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India should be wary of Trump's new South Asia policy

Although the COMCASA defence pact allows real-time intelligence sharing on location of vessels in the ocean, it is aimed more at facilitating US operations in the Indian Ocean Region, preserving their hegemonistic approach with the support of India, writes Manisha Chakraborty 
 
Sep 13, 2018
 
The inaugural India-US 2+2 Dialogue was incomplete and one-sided. While from the Indian strategic thinkers’ perspective, the 2+2 dialogue between India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, and their counterparts, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary James Mattis, on September 6 in New Delhi was labeled as “path-breaking” in strengthening defence and strategic ties between the world's two largest democracies, it is clear that the goal of the first edition of the ministerial meeting is to cut China off from the rest of Asia, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region.
 
But this is a proverbial frog-in-the-well kind of perspective. Since Narendra Modi became Indian Prime Minister in 2014, his China dilemma has been reflected in various international fora. The latest example of his rigid stance towards the China-initiated Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) echoed again in his refusal to endorse BRI at the 18th Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Qingdao in June this year, despite the success of the Wuhan Summit.
 
It is a fact that Modi’s unrestrained courtship of President Donald Trump’s new South Asia strategy cannot help India to corner China which is "taking centre stage in the world." The truth is that most South Asian countries and the ASEAN have joined the BRI, much to India’s displeasure.
 
During the 2+2 Dialogue, India and the US signed three agreements on defence relations; the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA); establishing hotlines between the defence and foreign ministers of both countries; and on the first tri-services military exercises between them.
 
Indian policy makers, think tanks and the country's media outlets were overawed that the defence pact would enable Indian armed forces to buy more sensitive military equipment from the United States and to exert its geopolitical influence in South Asia as well as in the international arena.
 
The level of rhetoric of both governments at the meeting soared. Pompeo said the US was "happy to announce" the inking of COMCASA. Both Swaraj and Sitharaman said the conclusion of the pact had propelled the bilateral relationship to “an advanced level.”
 
But will the US really help India emerge as a world power?
 
Although the COMCASA defence pact allows real-time intelligence sharing on location of vessels in the ocean, it is aimed more at facilitating US operations in the Indian Ocean Region, preserving their hegemonistic approach with the support of India. There is also a question mark whether India will be able to access significant US intelligence and technology. India must realize that the US, with its strategic calculus, is using India as the net security provider in the Indo-Pacific to protect its domination.
 
It is also a fact that India’s strategic congruence with the US is limited to the area of the US Pacific. As the Hindu newspaper rightly warned in an editorial, “India must watch its side of the ledger while deepening defence ties with the U.S.”
 
There was also ecstasy in the Indian right wing media outlets when the India, US joint statement called upon Pakistan to ensure its territory wasn't used to launch terror attacks on other countries. Pompeo and Mattis may have criticized the safe havens to terrorists in Pakistan, but they did not criticize terrorists’ attacks on India. In the joint press briefing, Pompeo didn't mention Pakistan in his remarks.
 
More importantly, while meeting with new Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and the Pak Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa in Islamabad on September 5, Pompeo appeared upbeat.
 
He said, “I’m hopeful that the foundation that we laid today will set the conditions for continued success as we start to move forward.”
 
So, what practical interests did India gain from the 2+2 meeting? The answer is likely negative. Although it appears that India-U.S. relations are going swimmingly well, there was no progress on securing a waiver from American sanctions that bar India from purchasing Russian weapons. This is surely a setback for India as 60% of its weapons systems originate from Russia. It is not good for India from a security point of view.
 
India is importing oil from Iran and it cannot do away with that source. But Washington’s demand is that India should “zero out” oil imports from Iran by November 4. While India is now importing crude from the US, compromising its relations Iran is not good in the long run. Such pressure by the US on India to not purchase Russian weapons or Iranian oil is unreasonable and a "national embarrassment" for independent India.
 
It’s also important to look at the language of the joint statement on the 2+2 Dialogue. Both sides discussed cooperation on fighting terrorism, advancing "a safe, secure, prosperous, free and open Indo-Pacific region" and promoting sustainable “debt-financing” in the region. Surely, the statement is clearly aimed at China’s role in the South China Sea and, of course, the BRI, which is winning the hearts and minds of people of the Euro-Asiatic region, Africa and Latin America.
 
The Modi government needs to learn from China and Pakistan in handling ties with US. Violating India’s principle of non-alignment, Modi’s wooing of the US and Japan in foreign policy damages traditional ties with China.
 
If the Modi administration really wants peace in the region, it should abandon its biased views of China. More importantly, India should refrain from embracing Trump’s new South Asia policy, as nothing will come for free from today’s US. The warming of ties between India and China stems from the needs of both sides since the US has abandoned multilateralism and opposed free trade breaching the global trade system.
 
 
(The author holds a Master’s degree from Rabindra Bharati University, West Bengal. She can be contacted at manishanhrlc@gmail.com)
 
 
 
 

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