US At Centre Of South Asian Arms Race

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When it comes to US policy in South Asia, it’s a case of do as we say, not as we do. Consider, to begin with, the rhetoric.

The Obama White House has gone to great lengths to demand that Pakistan end its support for militants targeting India. It wants the Pakistan Army to end its "obsession" with India-inspired oblivion by moving its large reserves from the Indian border to engage the Taliban and al Qaeda on the eastern frontier. Most of Pakistan’s active armed forces are located on the tense border with India where they are more than matched by the much larger Indian military.

At the same time, however, the US — along with, to a much lesser extent, China and almost all other major arms exporting nations — has continued to export billions of dollars worth of sophisticated weaponry to both India and Pakistan.

The militarisation of Pakistan is well known internationally. The army dominates the country’s economy, its regional policies and has considerable clout in domestic politics. Ever since 1950s it has looked to foreign governments like the United States and China for its arms. Since 11 September 2001, it has been lavished with billions of military aid ostensibly to battle the Taliban and al Qaeda.

But the US has played a pivotal role in the militarisation of rival India as well.

In India last month, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton signed off on the innocuous-sounding "End User Monitoring Agreement" with her Indian counterpart. The agreement opens the door to the sale of high tech American weaponry to the world’s second most populous nation. That includes an upgrade of India’s air force — already the fourth largest in the world — estimated to be worth up to US$12 billion. It’s a prize that has the world’s largest arms manufacturers like Boeing and Lockheed Martin scrambling for a slice.

The agreement is one part of a major new integration of India into the US sphere of influence that cuts across several sectors. Following Clinton’s July visit, India and the US agreed to an annual "strategic dialogue" chaired by the two foreign ministers and attended by a wide range of senior bureaucrats from Agriculture, Energy, Education and Homeland Security and industry representatives.

Clinton made no bones about the prospects of stronger ties between the US and India. With its ever-growing economy, regional clout, large pool of labour and equally massive markets, India is a juicy prospect for American business.

In India, like Pakistan and all other nations spending big on arms, the surge in military expenditure is seen as a necessary part of national prestige. As one Indian commentator remarked, nuclear power and weaponry is a "signal broadly to the world that India is a legitimate global power". Such sentiments are routinely echoed over in Pakistan whenever its latest military hardware is put on show.

India recently unveiled the first of a fleet of five nuclear submarines capable of firing nuclear warheads. Pakistan is understandably frightened by the prospects of an Indian navy capable of blockading its sea lanes. It describes the new fleet as a threat to regional peace and security. But for Indian planners, China’s expanding network of ports from Pakistan to Burma is a much bigger concern.

India shares those concerns with the US, a key reason for a shift in American policy towards its nuclear arsenal under the previous Bush administration. That policy, along with a push for an economically robust, militarised India, has continued under President Obama.

The two countries also agreed on a deal that will enable US companies to build two nuclear reactors in India. Although part of a civilian program, it reflects a growing American acceptance of India’s nuclear credentials. As Zia Mian notes, India is one of only three countries including Israel and Pakistan that is producing new fissile material for nuclear weapons. Over the past 12 months, India has tested powerful nuclear-capable missiles with ranges of up to 5000 kilometres. The US has remained silent on these developments.

Last November’s attacks in Mumbai did much to catalyse the growing relationship between the US and India. US security officials were quick to offer their services to India while the attack, not the first or largest but the most significant strike against Westerners in the subcontinent, fed into the mindset that Hindu-dominated India was another front in the international fight against Muslim terrorism. This attitude persists despite the fact that India has been engulfed by hundreds of Naxalite — or Maoist — rebellions that are unrelated to Islam.

"India … finds itself in an enviable position as both Russian, as well as the US and other western nations’ industries, are very keen on selling it military equipment," says the online magazine Defence Professionals. The country is militarising at a breathtaking rate, increasing its defence expenditure for this year by 34 per cent to $34 billion. The Government plans to spend anywhere between $35–60 billion on its arsenal over the next five years. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India is the tenth largest military spender in the world.

These are astronomical figures in their own right, but for a country where over 455 million people live on less than $2 a day it is particularly troubling.

While it speaks of bringing peace to the region, and the need for alleviating poverty to prevent further terrorism, the United States continues to fuel an arms race that is bleeding South Asia of the wealth it needs to invest in its still desperately poor population.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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