Preserving balance of power

US AND SOUTH ASIA : The persistence of a particular geopolitical image of the subcontinent remains entrenched in the US strategic consciousness.

Preserving balance of power
The White House decision to approve the sale of nuclear capable F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan has once again sparked an interest on the nature of America’s role in the subcontinent. While most Indian observers have expressed their discontent, there is no serious attempt to deconstruct US policy. Many focus on Pakistan’s ability to manipulate a “misguided” Washington. Such views are common but betray a naiveté.

A fundamental assumption that shapes Indian thinking is the notion that US involvement in South Asia was primarily a Cold War policy with India suffering the brunt of collateral damage in a larger chess game. Let’s scrutinise this belief. A fascinating State Department document from April 3, 1950 reveals early US thinking. The document titled, “Policy of the United States with respect to Pakistan” is instructive in understanding how US policymakers viewed this region.

The broad aim of the authors is to highlight Pakistan’s future viability and argue for a more proactive policy of strategic support to the ruling regime. “Pakistan will emerge after India, as the strongest power between Turkey and Japan on the periphery of Asia.” Senior policymakers are urged to take Pakistan’s request for “military assistance,” first made in 1948 and 1949, more seriously.

“Pakistan authorities have informally but repeatedly declared their desire to associate themselves more closely with the US in long range defence planning...” Drawing attention to Pakistani public opinion, which perceived an uncertainty regarding US intentions, the authors note: “It is becoming increasingly necessary, therefore, to remind the Pakistanis that we are neither pro-Indian…nor anti-Muslim.”

The authors also note that the US and UK policies towards South Asia are convergent: “we believe that Pakistan is more likely to remain closely associated with us… we want Pakistan-UK ties to remain close and friendly…comprehensive high-level discussions should be held with the UK to clarify the extent to which our respective policies toward Pakistan and South Asia afford a basis for cooperative effort in the area.” This is interesting because right until the mid-1950s, Nehru continued to believe that India’s Commonwealth membership was a means to influence western policy in South Asia.

The document then underscores not only the advantage of encouraging Pakistan’s quest for a role in West Asia but the logic of shaping South Asia’s balance itself: “it may in time become desirable to critically review our concept that Pakistan’s destiny is or should be bound with India…There is reason to question whether solidarity with India will ever be achieved… Moreover, the vigour and methods which have characterised India’s execution of its policy of consolidating the princely states, and its inflexible attitude with regard to Kashmir may indicate national traits which in time, if not controlled, could make India Japan’s successor in Asiatic imperialism. In such a circumstance, a strong Muslim bloc under the leadership of Pakistan, and friendly to the US, might afford a desirable balance of power in South Asia.”

Such geopolitical constructions reflected an early strategy to profoundly shape the subcontinental balance rather than simply a narrow transactional se-arch for accessing bases and facilities for Soviet containment goals. In 1954, these images found concrete expression in an agreement that laid the foundation for US strategic commitment to Pakistan’s political, economic and military security.

But the Soviet threat was merely a fig leaf to produce a regional order that wo-uld be aligned to US geostrategy in the wider area. By the late 1950s, as former diplomat Y D Gundevia recalled, Pakistan “was equipped with an army which could easily match anything and everything that India could put into the field.”

US documents are also instructive. In a December 1963, a cable to Lyndon Johnson, Chester Bowles, a former envoy to India, records: “The very nature of the highly sophisticated and mobile equipment which we have given Pakistan, equipment which is much better adapted to fighting Indians on the north Indian plains than to fighting the Chinese and Russians in the Himalayas and Hindu Kush”.

Logic of regional dimension

Most Indian strategists are so accustomed to interpreting US policies in South Asia as part of a global geostrategy that they overlook the regional dimension, which has a logic of its own. Baldev Raj Nayar is one of the few scholars to have engaged this question in his 1976 book, American Geopolitics and India.

Nayar argues that the balance of power “is a fundamental, unalterable principle of US foreign policy…This principle is directed not only at the global military equilibrium…but also at equilibrium in regional contexts. This is so because the global reach of American power makes equilibrium in different regions of the world of strategic concern to the US and also because the global equilibrium itself is linked to equilibrium at the regional level.”

In South Asia, US “military containment flowed from the very logic of the encounter between a global power and a middle power. It was but a specific manifestation in the South Asian subcontinent of a more general principle…All this was over and beyond the containment directed at the Communist powers.”

For Nayar, the very quest to be an independent centre of power, as India has sought from the outset, is simply incongruent with America’s role and geostrategy. “This policy is often referred to as maintaining regional balances, but so expressed it suggests that the US is doing something that is rather natural, merely upholding something that is given by the nature of the situation. In fact, what the US does is to create a new balance which serves to neutralise the independent but non-cooperative middle power and then attempts to maintain that balance.”

The persistence of a particular geopolitical image of the subcontinent remains entrenched in American strategic consciousness. Delhi would do well to craft its geostrategies in light of this reality.

(The writer is a research scholar at King’s College London)

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