WASHINGTON — THE United States is watching nervously as an old friend and a new acquaintance talk war in southern Asia. The old friend is Pakistan, a longtime ally and recipient of $1.5 billion in US military aid since 1981. The new acquaintance is India, whose once-cool relations with the US have warmed in recent years as its need for Western technology has grown.
Unrest in Kashmir has brought these countries to the brink of blows. The crisis already threatens the delicate balance the US has been trying to strike in the region, and any fighting would inevitably involve Washington in a high-stakes search for solutions.
In April, the US State Department called on India and Pakistan to take immediate steps to defuse the crisis. ``We are concerned about the level of tension,'' said State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler.
The US has been so concerned that Secretary of State James Baker III raised the subject with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze on his recent visit to Washington. It was the first time the pair had ever talked about India, which gets much of its armament from the Soviets.
The US has long seen Pakistan as a key ally at the eastern edge of the Persian Gulf. In recent years, Pakistan was the funnel for hundreds of millions of dollars in US military aid for the Afghan mujahideen. Its own US arms include F-16 fighters.
India's decades of close economic and military cooperation with the Soviet Union, on the other hand, have in the past stood in the way of ties with the US. Between 1980 and 1985, the Soviets sold India an estimated $13 billion in arms.
But the mid-1980s saw a gradual thaw in the US-India relationship, as then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi opened the country more to the West. A 1984 US-Indian agreement to keep technology from Soviet hands opened up US high-tech trade, which has increased more than tenfold since. Indian armed forces officials have visited the US for military seminars.
India is pleased at US willingness to sell supercomputers and other items and looks forward to increased trade, US analysts say. But India remains ``suspicious of the close relationship between the US and Pakistan,'' according to Kenneth Conboy, deputy director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.
The US may now have a measure of influence with India, experts say. But its leverage over Pakistan is greater. Without US-made spare parts and ammunition the Pakistani military machine would grind to a halt.
The US should say it would refuse such equipment if the Kashmir crisis escalates into armed conflict, says Selig Harrison, senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. There is precedent for such a move: US officials turned off aid taps in 1965 when another Kashmir crisis escalated into an Indo-Pakistan war.
Much of the US equipment given Pakistan to defend itself against the Soviet forces that used to occupy Afghanistan is now arrayed against India, charges Harrison. ``They have deployed a few F-16s on the Afghan frontier, but the largest portion are deployed near the Indian frontier,'' he says.