BY M.R. JOSSE
KATHMANDU: There has been a bunch of interesting diplomatic moves and countermoves in South Asia lately including those concerning the United States and China.
They will probably create a new strategic dynamic in the region, one whose impact will be manifest in myriad, even unpredictable, ways.
In any case, one key strand is constituted by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s five-hour visit to Islamabad September 5, accompanied by Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman, joint chiefs of staff.
This was a mission designed to ‘reset’ America’s strained relations with a Pakistan with a new government under Prime Minister Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party (PTI).
Though only the tip of the iceberg regarding the trip has been revealed in public, that it came in the wake of the U.S. military’s plans to cancel $300 million in aid to Pakistan, due to Islamabad’s lack of “decisive actions” in support of American strategy in the region, can hardly be overlooked.
It may be recalled that Khan has repeatedly blamed Pakistan’s participation in the U.S.-led anti-terror campaign for the escalation of terrorism on home soil for the past year, even as there are lingering suspicions in Washington that Pakistan’s military has long helped fund and arm the Taliban for ideological reasons, as well as to neutralize rising Indian influence in Afghanistan.
Noteworthy, too, is that there are many analysts in Washington who warn that there may be no realistic way to pressure Islamabad, since a suspension in aid could see the United States lose valuable influence over Pakistan which is bound to look to others for support, including China, which has considerable security interest in the region including in Afghanistan.
Could it be merely a coincidence, then, that just days after Pompeo landed in Islamabad Chinese Councillor and Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, flew in on a three-day visit to Pakistan, in the first high-level meeting between the two neighbours since Khan assumed office as prime minister?
Notably, Wang asserted in public that the Pakistan segment of the Belt and Road Initiative – the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – has helped increase economic growth by one or two percent and has contributed 70,000 jobs in Pakistan.
Though facts are woefully scanty, Pakistani analysts have reported that the future of Afghanistan and militancy on the Af-Pak border dominated the bilateral talks, where not only Khan and foreign minister Mohammad Qureshi but also the Pakistan Army chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa and ISI director-general, Lt. Gen. Naveed Muktar interfaced with Pompeo and Dunford in a Pakistani move to demonstrate that the government and the military are on the same page.
Qureshi revealed that he had been invited by Pompeo for further talks in New York during the U.N. General Assembly later this month.
No less revealing is a tweet put out by PTI, following the talks, claiming “the confident body language of the Prime Minister and Pompeo’s smiles marks an understanding of a relationship of mutual benefit and respect between the two countries.”
Traveling to India, Pompeo and U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis held long-delayed talks in Delhi – parleys that came amid a series of divisive issues and security themes, including the U.S.’s demands that India stop buying Iranian oil, a Russian air-defence system – and news reports that American President Donald Trump privately mimicked Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s accent.
Both Tehran and Moscow are currently under U.S. sanctions.
Mattis attempted to downplay differences arguing: “Freedom means that at times nations don’t agree with one another…That doesn’t mean that we can’t be partners. That doesn’t mean we don’t respect the sovereignty of those nations.”
The ‘2 + 2′ talks – between the two sides’ foreign and defence teams – it may be recalled were twice postponed, the last occasion when Pompeo was dispatched to Pyongyang in July for talks in North Korea.
While both sides spoke in effulgent terms about their bilateral relationship, the question that remained uppermost in the public mind was whether India could work with, or depend on, an unpredictable American president.
While Trump’s America has amply demonstrated it can take unpredictable decisions – e.g. with respect North Korea, the Paris climate accord of 2015 and the Iran nuclear deal also of 2015 – Modi has stated on many occasions that he considers former American president Barack Obama a friend, sentiments that are not likely to go down too well in today’s White House.
Though Washington would like a greater share of India’s arms import pie, she reportedly does not vehemently protest India’s arms-nexus with Russia, believing that it helps strengthen Delhi against Beijing, with whom – we read incessantly in the Indian media – India is now on chummy terms!
Other differences concern the Afghanistan’s Taliban. Lately, there have been indications that Washington is open to the idea of direct negotiations with the Taliban. That hardly comforts Delhi, one of Afghanistan’s biggest aid donors which naturally desires a say in any unfolding peace process in that land.
I don’t recall any news story of Pompeo (and Mattis) calling on Modi. I would assume that suggests that Indo-American ties are not quite as warm or substantial as some make them out to be. Thus far, Trump has neither visited India nor invited Modi for an official junket to Washington: that, I believe, speaks volumes.
Though the moves or developments mentioned above are significant, they are just a part of a wider evolving South Asian story. Let’s watch and see how it develops in the months ahead, bearing in mind November’s mid-term elections in America and next year’s general elections in India.
Prachanda did make it to Delhi and discussed religious tourism and ‘watery’ issues with Modi. While the first is distinctly weird given the Maoist helmsman’s utter disdain for the religion he was born into; the second is too hilarious to be taken seriously.
But I do wonder if Prime Minister K.P. Oli needs to worry!