ISLAMABAD - South Asia is set to witness the unfolding of several new geopolitical gambits. The U.S. appears to have found a new strategic balance in the region; China is pushing its way through the great American wall in Southern Asia; the ‘cold war’ between Kabul and Rawalpindi seems to be getting frostier by the day; Pakistan is focussed on several strategic moves; and New Delhi is looking to navigate various regional dilemmas and strategic indeterminacies. The stage is set for a new great game.
The flurry of American activities, including the recently concluded visit by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, indicates Washington’s last-ditch attempt to regain control, and pre-eminence, over a region which is being pulled in conflicting directions, much to the discomfort of the U.S. administration. In doing so, Washington views New Delhi as the centrepiece of its regional grand strategy. New Delhi would do well to carefully, and constantly (re)consider its options vis-à-vis the U.S. grand strategy in Southern Asia.
Despite its initial reluctance, Washington is back to the Afghan chess table with renewed vigour — Mr. Tillerson and his colleagues in the Trump administration realise that an inability/unwillingness to get back in the game could potentially render them insignificant in the years ahead.
Having been militarily outsmarted by the Taliban in the recent past, the U.S. has renewed efforts to hunt down the Taliban leadership with the eventual aim of bringing them to the negotiating table as well as checking Rawalpindi’s influence in the country, something Afghan President Ashraf Ghani would deeply appreciate. Washington and Kabul have expressed a desire to enlist New Delhi’s support to do so. For Washington, courting New Delhi is also useful in balancing the increasing Chinese presence in the region, including in Afghanistan.
Moreover, the U.S. probably views its Afghan engagement as a face saver in the midst of its steady decline in Asia and President Donald Trump’s lack of credibility and standing abroad — hence there’s likely to be a lot of focus on Afghanistan in the days ahead. In a way, then, the U.S.’s unsavoury statements about Pakistan are intended to woo India to cooperate closely on Afghanistan. But make no mistake, the U.S. is also courting Pakistan in pursuit of its strategic objectives in the region, its anti-Pakistan rhetoric notwithstanding.
Contradictions in U.S. policy
Shorn of the rhetoric and the feel-good melodrama, something every government in New Delhi has a strong liking for, a cold, closer look at the U.S. policy towards Southern Asia shows several inherent contradictions. Consider, for instance, the American strategy of courting India to counter Pakistan in Afghanistan, and engaging India and Pakistan to checkmate China in the region, while at the same time viewing China’s role in Afghanistan as that of a potential stabiliser. Certainly, strategic engagement of a conflict-ridden region can never be a straightforward affair — yet the balancing of these contradictions can throw up unanticipated surprises.
Even as India takes delight over the American tirade against Pakistan, it is important to place the U.S.’s relationship with Pakistan in the correct historical and geopolitical perspective. The U.S. has had a deeply puzzling love-hate relationship with Pakistan since the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 through to 2001, and thereafter. Pakistan is not only aware of it but also knows how to make use of it. The indispensability of this relationship needs to be properly understood by India when fashioning its own response.
We must also be aware that the absence of long-term commitments is one of the central features of American foreign policy. U.S. strategy has been susceptible to domestic, electoral, geopolitical and other determinants, and it has been no less so in the Southern Asian context. While being on the same side of the reigning hegemon is smart statecraft, a failure to cater for alternative futures would be shortsighted. International politics disincentivises blind loyalty.
“Terror havens will not be tolerated,” Mr. Tillerson declared at a joint press conference with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, echoing similar statements emanating from the Trump administration in the past weeks. Ms. Swaraj joined in by underlining that Pakistan must dismantle the terror infrastructure on its soil. Washington’s hard talk on terror is welcome, but here again, one should not be deluded into thinking that the U.S. will punish Rawalpindi for not acting against India-specific groups in Pakistan. The focus is on groups fighting against Afghanistan where U.S. soldiers often get caught in the crosshairs of the Pakistan Army’s manoeuvres. Recall that there was no reaction from Washington when Islamabad decided to drop terror charges against Jamaat-ud Dawah chief Hafiz Saeed.
The China conundrum
China is the new kid on the block in the Southern Asian strategic landscape — challenging American hegemony in the region, willing to build peace and mine minerals in Afghanistan, pushing India into a tight corner in its own traditional backyard, and selling dreams of inter-regional connectivity and economic prosperity to a conflict-ridden, impoverished and under-linked region. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s bold declaration at the recently-concluded 19th Party Congress that China intends to emerge stronger in the world stage indicates its new geopolitical resolve.
There is only so far the U.S. can ignore China’s overtures, and there is only so much India can do to match the Chinese sales pitch. The dividends are already in sight. For instance, China is emerging as a key player in Afghanistan. The potential revival of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (comprising U.S., China, Pakistan and Afghanistan) shows just that. It’s a matter of time before the U.S. utilises China’s potential to serve its interests in Afghanistan. After all, national interests matter above all else.
Mr. Ghani stated last week that Afghanistan would not join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor if Pakistan refuses to permit connectivity between India and Afghanistan. New Delhi must appreciate Mr. Ghani for being a true friend, but let’s be realistic: Pakistan is unlikely to allow overland connectivity between Afghanistan and India through its territory, nor will Mr. Ghani jeopardise Afghanistan’s relationship with China by insisting on bringing India on board.
Clearly, the emerging geopolitical landscape in the region requires deft handling by New Delhi. It should consider participating in Afghan peace talks while being conscious of its redlines and ability vis-à-vis Afghanistan. New Delhi should stick to its decision not to send troops to Afghanistan while at the same time enhancing its training of Afghan security forces and reconstruction efforts.
Second, we must be able to see through complicated American geopolitical signalling in the Southern Asian region. To reduce complex American geopolitical signalling to binary equations vis-à-vis Pakistan or China would be a grave mistake. Third, New Delhi needs to carefully design the contours of its China policy: aligning our China policy to suit U.S. interests would not help our long-term interests. Recall that the U.S. kept a studied silence through the Doklam stand-off and the issue hardly figured in the public statements during Mr. Tillerson’s recent visit. Fourth, Russia is not only an unavoidable traditional ally of India but it is in fact increasing its stakes in the region, including in Afghanistan, with close strategic ties with China, and increasingly with Pakistan. Let not the sound of what we would like to hear from Washington distract our attention from the strategic realities of the neighbourhood.
Finally, both geo-economically and geopolitically, the Indo-Pacific region remains pregnant with potential and possibilities for New Delhi. This is one crucial area where New Delhi and Washington, along with other regional stakeholders such as Tokyo and Canberra, could synergise political, diplomatic and military efforts to “uphold rule-based rights of navigation and overflight in the area” and promote free trade in the broader region.
Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor of Disarmament Studies, Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University