more relevant than providing $450 million worth of military assistance. Of course, the F-16s are not really going to be used in the battle against terrorism. They are not designed for that purpose and have been deployed with an eye on India. This is a matter of concern to us. However, I would also say that there are likely to be inherent limits as to how far the US-Pakistan relationship will develop in the future. The level of trust between the two countries has certainly been eroded after Osama bin Laden was found within Pakistan. President Biden didn’t even talk to Imran Khan when he was Prime Minister.

It seems that America and Russia are hurtling towards competition. It seems that there are now two camps with the Russians and the Chinese on one side and the West on the other. Given our relationship with Moscow and Washington, how will these tensions impact India’s foreign policy?

When US-Russia relations are strained or adversarial, it obviously makes it more difficult for India to navigate between the two. We have always sought to sustain our relationship with Russia because it’s been a good strategic relationship over the years particularly in the security sphere. However, if you look at the economic relationship, it’s very skimpy. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, neither trade nor investment has picked up in any substantive way. People to people ties between Russia and India are not very robust. So it’s a good relationship in the field of security and defense but it’s a more limited one. Increased pressure from the West may push Russia towards China even though Russia is taking the view that its relationship with India and relationship with China are in separate baskets. However, we have to watch this space in the future. With the US, of course, we have a far more broad based relationship and a strong convergence of strategic interests. vis-a-vis what both perceive as their primary challenge - how to deal with an increasingly assertive and often aggressive China.

There is an increasing concern about the growing divides in America’s domestic politics. This may lead to questions about whether a divided America can be a reliable long term partner for India. Your sense of this issue?

I think America’s domestic divides do impact its influence abroad. When President Trump walked out of the Climate Change Agreement or the Iran nuclear accord it raised questions of US reliability. However Democrats and Republicans are still able to agree on important areas of foreign policy such as the challenge posed by China and on support for Ukraine. For India, I think it is important that we not pick sides in American domestic disputes because we have not been a partisan issue in their politics. For example, we have seen a continued nostalgia for Trump’s leadership which certain sections in India continue to voice. This is not a wise way to go. It is much better for India to remain neutral and not embrace either side in these disputes.

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