While the old Cold War enemies have called a truce, the historical animosities in our patch of the world seem unlikely to let India and Pakistan to come in from the cold.
For the generations that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, the satirical Mad magazine was the best guide to seeing the world as it really was.
The irregular periodical steered them through the America of their time, parodying everything from politics and culture, and exposing big business, the media, government and the Cold War.
The absurd theatre of the Cold War was played out in ‘Spy vs Spy’, a wordless but maniacally funny comic strip that featured two agents who were constantly warring with each other, using a variety of stratagems and booby traps to destroy the other.
The spies were absolutely identical except that one was dressed all in white and the other in full black as they alternated between victory and defeat in each new strip.
Mad magazine’s brilliant metaphor for the Cold War is relevant for us in South Asia where the two largest countries continue with similar antics as they engage in a crazy arms build-up that has long lost any logic it may have pretended to have.
Periodically, there is an outcry in one country as the other goes shopping for ever more sophisticated weaponry, ostensibly to match the arsenal of the other.
South Asia today is ‘Spy vs Spy’ in menacing form as India and Pakistan do their best to outdo each other in political and military brinksmanship. There is nothing to smile over though.
Nor does the plot offer anything radically different as the two nuclear-armed neighbours come up with fresh excuses for adding to their arsenal.
As countries that figure in the list of the top 10 global arms buyers there is a periodic refrain in both India and Pakistan that conventional asymmetry is growing in South Asia, which, perhaps, is the unintended hilarity in a race between nuclear powers in which a crazed Dr Strangelove could trigger a nuclear holocaust as the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film showed.
The current hysteria over the growing “conventional asymmetry” in South Asia has been occasioned by a fresh round of reports that the Pentagon has established its first-ever country cell to speed up defence cooperation with India.
The India Rapid Reaction Cell (IRRC) was announced in January this year when President Barack Obama visited India as further endorsement of Washington’s plan to accord high status to New Delhi in the changing geopolitics of the region.
The cell is intended primarily to nudge India into some action on the India-US Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) which has been hibernating since 2012.
Diplomats with expertise on the issue say the cell is as a sweetener to India that there will be a nodal point to address its complaints on defence matters, specially as a mechanism to accelerate the process of co-development and co-production of advanced weapon systems in India.
But it merely covers the administrative lacuna in addressing India’s concerns, they say.
Set up soon after Defence Secretary Ashton Carter took charge at the Pentagon, the IRRC is headed by Keith Webster, director at the International Cooperation Office which deals with acquisition, technology and logistics.
But reports of its significance, however, may have been greatly exaggerated, according to some diplomats, as part of a well-designed US strategy to bring India deeper into its military embrace.
Narendra Modi is keen to make defence production the central pivot of his ‘make in India’ manufacturing programme but his vaulting ambition here is stymied by the ground realities.
The point is the DTTI which envisions co-production of high-tech items will not become operational until India inks three “foundational” agreements that will allow sharing of classified information, logistics and geo-spatial cooperation.
Although the US says these are routine agreements that have been signed by all its partners, India has been reluctant to do so. It has inked one such foundational agreement on sharing military information in 2002 but the remaining three continue to cause unease in New Delhi.
But even if India does sign these pacts, defence analysts say India could well be chasing a pie in the sky because the US is unlikely to part with the kind of cutting edge technology that it is seeking, such as for jet engines.
For the time being, technology cooperation has been listed for four pathfinder projects: the next generation Raven unmanned aerial vehicles, roll-on roll-off intelligence gathering and reconnaissance modules for the Super-Hercules aircraft, mobile electric hybrid power sources and protective gear for soldiers in chemical and biological warfare.
But as a new ‘security rebalancing’ takes shape in the region, India might find itself importing even more of US military hardware than it already does. In the past decade, the US defence sales to India have crossed $ 10 billion, while traditional suppliers like Russia, Israel, France and Britain have had their deals pruned considerably.
The long romance of its relationship with the Russians appears to have all but ended with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov saying a couple of weeks ago that Moscow considered Islamabad its “closest partner”.
That was a stunning declaration that the old order has changed forever. Russia and Pakistan signed a bilateral defence cooperation agreement aimed at strengthening military relations in November 2014 and since then the two have been negotiating the supply of the latest Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets and Mi-35 helicopters.
In a neat cementing of strategic partnerships, Pakistan’s all-weather ally and largest arms supplier, China, will be the first country to buy the formidable Su-35 which had been initially offered to India. But Delhi’s lack of interest, apparently on cost concerns, means Islamabad is likely to swing a deal.
As India and Pakistan dance with new partners in the military quadrille that both countries seem addicted to, the bill for defence purchases by both countries can only go up exponentially. All that would change is the source of defence supplies.
If, for instance, Pakistan is discussing a draft contract for the delivery of four Mi-35M ‘Hind E’ combat helicopters from Russia, India is reportedly close to inking deals with the US for 22 Apache attack helicopters and 15 Chinook heavy-lift choppers.
While the old Cold War enemies have called a truce, the historical animosities in our patch of the world seem unlikely to let India and Pakistan to come in from the cold. Especially since border tensions have been rising over the past 18 months. For the arms exporters of the world it is more good news.
Dawn/Asia News Network