A partnership of convenience | Imtiaz Alam

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India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the US under President Trump have taken yet another stride in forging a strategic partnership in the Indian Ocean-Pacific region, to checkmate China and jointly fighting against terrorism while asking Pakistan “to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries”. However, despite finding some convergence against China, they have found it difficult to reconcile Modi’s “Make in India” mantra with Trump’s “America first” economic nationalism.

The Modi-Trump summit was being viewed with a lot of scepticism and its outcome is now being welcomed with cautious optimism and opposition in India. Trump’s emphasis was on the economy (it got six paragraphs) and Modi’s focus remained on security (two paragraphs in the joint statement – against both China and Pakistan). As his quid part in the bargain, Trump kept his tough stance on the US trade deficit of $30 billion with India and called for creating “a trading partnership that is fair and reciprocal”.

In his pro quo part, Modi sought greater role in the Indian Ocean region to counter China’s influence, US support against Pakistan and a more effective role in Afghanistan. It seems that this is a flexible partnership based not as much on convergence as on convenience, despite divergences. Both want to leverage their relationship to suit their respective interests and designs.

US-India relations have seen a surge since George W Bush’s nuclear deal with India under the then PM Manmohan Singh, which was followed up by Obama’s vision for strategic partnership in the Asia-Pacific region. Under the Trump administration, the relationship is now confined to “responsible stewardship of [the] Indo-Pacific region” – a milder phrasing than seen in the 2015 and 2016 joint statements. It is supplemented by $2 billion worth of 22 Guardian Drones that, along with US-supplied surveillance aircrafts, will greatly enhance the Indian Navy’s capacity for the surveillance of the Indian Ocean and monitoring of Chinese maritime movements. Countering Chinese maritime forays in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, the US will join India and Japan in trilateral Malabar naval exercises in July.

The Chinese defence ministry and their official media have sharply reacted against what they perceive as “India becoming the pawn in the US designs”; they have warned of “catastrophic consequences”. This has coincided with continuing skirmishes between Indian border police and the PLA for the last two weeks at the Line of Actual Control on the Nathu La post at the Sikkim-Tibet-Bhutan border crossing.

Despite the great eagerness shown by the US to support India in building its nuclear capacity, the joint venture of NPCIL-Westinghouse to build six nuclear reactors has not taken off due to the bankruptcy of the concerned US corporation. In the 2016 joint statement, the US Exim Bank was referred to as the prospective financer; but the “related project financing” is not clearly defined in the joint statement of 2017.

The US is keen to supply even those weapons systems to India that it has exclusively sold or shared with its Nato allies. To offset the US trade deficit with India, Trump wants tariff and non-tariff barriers against US exports lifted; and a long-term agreement is to be negotiated for the supply of LNG to India. There is also the possibility of joint production of F16s in India.

Amid some informed speculations about the probability of the Trump administration being tough on Pakistan, Modi has manoeuvred the kind of diplomatic edge he could not from the previous US administration. According to the joint statement, “the leaders called on Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries. They further called on Pakistan to expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai, Pathankot and other cross-border terrorist attacks perpetrated by Pakistan-based groups”. The joint statement was preceded by the designation of Syed Salahuddin, chief of Hizbul Mujahideen, as a global terrorist. This part of the statement has caused a knee-jerk reaction in Islamabad with Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar accusing the US of “speaking India’s language”.

Even on Afghanistan, Trump welcomed “further Indian contributions to promote Afghanistan’s democracy, stability, prosperity and security”. “Recognizing the importance of their respective strategic partnership with Afghanistan, the leaders committed to continue consultations and cooperation in support of Afghanistan’s future”. This clearly shows the intent of the Trump administration’s policymakers – mainly Pentagon chief Gen James Mattis and NSA Gen McMaster – who are to announce the Af-Pak policy that will see a revival of greater US military engagement with the induction of more troops. It is being speculated that the US will warn Pakistan to take severest action against the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network in particular.

Perhaps in anticipation of the tougher US stance, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had offered a crisis prevention and management mechanism to the president of Afghanistan. As a follow-up to the Astana understanding, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Kabul and Islamabad and both countries agreed to trilateral consultation on the foreign ministers level, a monitoring and implementation mechanism and reactivation of the Quadrilateral Cooperation Group to revive the efforts for reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan. It seems now that Afghanistan is yet again becoming a quagmire of rivalry among regional and international players, with greater Chinese, Russian role and US involvement. However, according to the head of the Af-Pak Program at the New York University, Barnett Rubin, “unless there is an agreement between Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan, India and the US, Afghanistan will be unstable”.

What is quite striking about the summit is that the US has adopted the Indian formulation against China’s grand One Belt One Road initiative, the $62 billion worth China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in particular. About connectivity, the joint statement says: “through the transparent development of infrastructure and the use of responsible financing priorities while showing respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity, rule of law, environment and call on other nations to adhere to these principles”.

The issue of “sovereignty and territorial integrity” raised by India in its opposition to CPEC has both economic and strategic implications. It is astonishing that the Trump administration has agreed to a controversial position that not only contravenes the traditional US position on Kashmir, but also revisits its accommodation with Pak-China friendship. It somehow also upsets the adjustments Trump made with President Xi.

The Modi-Trump Summit must help wake up Pakistan’s policymakers to take into account this crucial development and evolve new and creative policy responses to meet new emerging challenges. It is in our own national interest not to let the pretext of terrorism become an easy excuse and we need to fully implement our stated policy of not letting our territory be used by terrorists against any country. Past liabilities and baggage need to be dispensed with immediately. Let no militant bring a bad name to the Kashmiris’ peaceful struggle, and we should prove to the world that there is no cross-border terrorism. Similarly, peace in Afghanistan has a direct bearing on us and we must do what is genuinely required before being threatened to do more.

It’s time for a pre-emptive strategy to neutralise the emerging potential security threats. India can’t have its way to western and central Asia without Pakistan. Nor can it afford to become a pawn in the US strategy against China. As the opposition in India is raising its voice against Hindu nationalist Modi’s partnership with xenophobic Trump, Pakistan must react in a more careful and responsible manner.

The writer is a senior journalist. Email: imtiaz.safma@gmail.com