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by Jon P. Dorschner

In 1989 I wrote an article urging the United States to stop selling weapons in South Asia.1 It took a liberal stance, arguing that such a step would enable the U.S. to occupy the moral high ground. The U.S. should not sell expensive weapons systems to some of the poorest countries on earth. The U.S. sells weapons to both India and Pakistan, which they then use in senseless wars against each other. The U.S. reduces its credibility as an honest broker by selling weapons to both protagonists, and cannot honestly mediate the Indo/Pakistan conflict.

In his latest book Indian security analyst Bharat Karnad2 approaches this issue from a very different perspective. Karnad is a hardcore realist. He wants India to assume its rightful place among the world’s “great powers” and become a formidable military power. However, he sees Indian dependence on weapons systems imported from the United States and other developed nations as a drag on Indian potential. He calls for India to eschew imports and embark on a radical indigenization program to replace imported arms with those made by an expanded Indian arms industry that includes both the public and private sectors.

At first glance it appear there is considerable light between the liberal take and Karnad’s realist stance. In actuality, there is considerable overlap. Arms imports drain the Indian national exchequer. They consume valuable resources better spent on economic development and poverty alleviation. India’s number one problem is poverty. Unless and until India makes sufficient inroads into its excruciatingly high poverty rate, it will never become a world power.

Karnad correctly asserts that India could produce practically everything needed by its armed forces if it took the necessary steps to mobilize its potential. Such a development would have a profound positive impact on India’s economic development. Instead of spending valuable hard currency abroad, India would use its funds to put its own people to work. Indigenous weapons systems would be considerably cheaper than imported ones, freeing up funding for investment in Indian infrastructure and social programs. India could change from an arms importer to an arms exporter, further boosting the Indian economy.

As a realist, Karnad insists all foreign policy decisions must benefit India’s national interest. The same holds true for American foreign policy decisions. The overwhelming majority of American policy makers shares Karnad’s realist orientation and utilizes the same national interest test when making decisions for the United States.

There are plenty of liberal arguments for the United States to get out of the arms business in South Asia. By selling high-ticket weapons systems, the United States is an accomplice to South Asian policy makers who place weapons purchases above poverty reduction. Taking a moral stance against such policies increases American soft power by increasing American credibility. Imagine if the U.S. announced that instead of competing for billions of dollars in weapons contracts, it would market alternative energy systems to India, or work with the Indian public health sector to help improve the country’s medical infrastructure. American companies would reap enormous economic benefits from such projects. While the American arms industry is a powerful player in the American economy, it is only one sector. Must arms sales drive U.S. policy even when they do not benefit U.S. national interest?

But realist arguments can be used to advocate the same policy. Karnad and American realists share the same security concerns. They are worried about the balance of power in Asia. They see a rising China as a potential security threat, and believe China is seeking to become the Asian hegemon. Both Indian and American policy makers do not want to see this happen. They are determined to ensure India’s future security and prevent Chinese hegemony in Asia.

India must devise and implement a military policy aimed at ensuring its security from its principal threat. The principal threat is China, not Pakistan. While India and Pakistan have fought repeated military conflicts, no one seriously argues that Pakistan poses an existential threat to India. To the contrary, realists agree that it is in the national interest of both India and Pakistan to end their military confrontation and begin cooperation to ensure economic development of the region. South Asia’s inability to establish a credible free trade zone holds all South Asian countries back and prevents economic development. All the ingredients have long been in place for a rapprochement between India and Pakistan based not on mutual affection but mutual interests. Realists are the first to argue that sentimentality plays no role in foreign policy formulation. States cooperate not out of affection but national interest.

Eventually, Indian and Pakistani policymakers will agree on this fact and find the courage to take the necessary steps to make this happen. The terrorist threat in Pakistan may prove to be the necessary catalyst. There is a growing realization in the Pakistani military that it needs peace with India to free up military resources to tackle the existential threat posed by Islamic militancy. Pakistan has diverted military forces from the Indian border to counter-terrorist operations. This has not reduced Pakistani security.

While India hopes to “manage” its relationship with China through diplomatic engagement, the Chinese threat will always be present and will only grow as China increases its military and economic power and becomes more assertive. The China/India border is not properly demarcated and protracted India/China border talks have made no progress. China continues to claim large tracts of Indian territory. To meet this security challenge, India must extricate itself from the India/Pakistan dispute and recalibrate its military. Ending its reliance on arms imports will make India stronger and its military more credible. It will provide India with the infrastructure to defend itself in a protracted conflict without worrying about potential arms embargos by foreign arms suppliers.

American policy makers should realize that the indigenization of the Indian arms procurement process in in the national interest of both countries. A stronger and more credible Indian military provides India with more options. This is because it can defend itself without relying on foreign patrons. This client/patron relationship has long been a source of humiliation for India that has prevented genuine close relations. It removal would make it easier for the United States and India to cooperate on a more equal basis to help provide security in Asia.

This would have a big impact on nuclear weapons in South Asia.  India’s growing superiority in conventional military capability compels Pakistan to rely more and more on nuclear weapons. If India took concrete steps to convince Pakistan it has no designs on Pakistani sovereignty, it would remove Pakistan’s sense of insecurity and allow the two countries could begin to stand back from the brink.

An India militarily self-sufficient in conventional military hardware is more capable of providing its own security and less reliant on nuclear weapons, making it easier for India and Pakistan to negotiate credible limits on their nuclear arsenals. Nuclear weapons programs are incredibly expensive and serious economic drains. As both countries build more nuclear weapons and integrate them into their defense plans, the danger of nuclear war (either intentional or accidental) increases exponentially. Pakistan cannot continue to keep spending valuable resources on a massive nuclear arsenal aimed only at intimidating India.End.

1.  “A Farewell to U.S. Arms on the Indian Subcontinent,” The Secretary’s Open Forum Options, Summer, 1989
2. Why India is not a Great Power (Yet), Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2015

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


Author A native of Tucson, Arizona, Jon P. Dorschner earned a PhD. in South Asian studies from the University of Arizona. He currently teaches South Asian Studies and International Relations at his alma mater, and publishes articles and books on South Asian subjects. From 1983 until 2011, he was a career Foreign Service Officer. A Political Officer, Dr. Dorschner’s career specialties were internal politics and political/military affairs. He served in Germany, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the United States Military Academy at West Point and Washington. From 2003-2007 he headed the Internal Politics Unit at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India. In 2007-2008 Dr. Dorschner completed a one-year assignment on an Italian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Tallil, Iraq. From 2009-2011 he served as an Economic Officer, in Berlin, Germany.


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