US Secretary of State Antony Blinken yesterday defended military sales to Pakistan after withering criticism from growing US partner India, which considers itself the target of Islamabad’s F-16 planes.
Blinken met in Washington with India’s foreign minister a day after separate talks with his counterpart from Pakistan, whose Cold War alliance with Washington has frayed over Islamabad’s relationship with Afghanistan’s Taliban.
The top US diplomat defended a $450mn F-16 deal for Pakistan approved earlier in September, saying the package was for maintenance of Pakistan’s existing fleet.
“These are not new planes, new systems, new weapons. It’s sustaining what they have,” Blinken told a news conference with his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.
“Pakistan’s programme bolsters its capability to deal with terrorist threats emanating from Pakistan or from the region. It’s in no-one’s interests that those threats be able to go forward with impunity,” Blinken said.
Jaishankar did not criticise Blinken in public. But on Sunday, speaking at a reception for the Indian community in the United States, Jaishankar said of the US position, “You’re not fooling anybody.”
“For someone to say, I’m doing this because it’s for counter-terrorism, when you’re talking of an aircraft like the capability of the F-16, everybody knows where they are deployed,” he said, referring to the fleet’s positioning against India.
“Very honestly, it’s a relationship that has neither ended up serving Pakistan well nor serving American interests well,” he said.
India historically has bought military equipment from Moscow and has pressed the United States to waive sanctions required under a 2017 law for any nation that buys “significant” military hardware from Russia.
Speaking next to Blinken, Jaishankar noted that India has in recent years also made major purchases from the United States, France and Israel.
India assesses quality and purchase terms and “we exercise a choice which we believe is in our national interest,” he said, rejecting any change due to “geopolitical tensions.”
Blinken also called on Pakistan to seek debt relief from its close partner China as floods devastate the South Asian country.
Blinken promised strong US support for Pakistan as it dries out from the floods, which have submerged one-third of the country, an area the size of the United Kingdom.
“We send a simple message. We are here for Pakistan, just as we were during past natural disasters, looking ahead to rebuild,” Blinken said after talks in Washington with Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
“I also urged our colleagues to engage China on some of the important issues of debt relief and restructuring so that Pakistan can more quickly recover from the floods,” Blinken said.
China is a key economic and political partner of Pakistan, pushing ahead with a $54bn “economic corridor” that will build infrastructure and give Beijing an outlet to the Indian Ocean, although Chinese interests have also faced attacks from separatists.
Washington has repeatedly charged that China will reap the benefits while Pakistan will face unsustainable debt. The warnings by the United States — which considers China its preeminent global competitor — have repeatedly been brushed aside by Pakistan. Some 1,600 people — one-third of them children — have died in Pakistan’s floods and more than 7mn have been displaced, amid fears that such severe disasters will become more common due to climate change.
The US has committed $56mn in humanitarian aid and sent 17 planes full of supplies, with promises of long-term support.
Bilawal said that President Joe Biden, who signed a landmark domestic climate package last month, also needed to look at “climate justice.”
“It’s not only important that you ‘build back better’ here,” he said, using Biden’s campaign slogan.
“The opportunity of this crisis in Pakistan is that we must build back better — greener, more climate-resilient — back home as well,” he said.
“I believe that working together we can do this.”
Pakistan, despite being the fifth most populous country, contributes only about 0.8% of greenhouse gas emissions blamed for climate change due to its state of development.
The US relationship with Pakistan sharply deteriorated over the course of the two-decade war in Afghanistan.
Under heavy pressure, Pakistan provided crucial logistical access, but US officials believe Islamabad’s powerful military and intelligence apparatus never abandoned the Taliban, who swept back to power last year as US troops pulled out.
“We have had our differences — that’s no secret,” Blinken said.
But he said Pakistan and the United States “have a shared stake in Afghanistan’s future,” including greater freedoms for women and girls, whose rights have again been heavily curtailed by the Taliban under their austere interpretation of Islam.
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