The United States of America’s South Asia policy is in a transformative phase under the Trump administration. Taking a harder line than their predecessors, in its formal “South Asian Policy” announcement they have warned that Washington will not tolerate Pakistan offering safe haven to extremists. At this critical point in US-Asia Policy comes Senator Larry Pressler’s book “Neighbors in Arms”. The launch of this book was organised by Observer Research Foundation in collaboration with Penguin Random House on September 28 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi.
The panel for the evening included Mr. Sandeep Unnithan, Executive Editor, India Today; Mr. Vikram Sood, former Chief of R&AW; Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Senior Fellow & Head, Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative, ORF, along with the author, Senator Larry Pressler, famous in India for the Pressler Amendment. The enforcement of this amendment aimed at deterring Pakistan from acquiring nuclear weapons in 1990, marking a watershed moment in the US-India-Pakistan triangular relationship. Following the welcome remarks by Mr. Samir Saran, Vice President, ORF, the stage was set for the panelists to give their views on the book and its subject matter, focusing on US’s foreign policy regarding South Asia.
Mr. Unnithan, the moderator for the session, opened the discussion with the mention of “Octopus”, a term in the book which referred to the power wielding military-industrial complex in the US. The tentacles of this “Octopus” go right down the policy corridors influencing foreign policy decisions and strategy. The discussion stirred towards the latest statement by President Donald Trump condemning Pakistan for offering refuge to terrorists. Mr. Pressler was of the view that the US should be tougher in giving aide and arms to Pakistan. He stated, the tentative conclusions of a government wide policy review committee, that the US cannot treat India and Pakistan as equals in terms of nation states, unless Pakistan’s behavior changes substantially. The nations of the world need to get Pakistan into an agreement to substantiate a clear chain of command for using Nuclear Weapons, since it houses nuclear weapons in at least three or four tactical locations posing a threat to the region and the world at large.
Mr. Sood commented on this problem of loose nukes in Pakistan, and established that when nuclear states let terror manifest it almost amounts to providing terrorists with nuclear weapons. The worry according to him is that the nuclear trigger in Pakistan lies with a state which is unstable and has potential to go rouge. Mr. Sood appreciated President Trump’s tough stance towards Pakistan, but highlighted the need to control the “Octopus” for tangible action in this direction.
Dr. Rajeswari Rajagopalan enumerated that the security of tactical nuclear weapons are related to their safe transportation within the country which Pakistan lacks. She pointed out that the Islamisation of the Pakistan Army, which took place due to the introduction of Sharia Law in the 1980s, eroded its professional nature. This has made the security fabric of Pakistan state vulnerable to extremist Islamic ideology.
Further into the discussion, Mr. Pressler suggested widening the areas of cooperation between India and the US — from defence technology to agricultural technology and health technology. According to him, a real alliance should include human elements and soft power initiatives. He viewed the present Nuclear Agreement between India and the US as a large arms deal. He emphasised the addition of social, economic and developmental elements to India-US alliance. Mr. Sood and Dr. Rajeswari Rajagopalan explained how the nuclear agreement faced road blocks in India with the Liability Bill and hence full potential of the agreement could not be leveraged both domestically and bilaterally.
She pointed out that the US has vital interest in the South Asian region despite the emergence of China, Japan and Russia in the Asian strategic space. India historically was never comfortable playing the balance of power game, but the security environment of the region has forced India to change its approach and diplomatic maneuver towards building greater partnerships with US and its allies. Hence strategic convergence, of which arms trade is an important aspect, is bringing together India and US, according to Dr. Rajeswari Rajagopalan.
During the question answer session, the idea of Nuclear Disarmament at a regional level as well as at a global scale was discussed along with questions concerned with identifying Pakistan as a terrorist state.