US President Donald Trump signaled a radical shift in a much awaited speech recently, spelling out his policy towards South Asia, a region he neglected in his first controversy-tinged six months in office. If one’s reading were correct, it meant the final demise of India-Pakistan equivalence – a work in progress during the previous two administrations – and weighing in strongly in favour of India.
Speaking at Fort Myers, Trump declared that his administration’s “new strategy is to change the approach and how to deal with Pakistan”. He said “we can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations” and said “it is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace”.
The words did not go down well in Pakistan. There were official and citizen protests over the new US move which had enormous implications for the region. Trump also said “another critical part of the South Asia strategy for America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India – the world’s largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the United States.”
Is the South Asia strategy of the Trump administration a radical change from the past? Does it herald a new era of Indo-U.S. ties which had been in a state of drift for the last few years despite summit-level direction?
Democratic President Barack Obama, who assumed office in January 2009, broadly continued the policy of the previous Republican administration of President George W Bush, keeping South Asia high on the administration’s radar, particularly because of the ongoing “war on terror” in Afghanistan and the growing salience of India in US eyes because of “shared values” and democratic practices.
Early in his term Obama, a somewhat idealistic president, had sought a change in the administration’s South Asia outlook when he told aides he wanted to end the zero-sum game and shift the focus to India, where there were opportunities for American. He said too much time was being spent on Pakistan, which was playing a smoke-and-mirrors game with the US, and its counter-terrorism cooperation had become not just questionable but dubious. “I would like to see a more India-focused South Asia strategy,” Obama reportedly told aides.
It was obvious to Washington that its stakes in India were going to be much higher. India is likely to pass China to become the world’s most populous nation in the next 20-25 years. It is a country whose middle class now numbers 300 million and is expected to double over the next twenty years. That will be more than the current population of the EU, which will decline over that period. It will be a growing market for American goods and services.
As Robert O Blake, Assistant Secretary, South and Central Asian Affairs, US State Department, said in a speech at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, in 2009, “India is a country with which the United States shares increasingly convergent values and interests.”
This policy orientation coincided with the time of re-evaluation of Pakistan’s role in the region where it was seen to promise much but deliver selectively in targeting terrorists and their safe havens. Pakistan was seen as an increasingly desperate place with terrorism increasing, social parameters declining and, according to a former official, growth stunted both physically and morally. Towards the end of the Obama administration, Pakistan had turned into what was called a “frenemy.” There were rising grievances in the administration and how it was conveniently blindsided in dealing with groups like the Haqqani network, that was a favorite of Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment, but was the bete noire of the US-led NATO forces and the government of Afghanistan. This was also the time when the Americans began to find alternatives to Pakistan’s perceived indispensability in the ‘war on terror’ with their role as logistical conduit to American counter-terror forces in the war in Afghanistan. It took some months before the Americans could find a logistical fallback in Central Asia, which has now become the its main launch pad for Afghanistan operations, reducing thereby Islamabad’s importance in its South Asian strategic calculus.
During one such South Asia review meeting, Obama is said to have remarked that he wanted to go beyond a “strategic partnership” with India, saying he was not interested so much in selling India weapons as in educating its children and investing in their future.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Washington on June 25,2017, it was sheer happenstance that the Trump administration had just completed its South Asia review and ties with China were wilting, particularly when Trump realized that Xi Jinping would not honor his promise on helping the US contain North Korea’s military ambitions. With Pakistan’s critical supporting role having diminished, if not ended completely, with the creation of an aerial logistical bridge to Afghanistan from Central Asia, Modi’s visit could not have been better timed.
According to people in the know, if Modi had come earlier he may have met a man who was still finding his presidential feet, was mired in domestic battles and was yet to focus on South Asia, a remote and unfamiliar geopolitical arena for him. Among Asian leaders, he had met Chinese President Xi and was left quite charmed by him. But that honeymoon didn’t take long to sour.
Trump had always been wary of China’s economic policies and has been pressuring China to open its doors wider to American business. He even talked of investigating China’s suspected violation of international trade law by alleged stealth of intellectual property. This could lead to tariffs and restrictions on Chinese investment in the US, which would seriously impair ties.
Trump and Modi exuded good optics and Trump said all the right things about India. But Trump, a man with a mercantile world view, also added a caveat on the Indian partnership being predicated on New Delhi’s good behavior on trade issues.
While talking about the need to pursue a strategic partnership with India, Trump said rather gratuitously that “India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development”. What that help means is open to interpretation. But earlier administrations have goaded New Delhi to take on a more proactive role in the “Indo-Pacific region” commensurate with its size and status.
India needs to get off the fence and get on to the pitch, said one former official, implying that sections in the Trump administration wanted India to either put boots on the ground or share in some measure for the counter-terror operations that were in its interests as well. India has already rejected any active military involvement in Afghanistan, knowing well that such action would entail huge security risks.
Whatever the vicissitudes in American politics, India is likely to remain a key strategic partner for the US for the next few decades as Washington seeks to hedge what it sees as a menacing rise of China with a network of allies and partners with New Delhi as the fulcrum of its strategy.
At the same time, Washington will not push Islamabad into a corner – Defense Secretary James Mattis said the US will try “one more time” – but will work on it in a measured way to make it realize the futility of its double-dealing, terror-nurturing tactical policies. But can a leopard change its spots?
(The author is a veteran journalist and President, Society for Policy Studies. Basu can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org). This article first appeared in the South Asia Monitor. Used here with express permission from the author.