SOUTH Asia as a region remains to be at the forefront of the United States’ regional interests and concerns. While the situation in South Asia remains static on conventional fronts, there is a change of administration in the US. President Trump’s administration has brought a mix of change and continuity in the country’s foreign and security policies, including those in South Asia. Ranging from the situation in Afghanistan to ever-tightened relations with Pakistan alongside the rejuvenation of relations with India, the United States has numerous interests to be protected via this region and concerns to be pacified. Alongside the approval of more troops for Afghanistan, the meeting between President Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi starts to shape up a somewhat unelaborated, unspoken and disfigured imagery of US’ policy towards South Asia in the last few months.
Certainly, with the signing of Indo-US strategic partnership, the power roles and statures in South Asia were changed. As Narendra Modi takes the lead in visiting the White House, the highlights of the meet up present to us the continuation of similar policies, initiated by the previous administration. As news media reports that the Trump administration is likely to unveil its South Asia policy in the coming weeks, there is certainly more homework for Pakistan to do, given the two-sided hostile front. Indicative of the previous United States’ policies in the region, the changing of power roles in South Asia could add to current imbalances and discrepancies. While both leaders term the bilateral relations to be stronger than ever before, Modi works for the acknowledgement of greater role in the region, as he calls for peace, stability and security in the Indo-Pacific region to be the main focus. Now, Indo-Pacific as a region is vast and this leap from the dominion of South Asia to a bigger region, tells about the future ambitions of India, supported by the designs of the US. In this regard, one cannot easily ignore the India Act East Policies and the way it has been expanding ties in that region. The meeting held between VK Singh and Rex Tillerson on the sidelines of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers in Manila a few days ago, caps a week of renewed engagement between India and the US.
With regards Indo-US Strategic Partnership, there was no indication at all during the 2016 election campaign that the outcome of the election would in any way negatively affect the bilateral ties. Besides, the conception of bipartisan consensus on sustaining and improving Washington’s relationship with New Delhi has existed in the US for years. Such Indian activism on ground could possibly have following objectives to achieve, i.e. first, the Trump Administration’s job creation and retention measures should not excessively hit the Indian workforce employed by American and Indian IT companies. Second, the economic nationalism of the Trump White House should not come on the way of Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative. Third, the Trump Administration’s Afghanistan policy should not clash with India’s core interests in that country. Fourth, the Trump Administration should keep the Kashmir issue outside his political bargaining with Pakistan. Fifth, the Trump Administration’s disproportionate confrontation or measured cooperation with China should not outshine or overshadow Washington’s policy towards this region. Last but not least, Trump’s immigration policy should in no way hamper the interests of the Indian-American community.
Contrary to President Trump’s ambiguous and tacit Afghan policy, Modi clearly pronounces India’s concerns over increasing instability in Afghanistan and its commitment to bring peace alongside the reconstruction of state apparatus. In Afghanistan, while the military establishment in the US is calling the shots, President Trump has never been a supporter of war there, in the past. While, what matters to Pakistan besides the continuous demand of ‘do more’ and bilateral cooperation going away, is the pronounced use of Afghan soil by India against Pakistan. Amidst military operations against terrorists, the use of Afghan soil for nefarious designs and lack of this understanding on the other side of border has remained to be a huge hurdle. And an acknowledgement of such Indian aspirations in Washington does go with the policy objectives detailed above.
Similarly, on Kashmir, President Trump in his campaign reiterated his support for resolution of Kashmir issue. In April 2017, the US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said, “it’s absolutely right that this administration is concerned about the relationship between India and Pakistan and very much wants to see how we de-escalate any sort of conflict going forward,” followed by absolute silence. However, the US administration’s announcement declaring Hizbul Mujahideen chief, Syed Salahuddin as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, present to us a change of tone. As Indian media quotes this news as a diplomatic win for India, this avowal does not pave way for any de-escalation in foreseeable future.
The United States with India along its side, wants it to play a multi-faceted role in the region, one of which involves the engagement of rising Asian giant China. As India follows the course, we see the US’ moves heavily favouring India. Out of all the policy objectives mentioned above, US is ready to move forward with India to secure its key core interests. And these interests were certainly unattainable in its partnership with Pakistan. As diplomatic manoeuvring fades, Pakistan must examine this partnership and the prospective Trump’s South Asia Policy to gauge its effects on regional dynamics and security trends alongside the creation of any power imbalances.
— The writer is Assistant Research Officer, Islamabad Policy Research Institute, a think-tank based in Islamabad.