US’ Asia Policy

Af-India & terrorism

By Dr DK. Giri
(Prof. International Politics, JMI)

New Delhi hosted three important foreign dignitaries last week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, followed by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni. All three had their respective agendas, but India, interestingly, focused on cross-border terrorism as its principal concern.
Ghani came for a day-long working visit to review ongoing ties, Tillerson attempted to impress upon India to play a bigger role in Asia, in particular Afghanistan, and Gentiloni was here to mend relations, after the infamous marines’ case. The relations between New Delhi and Rome had plummeted since, but thawed with Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to the Vatican for canonisation of Mother Teresa, and Gentiloni’s visit after 10 years since former PM Romand Prodi visited India. Gentiloni and Modi signed six treaties on various trades, discussed FTA negotiations between India and EU, shared mutual concerns on terrorism and promised cooperation in fighting it.
However, of more strategic importance were the visits of Ghani and Tillerson. Ghani was on the same page as India on Pakistan sponsoring terrorism against both countries. He sought India’s help in building and training its military and police in the wake of gradual withdrawal of American and NATO forces from Afghan soil. India is by far the biggest development-donor of Afghanistan in the region with $3 billion aid so far. But New Delhi has refused to send soldiers to Afghanistan not to antagonize Pakistan, Kabul feels that India’s distancing militarily is not helping the situation.
Kabul has warned Islamabad that unless it opens Wagha and Attari borders for India-Afghanistan trade to transit through Pakistan, it will deny access to Pakistan to Central Asia. As an alternate route, New Delhi and Kabul broke new grounds by using Chabahar port in Iran., by sending the first consignment of wheat from Kandla port to Chabahar, and from there it was to be sent by trucks to land-locked Afghanistan. A project to build rail route is underway from Chabahar to Zahedan, Afghan border, by New Delhi and Teheran for over $1 billion. Furthermore, an India-Afghanistan airfreight corridor has been set up. This covers the full spectrum of connectivity between the two.
Ghani also sought to invoke the provision in Special Partnership Agreement (SPA) for military support. India has supplied four combat helicopters Mi-25 in 2015 which were “life-savers” according to Afghan military. It needs ammunition and engineers to maintain the aircrafts. India is mulling over it.
The SPA signed in 2011 between the two will be upgraded to a New Development partnership. It should be noted that India has been heavily engaged in reconstruction of war-torn Afghanistan and has so far built over 200 public and private schools, sponsored 1000 scholarships and hosts over 16,000 Afghan students. It has built a state-of-the-art Parliament building and its past projects covered, education, health, infrastructure, etc. India would implement some important new projects – Shatoon Dam and Drinking Water Project, low cost housing for refugees returning to Naharpar province, gypsum manufacturing plant in Kabul, poly-clinic in Mazhar-e-Sharif, etc. India will also undertake 116 high impact projects in 31 provinces. All in all, the development programme would continue till 2022.
However, Kabul’s biggest worry is the Taliban and would want all support it can garner to combat it. In the recent past, the Quadrilateral group of US, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan met in Qatar to resolve the conflict between Afghan government and Taliban. Kabul felt Pakistan was trying to impose a solution in favour of Taliban, as it did in the past by installing a pro-Pakistan Taliban government. Kabul wants a solution “initiated, controlled, and managed by Afghanistan”. In his speech here, Ghani stated: “with India we have alignment of interests”. It would like India to play a greater, high-profile role including military engagement. Will New Delhi bite the bullet?
Likewise, Tillerson would like to nudge India to play a pivotal role in Asia, and the Indo-Pacific region. Obviously, America wants to counter China, which aims to gradually replace the US as the super power. On the eve of his visit to S Asia, Tillersen made a forceful case for US-India partnership in his speech at Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC titled “Defining our Relationship with India for the Next Century”.
“India and the US share common values and vision” and are natural allies, he said and blamed China, in no uncertain terms, for destabilising the global order, as he promised to deepen co-operation with India. He observed: “China, while rising alongside India, has done so less responsibly, at times, undermining the international rule-based order, even as countries like India operate within a framework that protects other nations’ sovereignty”. Beijing was further blamed for subverting the sovereignty of neighbouring countries by pursuing “predatory economics” and extending “bad debt.”
A more powerful pro-India statement by Tillerson was: “security issues that concern India are concerns of the US too.” The speech was music to South Block in Delhi as it came after the ‘New Afghan Policy’ and South Asia Strategy announced by the US earlier this year, which charged Pakistan for sponsoring terrorism. It said: “Pakistan provides safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror. Pakistan should stop it.” The strategy singled out India for greater engagement in Afghanistan.
On India-Pakistan relations, both New Delhi and Washington agree as it was reiterated during Tillerson’s visit, “that renunciation of violence and terror, and closure of cross-border safe havens and sanctuaries were essential for any meaningful progress and lasting peace”. It is evident that Islamabad’s unfettered support to terror groups is destablising the entire region. Ghani was clear on Pakistan’s negative and vicious role, but US tries to balance India and Pakistan. A section in US External Relations want condition-based relations with Pakistan, not to isolate it totally, while others want India in, and Pakistan out of the equation. Many observers would say that the US’ New Afghan Policy is a ‘game-changer’.
Undeniably, the US wants to sketch out an important role for India in S Asia and Indo-Pacific region. We may recall that it has been nudging India to rise to counter China. In 2012, the then Defence Secretary Leon Panetta had underlined: “India is linchpin of the US pivot to Asia strategy.” Even under Obama leadership, preceded by Bush Administration, the attempt was to deepen Indo-US ties — economic, cultural and diplomatic. But the UPA government declined to play that role for US in Asia.
India is perhaps wary of Trump’s inconsistency, US ambivalence on Pakistan, its mixed approach to China, attitude to Iran, and nearer home, the issue of H1B visa for Indian-IT professionals. Although there are frequent allusions to India and US being two big democracies and multi-cultural politics, foreign policies are based on self-interest and what John J. Mearsheimer called the ‘offensive realism’ in his book Tragedy of Great Power Politics.
It is self interest that counts in the ultimate analysis. So does India’s self-interest align with US policy or should it continue to play an autonomous world role, a throw-back to the days of non-alignment? Realists would advocate that India should sign a defence pact with US to counter China and Pakistan. It may be too soon to do so. But playing an active and engaging role in Asia alongside, US, Japan and Australia to combat the menace of terror, to promote peace and prosperity, democracy and freedom etc, is a role India should be ready to embrace. The world is watching as we too keep a watchful eye. —INFA