If a report in a US newspaper is to be believed, a US-Pakistan nuclear deal might be on the cards. The report says that such a deal is being considered around Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington this month.
The report would not have appeared credible but for the evasive comment of the State Department on the subject and the official reaction of the spokesperson of our Ministry of External Affairs cautioning the US authorities against any such decision.
Ever since the India-US nuclear deal was signed, the Pakistanis, obsessed with the idea of parity with India, have been seeking a similar deal.
Besides calling the India-US nuclear deal discriminatory, Pakistan has condemned it as threat to its security and warned that it would take all necessary steps to safeguard its interests. Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz aggressively reiterated this on the occasion of President Barack Obama’s visit to India in January this year.
By remaining silent, the US has only encouraged this absurd posturing by Pakistan.
US soft on Pakistan
Some western nonproliferation specialists have been advocating for some time a nuclear deal with Pakistan in order to remove its sense of grievance. They feel it would give Pakistan an incentive to limit the expansion of its nuclear arsenal and stabilize the nuclear situation in the sub-continent.
Such advocacy is largely prompted by negative attitudes towards India which, with its historical opposition to the NPT, is seen as the one responsible for nuclearizing South Asia. In their eyes, this is one way of denying India any one-sided advantage in nuclear status.
Until now, the US Administration has been differentiating India’s case from that of Pakistan and disclaiming any move to offer the latter a similar deal, thought the tenor of its statements has not been sufficiently convincing.
In fact, both the US and China, to different degrees, have aided Pakistan in achieving its nuclear and missile ambitions.
A US-Pak nuclear deal will erode the strategic importance of the Indo-US nuclear deal
In the past, knowing the China-Pakistan nuclear and missile nexus, the US has waived the application of its laws for larger geopolitical reasons linked to the combat against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan factor has, unfortunately, continued to condition US thinking on Pakistan’s nuclear and other errant behavior.
The US was remarkably soft with Pakistan on the AQ Khan case. It has tolerated Pakistan’s tactics to obstruct discussions on the FMCT at Geneva at a time when fissile material control was still on the US agenda.
It has overlooked supplies of additional Chinese nuclear reactors to Pakistan in violation of China’s NSG commitments.
One could speculate that having settled the nuclear question with India, this was one way for the US to allow Pakistan to be a beneficiary of external cooperation in its nuclear sector, as part of the traditional policy of “hyphenation”.
US agencies and think tanks have been propagating information about the frenetic pace at which Pakistan has been expanding its nuclear arsenal, without any visible reaction from the US government.
At one time, worried about the rise of radicalism in the country, the US was expressing concern about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. But such fears are no longer being expressed.
US conduct over the years suggests that it has favored the idea of a Pakistani nuclear capability to balance India’s. Remarkably, its complaisance towards the Pakistani nuclear program has continued long after the end of the Cold War.
Adding to all this, US treatment of Iran’s nuclear ambitions contrasts strikingly with its handling of Pakistan’s nuclear transgressions. While draconian sanctions have been applied on Iran, in Pakistan’s case the US has argued that sanctions might hasten its slide towards failure as a state and increase the risk of its nuclear assets falling into the hands of religious extremists.
This is specious logic as the US has not taken any precautionary step to curb the development of Pakistan’s nuclear assets, including its decision to introduce tactical nuclear weapons in the subcontinent. An expanded Pakistani nuclear arsenal is even more likely to fall into the wrong hands.
US reaction to Pakistan’s loose talk about using nuclear weapons against India has been, moreover, notably mild. It could and should have been much stronger.
The hesitation to impose sanctions on Pakistan contrasts also with the willingness to impose sanctions even on a powerful country like Russia, including its most senior leaders and functionaries.
What inhibits the US to strong arm Pakistan despite its provocations remains unclear.
The argument that for dealing with the situation in Afghanistan the US needs Pakistan’s assistance is not convincing. The US needs Russia even more for dealing with yet more complex and fraught problems as Iran and West Asia in general, including the rise of the Islamic State, not to mention the fall-out of mounting tensions in Russia-West relations.
It is mystifying why the US should want to politically legitimize Pakistan’s nuclear conduct through an India-like nuclear deal.
In India’s case, the US wanted to make a geopolitical shift with the rise of China in mind. It saw India as a counterweight to China in Asia, but for this the nonproliferation issue which inhibited India’s international role had to be resolved.
Pakistan is in fact China’s closest ally. The geopolitical purpose of a nuclear deal with Pakistan will only legitimize the China-Pakistan nuclear and security relationships and undermine India’s strategic interests vis-a-vis both these adversaries.
The US has wanted to build a strategic relationship with India largely around shared interests in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific regions in view of mounting signs of Chinese political and military assertiveness and its ambitious naval expansion program.
Through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the development of Gwadar, Pakistan is facilitating an increased Chinese strategic presence in the Indian Ocean, which contradicts this US strategy.
According to reports, the underlying reasoning offered by the US, if correctly reported, is almost shocking. In return for an NSG waiver, Pakistan will be asked to restrict its nuclear program to weapons and delivery systems that are appropriate to its actual defense needs against India’s nuclear threat, and not to deploy missiles beyond a certain range.
This implies that the US accepts that India’s nuclear program is Pakistan-centric and that it poses a threat to Pakistan.
The Chinese threat to India is being overlooked and the fact that India faces a double Pakistan-China nuclear threat – in view of the close nuclear collaboration between the two countries- is being ignored.
The US, it appears, would be comfortable if only India would be exposed to the Pakistani nuclear threat, not others.
US has been consistently soft on Pakistan’s errant behavior in matters like nuclear weapons
But then, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, according to its own leaders, is India-centric. Pakistan is not threatening China, Iran or Saudi Arabia with its nuclear weapons. Which are the countries that the US wants to protect against the use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan?
Pakistan is developing delivery systems to reach any point in India. The US would apparently be comfortable with that, but not if it developed missiles of longer range. But whose security is US worried about if Pakistan did that? US itself, Japan, Australia, Singapore, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel?
China, we know, opposes India’s NSG entry without Pakistan. It would seem the US would be willing to accommodate both China and Pakistan if the latter limited its nuclear threat to India.
By implication then, the US has no stakes in India’s security from an unstable and adventurous Pakistan, despite our so-called strategic partnership.
A reward for Pakistan’s military
The timing of a nuclear deal would be odd too. It is now universally recognized that it is General Raheel Sharif and not Nawaz Sharif who really hold the reins of power in the country. A nuclear deal will be a reward for the Pakistan military and not the civilian power, as Pakistan’s nuclear program is under military control.
Does the US want to reward the Pakistan military for its operations in North Waziristan against the Pakistani Taliban and is this considered meritorious contribution to the fight against Al Qaeda and terrorism?
One would have thought far more important for the US and the West is the rise of the Islamic State and its ideology. Compared to which North Waziristan is a side-show. In any case, the Pakistani military is not fighting the Haqqani group.
Worse, while Pakistani is being accepted as an honest mediator in the Afghan reconciliation process, the Taliban showed its mounting force by occupying Kunduz.
One hopes that the US report does not accurately reflect President Obama’s thinking.
If it does, it will show how hollow is the strategic relationship between India and the US, and why it would not be wise to trust the US.
The India-US nuclear deal will be eroded of much of its strategic importance bilaterally, as result. The US would have, in addition, administered a big political blow to Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has gone out of his way to improve strategic understanding with the US.
But then, news reports are news reports, and they could merely be political kite-flying. In which case, the India-US relationship will not receive a big jolt for all the reasons mentioned in this article.
(The author is a former foreign secretary of India. He has also served as India’s ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)