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In a notification to the US Congress last week, the State Department announced what it calls a “foreign military sale" to Pakistan for F-16 “sustainment"—essentially upgrades and maintenance worth $450 million. This proposed sale is ostensibly aimed at “allowing Pakistan to retain interoperability with US and Partner forces in ongoing counterterrorism efforts and in preparation for future contingency operations".

For each of the big three powers in the region—the US, China and India—there are several dynamics at play here.

For the US itself, the sale is the first major American security assistance to Pakistan since the Donald Trump administration stopped such assistance in 2018 on the grounds that Islamabad was not actually a sincere partner in the US fight against terrorism.

So what has led the Joe Biden administration to reverse course? It is difficult to escape the conclusion that this—and possibly other future steps—are quid pro quo for Pakistani assistance in locating and eliminating Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

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In this sense, counterterrorism is certainly at the heart of the American move and suggests that Pakistan remains a valuable partner for the US in such efforts. It is another reminder if it were needed that the Americans withdrew from Afghanistan without having achieved their objectives of making the US safe from terrorism.

At the same time, the stress in the American statement that the deal “does not include new capabilities, weapons, or munitions" hints at the limits of future US-Pakistan ties.

This then suggests that the American action cannot be expected to pull Pakistan away from the Chinese orbit. While the Pakistani military establishment’s preference is for American weapons, Beijing has smartly made up the shortfall in the quality of their weapons with volume, diversity of weapons platforms and intense military diplomacy.

The Chinese have also invested in graduating their relationship with Pakistan from engagements with just the political and military elites to one that now involves ever-widening economic, developmental and people-to-people linkages. By contrast, despite their decades of involvement in Pakistan, the Americans have never been able to shed their image on the Pakistani street of an exploitative, infidel power.

The American sale—defended as “a safety and maintenance program"—therefore, makes it look like the Pakistanis are having their cake and eating it too, while India is left holding the short end of the stick.

The US, which New Delhi views as a partner, is helping refurbish a Pakistani weapons platform primarily tasked with operations against India; F-16s were also used in the February 2019 Balakot confrontation. To add insult to injury, the announcement came in the midst of the Quad Senior Officials Meeting as well as bilateral 2+2 meetings between delegations from the respective defence and foreign ministries in New Delhi.

Indian officials are reported to have protested the decision at “each and every" bilateral meeting with the Americans last week. But New Delhi must be careful not to protest too much.

At one level, the American claim that the proposed sale to Pakistan “will not alter the basic military balance in the region" is correct. This is so for at least two reasons. One, it makes no difference at all to the all-weather relationship between Pakistan and China, another of India’s adversaries. Two, if the mere refurbishment of Pakistani F-16s can upset the military balance, then it only confirms a less than satisfactory state of affairs with the Indian Air Force’s combat capability. It is not the Americans then but India’s own ham-handed approach to modernizing and augmenting the Indian Air Force’s capabilities that will be responsible for any changed military balance.

At another level, it should not be surprising that the US will do what is in its interests just as the Indians will do what is in theirs. New Delhi has, for example, continued diplomatic and commercial engagements with Russia over American objections and have also decided to stay out of the trade agreement of the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

If India seeks leadership in the region, it should take the onus upon itself for driving and shaping relationships—including with Pakistan—not simply cry foul at what others do.

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