US in the South Asian arena

Spearhead Analysis – 25.03.2019

By Hira A. Shafi
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Recently, the Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale completed his three- day visit to US. Vijay Gokhale met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton- amongst others. Reportedly, The Indian and US officials also carried out discussions on anti-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, and confronting threats in space. The United States and India have agreed to strengthen security and civil nuclear cooperation, including building six US nuclear power plants in India. India and the US have also identified small air launch unmanned aerial vehicles and a lightweight small arms technology project along with aircraft maintenance for defence collaboration.

In the energy domain- India is seeking to diversify its oil import sources amid US sanctions on Iran and Venezuela. Recently, state-run Indian Oil Corp announced the signing of an annual contract for the purchase of US crude under which it will import three million tons of oil worth about $1.5 billion in the fiscal year beginning April. Without naming the supplier, the company said in a statement that it was the first time that a government oil company has finalized an annual contract for the import of US origin crude oil. The US-India strategic partnership is steadily burgeoning; a glitch was witnessed when Donald Trump said that he intends to end India’s preferential trade treatment under generalised system of preferences (GSP) that allows $5.6 billion worth of Indian exports to enter the United States duty-free. The Indian government on its part is also trying to downplay this development by claiming that the withdrawal of the GSP for Indian products would have limited impact and that the two countries had been working on a trade package to address each other’s concerns. Some claim that the actual benefit to India was only $250m a year from the GSP but the designation was more of a symbolic gesture to highlight the US-Indo strategic relationship.

The Regional Context:

The US ties with Pakistan continue to revolve around the pillars of military, counter terror efforts and Afghanistan. The relationship continues to oscillate between cold to lukewarm. The recent past has witnessed several reversals in the traditional Pakistan-US military to military ties. However, Pakistan’s counter terror efforts and recommendations on a way forward in Afghanistan continue to highlight its role as an important regional partner. During an armed services senate hearing the Commander of the United States Central Command- General Joseph Votel stated that “

A key part of the (Afghan) strategy has been the regionalization. Pakistan has played a more helpful role, a more constructive role in helping us move forward towards this objective.” On the subject of U.S.-funded military exchange programs in the CENTCOM region, Votel stated that “We get a lot of benefit out of that, not just in the countries in the region, but again by people from those countries coming back to America to participate in exercises to build the relationships back here. And I think this is an extraordinary program. You have already talked about the impact of IMET. This is an extraordinarily important program. I also think that the program of exercises that we continue to orchestrate across the region are extraordinarily important in terms of building interoperability, in terms of building readiness, and in terms of building reliability in our partners. And as we have kind of continued to move forward, I think this will be again continuing investments that we will want to make. I would add one final program that I think is extraordinarily valuable, and it is our combined maritime force where we invite different partners in the region, some from outside of the region to come in and participate as part of our combined maritime forces operating in the Gulf and in the waters of the region. These are extraordinarily important. And we see countries like Pakistan who step forward, provide significant resources in this, and provide leadership to these organizations. And this allows us to make sure that we share the burden, we leverage the capabilities that everybody brings, and it adds to a much more collective approach to security in the region.

I think one of the most important things — and I mentioned this a little bit earlier — for us to do is to continue to be seen by our partners in the region as a valued partner.”

Amidst the regional developments, the US must re-examine the impacts of the burgeoning US-India partnership- especially in the military domain- on the overall strategic stability of the South Asian region. The recent series of events is a glaring example of adverse consequence associated with a wide disparity. There is a need for US and Pakistan to consolidate the gains of their counter terror efforts and devise comprehensive mechanisms. Moreover, US and Pakistan must work to converge economic interest. The utility of this domain was recently highlighted by Pakistan’s new ambassador to the United States, Asad Majeed Khan at a  talk during which he stated that “  The world has changed tremendously. China is the United States’ largest trading partner. China is a major trading partner with India, also. Despite there being strategic competition, these are not either/or relationships … Our friendship with China is not something that started yesterday … In the context of CPEC [the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor] it does not mean that the Chinese investments are to the exclusion of everyone else … China came to Pakistan, frankly, when no one else was willing to do so. On what kind of “peace dividend” Pakistan might expect after if an agreement is reached with the Taliban and relations with India stabilize: Khan noted that Pakistan has the world’s fifth-largest population, 45 percent of which is middle class and driving rapid increases in consumption. “We want to start looking inwards. There is huge potential in our bilateral relationships, and through them a chance to explore wider economic possibilities … It is only after you are able to bring security to Pakistan, peace in Afghanistan and peace in the wider region that we will be able to fully explore and harness a peace dividend.”

Currently several issues such as decisions on FATF or tackling certain outfits- appear to be influenced by Indian concerns. There is a need for US to re-assess the case of Pakistan independently from the broader regional context and work towards re-calibrating the ties.