India and the United States sought to deepen their security and defense cooperation during U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s recent visit to India. Bilateral talks focused on logistics-sharing, collaboration on defense technology, and exchange of views on regional and international security issues. Pakistan closely followed Secretary Carter’s visit to India, with concerns over how deepening Indo-U.S. defense cooperation will impact Pakistan’s security. This growing closeness will fuel Pakistan’s security concerns, and potentially undercut efforts to enable a positive Pakistani role in the region.
Their wide-ranging engagement in recent years reflects a convergence of interests between India and the United States. During Carter’s visit, both sides announced plans to undertake extensive consultations on maritime security, anti-submarine warfare, and expand the scope of joint military exercises. To strengthen this commitment, India and the United States reached an understanding to negotiate an agreement for sharing supplies and services at ground facilities, air bases, and naval ports, commonly known as the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). The agreement, in Secretary Carter’s words, will allow both countries to “do even more.”
Secretary Carter set the stage for his visit to India by speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) on U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific, and its strategic partnership with India. Answering a question on how deepening engagement with India will impact the Pakistan-United States relationship, Secretary Carter asserted that while both India and Pakistan are “respected partners and friends”, the United States has “much more to do with India today”, sharing a “whole global agenda”, while Pakistan remains an important security partner on issues related to Afghanistan and terrorism. This reflects the current view of South Asia in Washington. U.S. policymakers look at Pakistan as a crucial stakeholder in South and Central Asian regional security. But when it comes to wider Asia (East Asia and the Pacific), Pakistan is considered a peripheral country. Meanwhile, over the past decade, India has emerged as an actor that can operate beyond South Asia, into the Indo-Pacific region. The United States considers India as a possible counterweight to China in the Asia-Pacific region. Pakistan, on the contrary, has historically had a competitive and tense relationship with India, and a cooperative political and strategic partnership with China. These historical trajectories and geographical linkages continue to shape Pakistan’s regional security calculus.
As India and the United States conclude and operationalize the LEMOA, Pakistan’s security concerns will be heightened. This is because India will be able to access facilities on U.S. aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean region, the Gulf, and other U.S. bases in the region, enhancing operational capabilities of the Indian navy. Indian patrols along the coastline of Pakistan are expected to increase significantly. As Gwadar port, a crucial node of the CPEC, becomes operational, Pakistan will seek anti-access/area denial capabilities. The Arabian Sea will emerge as an active front of Indo-Pak competition. Moreover, the Chinese navy could also increase its patrols in the Indian Ocean region, which will intensify Indian fears.
However, more fundamentally, Pakistan is worried about the close India-United States defense and security partnership as part of the United States’ rebalance to Asia. From Pakistan’s perspective, the objective of this strategy is two-fold. First, to contain China’s expansion and balance its growing military modernization, and second, the gradual isolation of Pakistan. Every high-level engagement between India and the United States is bound to exacerbate these concerns. This is because in Islamabad, U.S. support for India is viewed as a net-negative for Pakistan. So, when defense cooperation between India and the United States deepens, Pakistan seeks similar treatment from Washington. However, this year, Congress has placed new conditions on subsidizing the sale of eight F-16s to Pakistan, as well as on the $450 million in military aid.
This will also undermine efforts to encourage Pakistan to play a more constructive role in the region, especially on issues related to terrorism and Afghanistan. These are two issues which Pakistan and the United States currently cooperate on. But when conditions are being placed on military assistance to Pakistan by the U.S. Congress while the same body is advocating for boosting ties with India, Pakistan will have little incentive to act on Afghanistan and U.S. concerns over the Haqqani network.
To remedy this, a broader framework on regional security is needed, where India, Pakistan, the United States, and China could discuss their respective concerns and work to improve the regional security environment. Such a dialogue may be a long shot, but discussions involving these four stakeholders will yield qualitatively different conversations on regional security than what they have in bilateral settings. In the short term, U.S. policymakers need to engage with Pakistan on how the U.S. rebalance to Asia and its policies in the Indo-Pacific region will affect Pakistan and the bilateral relationship. Pakistan, in turn, can discuss its vision of the regional order. Such a discussion could be a starting point toward addressing each side’s concerns and strengthening regional security.