Insights into Editorial: Signs of a geopolitical whirlwind

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Insights into Editorial: Signs of a geopolitical whirlwind


 

Context:

US President Donald Trump turns tough against Pakistan, accuses Islamabad of lies and deceit; says no more US aid.

US President said his country will not give any more aid to Pakistan as it gave safe havens to the terrorists that attack US troops in Afghanistan. Trump came down heavily on Pakistan on the first day of the New Year, saying Pakistan gave America nothing but lies and deceit. He said the US ‘foolishly’ gave more than 33 billion dollars to Pakistan in aid over the last 15 years.

With these accusations, U.S. President ‘appears’ to be radically resetting his administration’s Pakistan policy, with implications or the rest of South Asia.

Tough action against Pakistan

  • The United States has suspended over 1 billion US dollar security assistance to Pakistan until Islamabad takes decisive action against terror groups, including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network.
  • The administration will freeze the aid payments but not allocate the money elsewhere and it would reassess it in the coming year.
  • Prominent among the suspended amount is the 255 million dollars in Foreign Military Funding for the fiscal year 2016 as mandated by the Congress.
  • In addition, the Department of Defence has suspended the entire 900 million dollar of the Coalition Support Fund money to Pakistan for the fiscal year 2017.
  • The US has also placed Pakistan on a Special Watch List for severe violations of religious freedom.
  • Pakistan is the only country to be put under the newly-formed list.
  • This is for the first time that the State Department announced its Special Watch List, a new category created by the Frank R Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016.

The official said, the Trump’s new policy is not about looking at Pakistan through the lens of Afghanistan, but it is about looking at the region and the future of the US.          

US President Donald Trump accused Islamabad of giving nothing to the US but lies and deceit and providing a safe haven to terrorists.

A clever ploy?

A less worrisome interpretation of President’s outrage would be that it is a clever ploy to gain more leverage in a region where the U.S. is seemingly losing ground.

It is steadily losing its Afghan war, losing ground to China in the region, and China is increasingly interested in politically managing the potential outcomes of the Afghan war.

And Islamabad so far is seen to have had the best of both worlds — being China’s closest ally, while remaining a non-NATO ally of the U.S.

In that interpretation, US president decided to end the party for Pakistan on January 1, till of course Pakistan agrees to deliver on American concerns regarding China and Afghanistan.

Response from Islamabad

As an immediate measure, Pakistan has banned the Mumbai terror attacks mastermind Hafiz Saeed-led Jamaat-ud Dawa (JuD) and Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation from collecting donations.

Any tightening of the noose around the Taliban is likely to be viewed by the Pakistan army as a strategic blunder, the implications of which would outlast the irresolute U.S. commitment in Afghanistan.

Caving into U.S. demands would have grave implications for the much-weakened civilian government in Islamabad, especially when all eyes are on the general elections later this year.

Smooth-talk may be government’s way out. The response from Islamabad has so far been verbal, with threats of suspending military and intelligence cooperation with Washington. However, it should be noted that American aid and reimbursements (for expenses incurred by Pakistan in the war on terror) have been declining over the past several years.

If so, the impact of the U.S. withholding aid may not be exceptionally damaging for Pakistan.

It would be instructive to watch what role Beijing would play in this war of nerves between its strategic adversary and closest ally.

What are the compelling scenarios that would play out in various ways in the days ahead?

Notwithstanding how Pakistan responds to the U.S., the latter’s strong-arm policies have implications for South Asia.

  1. This would considerably diminish Pakistan’s ability of being China’s closest ally, while remaining a non-NATO allies of the U.S even as China and the U.S. inch towards a Cold War of sorts. Pakistan has been steadily moving towards China from the American camp: this will now be a far quicker shift.
  2. As a direct consequence of these moves and counter-moves, there would emerge a far severe geopolitical competition in the region, the sharpest since the end of the Cold War.
  • Southern Asia’s regional geopolitics would be reshaped along several disconcerting fault-lines.
  1. The emerging China-Pakistan-Russia axis is set to play a dominant role in the regional geopolitical order.
  2. The role of Iran — which also has hostile relations with the U.S. even as it maintains a crucial strategic partnership with New Delhi — in this grouping would be interesting to watch.
  3. The closer India gets to the U.S., the more each of these countries would display their discomfort towards India.
  • The emerging counter-pole is to be led by the U.S., with India and Japan on board, and the increasingly cautious Western powers taking a rather subdued interest.

However, given the rise of China and the retreat of the U.S., current American allies are likely to hedge their bets. The one U.S. ally that has immense influence in Pakistan is Saudi Arabia with which India also maintains a close relationship.

Implications for India

Implications of the U.S.-Pakistan rift may not be as straightforward as they might seem. Even though the American rhetoric against Pakistan is viewed highly favourably in India, the freezing of U.S.-Pakistan relations could potentially have negative implications for the country, certainly in the medium to long term.

  • This will mean the end of the indirect influence (through the U.S.) that India has traditionally managed to exert on Pakistan, especially on terror-related issues.
  • The ever-strong China-Pakistan ties, without the balancing effect of the U.S. in the region, could push India further to the wall.
  • American ‘absence’ would embolden Chinese manoeuvres against India, and more so, China will be a far less pro-India broker than Washington ever was.

Reluctant India may be pushed to make a choice: either to remain unallied and safeguard its strategic autonomy or walk with the U.S.

Way Forward

While New Delhi’s best bet would be to deal with Washington without closing its doors to Moscow or Beijing, such fine balancing would require a great deal of diplomatic acumen, strategic foresight and long-term thinking.

Moreover, choosing sides while physically located in the middle of a geopolitical whirlwind is no easy task. Such a crucial choice needs to factor in economic relations, defence partnerships, and most of all geographic realities.

In any case, New Delhi should also closely consider the real intent behind Washington’s ire at Islamabad: it’s the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani network the Americans are after, not so much India-centric terror groups.

It is also important to note that even though the relations between the two countries were deteriorating in the recent past, the possibility that the U.S. establishment, with long-term interests in Pakistan, might soft-peddle its President’s angry outbursts.

New Delhi should view it as a clash between Pakistani and American geopolitical interests, and not get involved itself. To its credit, then, the response from New Delhi has been guided by ‘cautious optimism’.

A sharper geopolitical competition in the region could also adversely impact the overall sub-systemic stability in the region.

India needs to carefully consider focussing on infrastructure development, market access, development of regional organisations, and regional conflict resolution mechanisms because unlike both China and the U.S., India is deeply invested in stability in South Asia.