The Silent Treatment in South Asia

in Program

Secretary of State John Kerry is headed for the subcontinent, where his most important messages will be delivered in private and his public remarks will be as bland as possible. That’s how the game is played. Don’t expect U.S. officials to say much in public about nuclear issues or the pathways to confrontation and conflict between India and Pakistan. Press releases and public statements are designed to avoid unnecessary controversies. Since even minor instances of public candor raise hackles, U.S. public diplomacy consists of whispers and indirect messages.

Among the issues deemed too neuralgic and counterproductive to talk about publicly are most things related to Kashmir. During the 1990s when Indian human rights abuses and Pakistani support for jihadi groups crossing the Line of Control were painfully evident, Washington was mostly quiet. Early in the Clinton administration, Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel declared that the status of Kashmir wasn’t a settled issue – a true enough statement, since neither India nor Pakistan recognizes each other’s holdings – and New Delhi went ballistic. Ever since, Kashmir has been almost a non-issue. 

Foggy Bottom has steered clear of even hinting at a possible settlement, even though its outlines would be status quo-oriented, and thus friendly to India. A U.S. diplomatic push would nonetheless stir up an indignant response in India and furious opposition in Pakistan, accompanied by spikes of terrorism within both countries. Kashmir is therefore off the table, with the exception of anodyne statements about the need for a bilateral settlement and concerns over ceasefire violations.

Also off limits are public statements related to nuclear dangers in southern Asia. Arms competitions are heating up between India and China and between Pakistan and India. If China has carried out its first flight test of a multiple warhead-carrying ballistic missile in December, this would be an important milepost. On October 7th, former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon told an audience at Brookings that India would “ultimately” go down this path, as well. Both countries are learning how to operate SSBNs, extending the range of their ballistic missiles, and pursuing advanced cruise missiles. U.S. public statements tread very lightly on these developments. New Delhi and Beijing also keep mum, as if acknowledging each other’s strategic modernization programs would make them more consequential. 

The nuclear competition between India and Pakistan has been more intense, with no less than seventeen types of nuclear-weapon-capable delivery vehicles having been flight tested since their bombs came out of the basement in 1998. U.S. officials do not volunteer very much about these developments. The joint statement following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s September visit to Washington was silent on worsening regional nuclear dynamics.

Another neuralgic issue is nuclear security in Pakistan. Whenever bad actors in Pakistan assault a military facility, the question invariably arises whether Pakistan’s nuclear assets are secure. Official U.S. statements are carefully crafted, giving due credit to Pakistan’s efforts to improve security while correctly noting that every country has room for improvement. After the January 2014 U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogue, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed “confidence in Pakistan’s commitment and dedication to nuclear security.” An artful formulation, with much left unsaid.

Another subject that U.S. diplomats don’t talk about in public is India’s growing economic ties to Russia after the annexation of Crimea and incursions into eastern Ukraine, undermining international sanctions. To add insult to injury, the “prime minister” of Ukraine accompanied Vladimir Putin on his December visit to meet with Indian businessmen.

Also not fit for public diplomacy, except in oblique terms, is the Government of Pakistan’s hands-off policies toward the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the outfit behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The most likely pathway to another nuclear-tinged crisis between India and Pakistan begins with the LeT. Another verboten topic is Pakistan’s ties with the Afghan Taliban, including the whereabouts of Mullah Omar and the Haqqani group leadership. When a rare mention of Pakistan’s links to those who have carried out cross-border attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan appeared in a November 2014 Pentagon report to the Congress, Islamabad was in high dudgeon. 

How deeply are these issues discussed in private? I assume most of them are, with the level of depth dependent on how high up these issues are on a list of talking points. But since there are so many neuralgic issues to discuss in private, I also presume that some get very short shrift. Public diplomacy can provide a nudge or a gentle chide, but it can also prompt a strong negative reaction, making diplomatic objectives harder to accomplish. Private U.S. messages could use occasional public reinforcement, but Washington has been well trained by India and Pakistan to respect their sensitivities. 


Michael Krepon is the Co-founder of the Stimson Center. This essay appeared in

Follow Stimson on Twitter

Photo credit: cliff1066 via flickr

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices