Currently, the India-US relationship is in good shape. This represents a considerable change from the days when there were many many uncertainties between them and neither could be entirely comfortable with the other.
Even in those less agreeable days, however, it was often suggested that these two countries were natural strategic partners, and charting the high potential of their relationship received more than a passing thought in think-tanks which, then as now, have been important contributors to US policy, and have now become more visible on the Indian scene. Yet official establishments were slow to respond even when interests were convergent, as at the time when the USA went through a drastic re-ordering of its involvement in South Asia as it entered into a war in Afghanistan, whose effects are still with us.
Notwithstanding the considerable community of interest in those circumstances, there was very little by way of joint activity to give practical shape to perceptions of their shared regional interests. Efforts to develop practical strategic cooperation between them were made on a number of occasions, notably during the negotiations for the Indo-US nuclear deal, but there was still a gap between them.
Their regional priorities were never harmonized in a manner that could give equal comfort to both. It is only now, after a slow inching forward by several of his predecessors, that President Trump has given an important indication of what he seeks as a solution to his country’s Afghan imbroglio, and his perceptions have important implications for the region as a whole.
Unlike many before him, he has not shied away from open criticism of Pakistan for providing covert support to the Taliban while claiming to oppose them in the field. This was a development waiting to happen, for it has been increasingly apparent that Pakistan has given succour to the Taliban and permitted its favoured terror groups to use the Pak-Afghan frontier region as a base for militancy in Afghanistan.
Despite increasing discomfiture in Washington, Pakistan persisted with this approach, to the point that the US President has finally felt obliged to make a characteristically blunt criticism of Pakistan’s ways.
Now, after he has spoken, Washington may be more critical of Pakistani prevarications and less willing to continue to turn a blind eye to what has been taking place in Afghanistan. This change of approach by the USA has already had a marked impact in the region, and further consequences can be expected. India, which has warmly welcomed the US move, can now hope that there will be real improvement on the ground and a better chance of regional calm and stability.
Covert Pak support for the Taliban has not only frustrated the USA but has also added to India’s security problems, for the terrorism nurtured in parts of Afghanistan has been deliberately directed towards India. Kashmir is the main target, as it has always been, but the militants have also been bold enough to choose targets in other parts of the country, to promote disruption and create incidents that can carry the danger of a wider war. Combating terrorism has thus become a principal focus of Indian foreign policy and India has worked hard at successive international meetings to raise awareness and promote action on this theme.
Everybody endorses the principle but few have been prepared to take effective action, so there is an especially strong sense of vindication in India’s welcome for Trump’s forthright words, which according to some knowledgeable observers amount to a paradigm shift in US South Asian policy. Seen from New Delhi he can be regarded as paying heed to what India has been urging for so long, and finally agreeing on a course of action to effectively combat the plague of terrorism. Though the wind is now blowing in a different direction, it should not be supposed that Mr Trump’s words alone could lead to restraint and caution in regional affairs.
Pakistan has been quick to defend itself against any suggestion of wrongdoing and has been in consultation with China, as well as Russia and Turkey, in an effort to rally international support to compensate for the rebuke it has received from the USA.
This should come as a surprise for Pakistan could not have been expected to respond meekly, and it is all too accustomed to being able to dodge its way through difficulties when similar situations have arisen in the past. Even now, despite the clear and forthright words of the US President, Pakistan may not be without support in Washington where its strategic location and the embedded influence of its longtime friends are not to be ignored.
Nevertheless, the consequences of the US pronouncement can be weighty and have long-term effect. For India, this represents a vindication of what it has been saying, again and again, about Pakistan’s policy of deliberate deception, and hence there is wide welcome in New Delhi of Trump’s forthright words. While there is satisfaction at this turn of events, there are some other less favourable aspects of Trump’s South Asia policy that should not be ignored. He was direct in his criticism of India’s trade surplus with the USA, some $ 26 billion according to his reckoning, and sought corrective measures.
This came as something of a surprise: much has been said about the US trade deficit with China, amounting to around $ 350 billion in 2016, which is of an altogether different order and has had a profound effect on the relations between the two countries. By comparison, the deficit in US-India trade has merited little attention, though there have been efforts from the US side to boost sales of high-tech equipment, especially in defence supplies, where they are in rivalry with suppliers in Europe and Russia.
To be noted, too, are comments by senior US officials indicating that they would expect stronger commitment and participation by India in the effort to rehabilitate and strengthen Afghanistan.
As it is, India has made a huge effort to provide Kabul with economic and technical support, which is acknowledged and appreciated on all sides, though there could now be expectations that India will take on an even bigger share of the burden. Some years ago the ‘Afpak’ idea was born in Washington under which India was expected to take on enhanced security responsibilities in Afghanistan within a US-led programme.
But India resisted the suggestion, and it may have reservations if something similar were to be envisaged again. So even while India-US relations are currently at a high point of mutual satisfaction, there are still quite a few issues between them that require discussion and sorting out.
(The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary)