Michael KreponThe Silent Treatment in South Asia

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 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.


  1. Majid (History)

    One other issue that is expected to be discussed between India and US in private is regarding China’s intentions regarding South Asia, especially in the back drop of visible increase of Chinese diplomatic and economic activities in the region led by Xi Jinping. Although US pattern of diplomacy regarding South China Sea issue is one of “measured bluntness” in official PR’s , there might be a possibility that China is mentioned in the Obama’s New Delhi visit publicly. So that needs to be looked as well.

  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    Sounds like the giant dog won’t bark in public for fear that two little dogs will bark and growl ferociously.

    While we are in the mood to bark, how about this one? Pakistan does not need nuclear weapons because, with or without nuclear weapons, India is unlikely to attack Pakistan (save as temporary punishment for coddling terrorists who attack India). If Pakistan can’t bear to part with its nukes right away, at least announce a no-first-use policy and stop developing or deploying tactical nuclear weapons.

    If India and China want to talk about nukes, perhaps they can talk about what additional actions, assurances, information exchanges, or arms limitations can provide credibility to their mutual pledges of no nuclear first use. If Pakistan also wants to take the no-first-use pledge, they can join the discussion.

  3. Bradley Laing (History)

    Though does the new tethered blimp the U.S. Military has made for detecting cruise missiles count as something that could be perfected and sold as a “bargining chip” for the government of India?

    If they are developing cruise missiles, I mean.

  4. Bradley Laing (History)


    Nuclear physicist Yu Min given 5 million yuan reward for work on design of nuclear weapons

    Nuclear physicist Yu Min won China’s top science award on Friday for his outstanding contribution to the country’s hydrogen bomb research.

    The award, given annually since 2000, honors scientists who make a major contribution to China’s scientific and technological development and achieve key breakthroughs in cutting-edge scientific and technological fields.

  5. Anjaan (History)

    As far as the people of India are concerned, regardless of what message John Kerry has to deliver, India’s topmost priority at this moment is to validate and perfect its nuclear sub technology … and then the next step would be to produce these nuke subs as sausages … !! … validation of the MIRV technology is the next important milestone for India’s nuclear missile tech, which is likely in a couple of years … most of us would not be alive to see the exciting years and decades ahead of India … !!

  6. krepon (History)

    Looks like some prodding is in order (at least from an unnamed person accompanying the Secretary of State to Pakistan. From Michael Gordon’s reporting in Monday’s New York Times:

    Mr. Kerry is expected to emphasize in his meetings here that Pakistan’s crackdown against militants should be extended to the Haqqani network, which has organized attacks in Afghanistan against American and local forces; to Afghan Taliban fighters who have sought refuge in Pakistan; and to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani group that is widely believed to be responsible for the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, India.

    “Part of the secretary’s core message will be to ensure that actions are met with a real and sustained effort to constrain the ability of the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e Taiba, the Afghan Taliban, and other militants who pose a threat to regional stability and to direct U.S. interests,” said a senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in accordance with the agency’s procedure for briefing reporters.

    • Anjaan (History)

      Sir, The proof of the pudding is in eating … as long as the strategic assets like the good(Afghan)Taliban, LeT and JeM enjoy protection of the Pakistani military establishment, the Pakistani military offensive against terrorist will actually remain, in the words of Dr. C Christine Fair, Zarb-E-Baakwas … which means a big sham … an exercise of deceit, aimed at providing ammunition to the US Congress to justify and rationalize another trench of the multi billion dollar US aid to Pakistan … !!