Rising china, hostile PaK bring u.s. and india closer: Jeff smith
‘India and Pak have been de-hyphenated and now the US is very aware of, and sensitive to, India’s concerns.’
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump may be in midst of a great political churning in their respective political constituencies—India and America— as one gears to stake claims for the second term in PM’s office while another works to retain his most powerful office for the second tenure. Still, the common point is the leaders of these two largest democracies in the world are engaged in strengthening their bilateral diplomatic and defence ties and take it to a level, which not only strengthens India’s own position in South Asia and Asia Pacific region, but also stamps it as an “invaluable strong ally” of the US, benefitting South Asia and the Indo-Pacific Ocean region significantly. Both leaders, who, coincidentally, complement each other and maintain close relations, are out to pace up this partnership for a larger objective in the region, ensuring security, growth and jointly thwarting threats from China and Pakistan. MANEESH PANDEY, Senior Executive Editor of ITV Network spoke to JEFF SMITH, an expert on South Asia and Asian security matters at the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC on a range of issues concerning the region and the nations involved. Excerpts: Q: Do you see the US calling India as a “major defence partner” a big shift in Indo-US ties and will the tenures of PM Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump take it to the next level? What are the areas where both nations can work to be strong partners? A: The decision to label India a “Major Defence Partner” by the Barack Obama administration in 2016 was both symbolically and practically significant. I don’t think it marked a “shift” in defence ties so much as a consolidation and acceleration of existing trends and momentum. In truth, the US has been granting India exceptional treatment as a non-NATO defence partner since the mid-2000s under the George W. Bush administration. Washington has made Delhi the first foreign user of advanced defence platforms, set up an Indiaspecific “rapid reaction cell” in the Pentagon, and signed several unique defence and intelligence cooperation agreements before the Major Defence Partner label was applied. The designation was more an attempt to codify this special relationship, ensure continuity across administrations, and provide top-level guidance to the bureaucracy to ensure that India continue to be treated with exceptional status.
Fortunately, the Trump administration has continued to build momentum, taking several meaningful steps to further advance the defence relationship. Perhaps most important, it granted India STA-1 status, which eases regulations and eliminates obstacles to exporting advanced defence technology to India. It also signed a second “foundational” military agreement with India, the COMCASA, which facilitates the export of advanced communications technology and allows the US and Indian militaries to communicate over encrypted channels.
Furthermore, the Trump administration has agreed to station an Indian defence attaché with Central Command in Bahrain, improving cooperation on developments in the Middle East and Western Indian Ocean. Q: And on the foreign policy front for both nations? A: Finally, on the foreign policy front, the Trump administration has facilitated the revival of the “Quad”—the informal grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the US—which will meet for a third time in mid-November on the sidelines of the East Asia summit in Singapore. Notably, the administration has also adopted a tougher line toward Pakistan and its support for terrorism, as well as toward China and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Both positions bring India and the US into greater geopolitical alignment on some of the key regional and global foreign policy challenges of our time. Q: Any significant pacts on anvil to strengthen further the pace of partnership building? A: Looking ahead, the two governments are hoping to sign a deal for India to purchase American armed sea guardian drones. Negotiations are also underway to reach agreement on the final “foundational” military agreement, a Basic Exchange Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which would allow the two to exchange sensitive information on targeting and navigation. Meanwhile, the Defence Technology Trade Initiative ( DTTI) begun under the Obama administration has been reformed under President Trump as the two countries continue to search for opportunities to conduct joint development of military platforms. Cooperation in missile defence and aircraft carriers could see significant growth in the years ahead. Q: What do India and the US need to do to firewall against Pakistan’s terror and attempts to destabilise the region? Also what can the US do more to strengthen India in its war against terrorism? A: India-US cooperation on Pakistan has already made some very significant strides. There was a time in Washington when one could not mention India without also mentioning Pakistan. A time when almost every event on India was something relating to Kashmir. That is no longer the case. The two countries have been de- hyphenated for some time and now the US is very aware of, and sensitive to, India’s concerns about Pakistan and Pakistan- based terrorism. Of course, that’s largely because the US shares many of these concerns and has experienced firsthand how deadly and destabilising Pakistan’s support for extremist militants can be.
