Go Beyond The Rhetoric: US Needs To Add Substance To Its South Asia Policy – Analysis


By Lt. Gen. P. C. Katoch

As per media reports, the draft democratic party manifesto in the run up to the US presidential election has described India as an “important Pacific power”, while pledging that it will continue to invest in a long-term strategic partnership with New Delhi if Hillary Clinton wins the White House. There is plenty in the manifesto about taking a tough line against China; managing China’s rise, press China to play by the rules, Beijing’s unfair trade practices, currency manipulation, cyber-attacks, promoting rights of Tibetans, support peaceful resolution of Cross-Strait issues consistent with wishes and best interests Taiwanese population.

The manifesto specifically reads, “China and other countries are using unfair trade practices to tilt the playing field against American workers and businesses. When they dump cheap products into our markets, subsidize state-owned enterprises, devalue currencies, and discriminate against American companies, our middle class pays the price”. What cannot be ignored is the line that the Obama administration has assumed for over a decade, including the one against China, which in effect is acknowledged as that of the US administration. Pre-election rhetoric is a global phenomenon and the US politicians are no exception. So, whoever, wins the presidential race and makes what policy changes (tougher, weaker, complacent); these things only time will tell.

The reference to India as an important Pacific power is rather intriguing, especially since Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State first used the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ officially in October 2010 – obviously Indo-Pacific encompasses the region spanning from the Western Pacific Ocean to the Western Indian Ocean along the eastern coast of Africa. So, when India is termed as important Pacific power, it sure is good for politicking within the US displaying American priorities, but at the same time it ignores the fact that even within Indo-Pacific, India’s priorities will primarily continue to be the Indian Ocean, the Pacific coming at second position. The manifesto also promises to push for an Afghan-led peace process and press Pakistan to deny all terrorists sanctuary on its soil, specifically stating, “we support President Obama’s decision to maintain a limited troop presence in Afghanistan and ensure that it never again serves as a haven for terrorists to plan and launch attacks on our homeland”. What is new in this pledge with democrats ruling past decade is difficult to decipher. From the looks of it, it is the same old rhetoric from the US administration which has been batted out over the past decade.

That India has been at the receiving end of terrorism flowing out of Pakistan’s military-ISI hatcheries is no secret to Americans. Recall on October 21, 2011 the then Secretary of State in a joint conference with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar had said. “It’s like that old story – you can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbours. Eventually those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in the backyard”. She was demanding greater cooperation from Pakistan to squeeze the Haqqani network responsible for attacks in Afghanistan.

So what has happened since that indictment other than, continued Pakistani backing to Haqqanis; more Pakistan sponsored attacks in Afghanistan; Afghan Taliban coalesced under ISI tutelage with Haqqanis the main link, and; continued US military and financial support to Pakistan?

Roll back to 2009; to the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs meeting in January where Ashley Tellis of Carnegie Endowment post the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008 began his testimony thus, “India has unfortunately become the ‘sponge’ that protects us all. India’s very proximity to Pakistan, which has developed into the epicenter of global terrorism during the last 30 years, has resulted in New Delhi absorbing most of the blows unleashed by those terrorist groups that threaten it as a common enemy along with Israel, the United States, and the West more generally.” Tellis advised that Barack Obama administration should keep Pakistan’s feet to the fire and ensure that Islamabad makes good on its promises to take on terrorist groups. So, what happened thereafter other than the US administration continuing to draw comfort from India being that “sponge”? Is this the long-term strategic partnership that the democrat manifesto is talking about?

Take the February 9, 2016 statement of James Clapper, Director US National Intelligence on ‘Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community’ to the Senate Armed Services Committee. In his 29 page statement Clapper’s reference to Pakistan is just ‘five’ lines that too clubbed with India which reads, “Relations between Pakistan and India remain tense despite the resumption of a bilateral dialogue in December.

Following a terrorist attack in early January on Pathankot Air Force base in India, which New Delhi blames on a Pakistani-based group, India’s engagement with Pakistan will probably hinge in 2016 on Islamabad’s willingness to take action against those in Pakistan linked to the attack”. It can’t be that numerous US scholars, veterans of US intelligence committee, US and NATO General posted in Afghanistan publicly stating that Pakistan has been taking the US for a ride are all lying. How long will the US keep indulging the payback initiated by the Nixon-Kissinger duo to Pakistan for thawing the US-China relationship and how long will the CIA embrace Pakistan’s ISI while the US politically sings lullabies?

Look at the deliberations on the recently hearing ‘Pakistan: Friend or Foe in the Fight Against Terrorism’ by the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Non-Proliferation and Trade and Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee. The entire focus is on terrorism that Pakistan is doing in Afghanistan. Why there is no discussion on Pakistan’s China supported proxy war on India? US Ambassador to India Richard Verma recently said at the Atlantic Council US-India Trade Initiative Workshop stated, “One area where I would like to see greater progress is in our ability to launch negotiations on a bilateral investment treaty (BIT). We have been on-again off-again for about 8 years in our pursuit of a treaty. And I am afraid things have become a bit more difficult”.

The treaty will inevitably come through at some point of time, US anyway is selling nuclear power plants, aircraft and helicopters to India plus there is talk of high end technology. Going by past experience, the latter can only be taken with a pinch of salt. Post 9/11, US Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill had said India can ask for anything – sky is the limit, and provision would be in shortest time by short-circuiting normal procedures. But, what came? Even small items for Special Forces units took years to fructify. The ANTPQ-37 radars provided were 25 years old technology which US had given to Pakistan a decade earlier. Tavor assault rifles that India procured from Israel came without the under-barrel grenade launchers, latter being US origin for which US nod was needed. As for the present, discussions by the Indo-US joint working group on the new aircraft carrier have been inconclusive because of sharing technologies like the phased-scan radar.

The draft democrat manifesto needs to be viewed in the above context. More importantly, the new US President needs to take a call on what changes the US policy on South Asia, Indo-Pacific, and particularly with reference to India need to be made. Statements like strengthening of strategic partnership mean little, and nor do statements like “India doesn’t have many friends”, by a US diplomat at New Delhi impress. The above manifesto has talked about “best interest of Taiwanese people” but how about addressing “the best interest of Indian people” who have been suffering cross-border terrorism for some three decades. Unless this is addressed, the reliability factor of the US will continue to be suspect in eyes of the Indian population even though government to government business continues. Clearly America needs to do much more.

*Lt. Gen. P.C. Katoch is veteran of Indian Army. He can be reached at: [email protected]

South Asia Monitor

To create a more credible and empathetic knowledge bank on the South Asian region, SPS curates the South Asia Monitor (www.southasiamonitor.org), an independent web journal and online resource dealing with strategic, political, security, cultural and economic issues about, pertaining to and of consequence to South Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. Developed for South Asia watchers across the globe or those looking for in-depth knowledge, reliable resource and documentation on this region, the site features exclusive commentaries, insightful analyses, interviews and reviews contributed by strategic experts, diplomats, journalists, analysts, researchers and students from not only this region but all over the world. It also aggregates news, views commentary content related to the region and the extended neighbourhood.

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