Obama’s South Asia tangle

Updated: Nov 07, 2010, 16:10 PM IST

Ajith Vijay Kumar

Increasingly considered the strategic backwater of the United States, South Asia has slowly but surely emerged as a key region in the global power calculations of the White House. Emerging powerhouse India, along with the ever persistent trouble spots, Pakistan and Afghanistan, have never been so very near to the centrestage as they are today, when Barack Obama has come calling to India.

Although India’s importance as an indispensable ally of the US in a troubled region is a recent phenomenon, the rapid strides made between the two countries in resolving irritants and forging new partnerships surely point to the level of US interest in India.

Be it the Indo-US nuclear deal or the opening up of the sale of high-end defence equipment and technology, the relationship between the two countries stands poised to be one of the defining ones in the new global order.

The interest is not just because of the growing economic clout of a billion strong nation but is also dictated by America’s interest in putting up a strategic counterbalance to curb China and its ambitions.

The China Angle

Many argue that China’s emergence as a superpower that challenges US position is now just a matter of time. Everything is in place – fast growing economy, abundance of natural resources, strong domestic consumption, stable governance and a will to succeed – to propel the Dragon into pre-eminence in world affairs and as if on a cue, Chinese President Hu Jintao has piped US President Obama to be named as the world’s most influential person by the Forbes magazine.

Surely, China has been considerably increasing its military power and influence in the region. But China is vulnerable too. In 2010, for the first time, China imported more than 50 per cent of its oil for consumption and most of it travels through the Mallacca Strait – very close to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.

According to Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation, Beijing appears to be thus pursuing what has been widely known as a "string of pearls" strategy of cultivating India`s neighbours as friendly states, both to protect its economic and security interests and to balance a "rising India". In that respect, he urged the US government to come up with plans to counter China’s influence, and in that context India will be the ideal choice.

Cheng said, “Chinese influence in the region is growing, it is essential that the US not fall behind in the Indian Ocean, but maintain a steady presence in the region, both to signal its resolve to stay engaged and to avoid the difficulties of re-entering a region.”

China surely understands that the growth of the Indian Navy would mean that Chinese economic development will potentially be at the mercy of India, as well as the United States.

And what is adding to the worry in Beijing is New Delhi’s Look East policy through which the latter is forging deeper bonds with ASEAN countries and traditional allies of the US like Japan and South Korea.

India understands that China is not too comfortable with its rise, what with its overt and covert help to Pakistan in keeping the Indo-Pak border alive and throbbing. China is also playing up its border dispute with India, besides being an irritant on Kashmir.

The US wants India to grow but, as one would like to believe, on its own terms.

Af-Pak riddle

India continues to watch with concern as Washington plies military aid on Pakistan while remaining unable or unwilling to compel Islamabad to abandon militancy as a tool of foreign policy.

India wants the US to leverage its dollar strength to pressurise Pakistan to dismantle its India-targeted terror infrastructure, but besides rhetoric and few concrete steps, nothing seems to be moving on the ground.

The fact is that the US itself is not sure as to how to handle Pakistan. It surely understands Pakistan’s centrality in solving the al Qaeda-backed global terror jigsaw puzzle and getting its troops out of Afghanistan, but finds itself in a blind alley when it comes to charting the way forward.

Although, the Pentagon and the US State Department have made it clear that aid to Pakistan is linked to action on the ground and that there would be strict monitoring on how the billions of dollars flowing into Pakistan coffers are being used, as of now it remains just a resolve even as the Islamic nation continues with its aggressive posturing against India.

Defence Minister AK Antony summarized India`s concerns during a September 2010 trip to Washington: "We feel that even though the US is giving arms to Pakistan to fight terrorism, our practical experience is (that) it is always being misused. They are diverting a portion against India."

And the recent revelations about ISI’s increasing global foot print and its ever persisting role in creating trouble for India – as per US commanders even the bombings on Indian embassy in Kabul was engineered by ISI – have, in more ways than one, strengthened India’s point that aid to Pakistan poses a serious risk of being misused. But is the US listening?

There’s no denying that despite its internal troubles and its stake in Afghanistan, India forms the core of foreign policy decisions made by Islamabad and the Generals of Rawalpindi.

Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani, while on a trip to America, said it in as many words: “I am India centric”. Pakistan also wants the US to raise the Kashmir issue, something that Washington has dubbed a bilateral matter between the two neighbours – taking India’s position into consideration.

But despite all of this, the US is in no position to let go of Pakistani help in ensuring that their troops get out of Afghanistan in the shortest possible time. Obama may have set a timeline for troop withdrawal, but the Americans know it is not a feasible proposition until the Pakistanis lend a hand in making it a reality.

For the US, Pakistani establishment’s help becomes more vital in view of the uncomfortable relations between Obama and the Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The Afghan strongman is increasingly looking weak and is talking of rapprochement with the Taliban even before the war is won. Importantly, the chill in relationship between Washington and Kabul is being met with a warming up of ties between the Karzai government and Islamabad, given the frequent forays of Pakistani generals across the Durand Line.

India wants the US to deny Pakistan the strategic depth it seeks on its west but can Obama do any thing at this juncture to assuage India’s concerns is the big question.

And therein lies the core of the US troubles in the region. On the one hand, it wants to partake in the growing India story and also equip Delhi to take on Beijing, on the other it doesn’t know how to handle Pakistan and ensure that it helps in putting an end to the growing scourge of terrorism.