The US has already formed several bodies to share intelligence and coordinate with India on terrorism and homeland security matters. It has also become much more assertive in attempting to sanction and pressure Pakistan to apprehend and arrest known terrorists operating from its soil. Earlier this year, the Trump administration was successful in getting Pakistan added to the “grey list” of the Financial Action Task Force ( FATF), an international watchdog for terrorist financing and money laundering. If Pakistan is not able to improve its record it could be moved to the “black list” next year, which could be accompanied by various forms of sanctions. Over time, the US has begun to take a much less tolerant approach to Pakistan’s support for terrorism, not only those groups that are targeting US and Afghan interests, but those groups like LeT and JuD that have an India focus with Kashmir as an agenda. Joint statements between US and Indian officials nearly always include explicit mention of those groups now.
The Trump administration has already adopted several measures to apply greater pressure on Pakistan, including cutting off large sums of security aid and applying greater scrutiny to requests for loans from the IMF. If Pakistan proves unwilling to more aggressively combat the militants operating within its borders, the Trump administration should be expected to continue escalating the pressure and signalling to Islamabad that it can no longer expect “business as usual” with Washington. Q: Do you think that the US engaging India in Indian Ocean will be more productive than dragging it in South China Sea and Pacific waters? How will the strategic affairs then be if India gets more engaged with the US in Indian Ocean? A: I don’t think advancing India-US cooperation in the Indian Ocean and Pacific/ South China Sea is mutually exclusive. Both countries have interests in both arenas and, critically, their interests are largely congruent. There was a time when India, among other regional capitals, was very uncomfortable with the presence of the US military in the Indian Ocean. Now that is no longer the case. The two countries are not only conducting numerous joint military exercises together and sharing a lot of intelligence on activities in the Indian Ocean, they are also increasingly coordinating their foreign policy initiatives and responses to regional developments, including recent bouts of political turmoil in the Maldives and Sri Lanka.
Ultimately, I think India is more comfortable operating and pursuing new initiatives in the Indian Ocean vis-à-vis the South China Sea. It would like to further strengthen coordination on developments in the Middle East and Western Indian Ocean, where India has important sea lines of communication and where China-Pakistan military cooperation has been intensifying. The US has been largely amenable to the idea. India’s interests and presence in the South China Sea are more modest but increasing. The US has welcomed India’s repeated calls for freedom of navigation, respecting the rule of law, freedom from coercion, and its support for the other pillars of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. It’s also welcomed India’s growing engagement with Vietnam, Japan, and other regional partners. Q: China’s Border & Road Initiative (BRI) is a major worry for the United States and its partners. Can India play a role along with the US in putting a firewall against the Dragon’s designs? How? A: India has already played an outsized role in shaping the US and even international narratives surrounding the Belt and Road and its potential costs and consequences. From the point at which the BRI was unveiled in 2013 until mid-2017, India was the lone voice in not only refusing to endorse the BRI, but publicly criticising several aspects of the Chinese initiative. Notably, India’s opposition to the BRI played a role in the Trump administration eventually abandoning a relatively neutral position on the Chinese initiative and beginning to issue its own criticism last fall. Since then, several administration officials have criticised numerous aspects of the BRI and the “predatory lending” model China has adopted.
Not only is the administration more concerned about the risks of debt traps, corruption, and poor standards and accountability that have accompanied the BRI, in coordination with India and Japan it has begun to more proactively promote a vision for regional infrastructure that is more open and transparent. The administration has funded new initiatives specifically designed to facilitate greater US privatesector involvement in regional connectivity projects, as well as provide new capacity-building assistance to regional capitals. It wants to help governments evaluate the full scope of monetary and non- monetary costs that can accompany large infrastructure investments. Q: How are India and the US cooperation on regional connectivity initiatives in the IndoPacific? A: India, Japan, and the US have formed an infrastructure working group under their trilateral strategic dialogue, and US government agencies and private institutions have begun new partnerships with Indian and Japanese entities to promote further infrastructure cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. While the three Indo-Pacific democracies cannot compete with Chinese investments one-for-one, they can do a better job providing alternatives to regional capitals in need of infrastructure, but wary of debt traps and threats to their sovereignty and autonomy.
‘India has already played an outsized role in shaping the US and even international narratives surrounding the Belt and Road and its potential costs and consequences... India’s opposition to the BRI played a role in the Trump administration eventually abandoning a relatively neutral position on the Chinese initiative and beginning to issue its own criticism last fall.’ ‘US-India cooperation in missile defence and aircraft carriers could see significAnt growth.’
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump hug each other during the former’s visit to the White House, in Washington, US, on 26 June 2017.
Jeff Smith of Heritage Foundation in Washington DC.