Nov 21, 2009
By M K Bhadrakumar
Discourse between India and Pakistan can be deceptive – like when cats hiss. You can never quite tell dalliance from discord. The fact remains that at different levels, despite their occasional shrill rhetoric, contacts have been going on between Delhi and Islamabad, including some unprecedented highly sensitive lines of communication, which neither side publicizes. India has also kick-started parallel efforts aimed at reaching out to Kashmiri opinion, with Pakistan in the loop.
At the responsible level of leadership in both India and Pakistan, there is a realization that extremism and terrorism do not and should not provide scope for zero-sum games, given the acuteness of security threats. There is no attempt on India’s part to take advantage of the pressing need for the Pakistani military to redeploy from the eastern border to the Afghan border.
Washington is privy to the alpha and the omega of what is going on, and yet it got a pithy paragraph insertedinto the summitstatement by US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao:
The two sides welcomed all efforts conducive to peace, stability and development in South Asia. They support the efforts of Afghanistan andPakistan to fight terrorism, maintain domesticstability and achieve sustainable economic andsocial development, and support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan. The two sides are ready to strengthencommunication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in that region.
The untimely articulation raised eyebrows in New Delhi, as both Washington and Beijing know only too well that it isn’t in India’s DNA to accept minders or mentors – Western or Asian. Delhi lost no time brusquely rejecting mediation.
However, the Sino-American affair over South Asia presented Delhi with another puzzle. The fact remains that US and Chinese interests are so patently at odds in the region that the two countries cannot easily mate. Washington is actively undermining the stability of the Mahinda Rajapakse government in Colombo, with which both Beijing and Delhi enjoy close ties. The US has just begun a robust thrust in Myanmar to contest China’s influence.
Conceivably, China has a good grasp of the situation in Pakistanand can estimate how deeply unpopular the US has become in that country. Ironically, the day the Obama-Hu statement was released in Beijing, a Gallup poll revealed that Pakistanis see the US as a bigger threat (59%) than India (18%) or the Taliban (11%). Why should Beijing stake its “all-weather friendship” withPakistan to salvage America’s reputation?
Meanwhile, a concerted media campaign has begun in the US to discredit Chinese policies toward Afghanistan – that China is involved in “brazen examples of corruption” to grab Afghanistan’s wealth of mineral resources. Quoting US officials, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday that state-run China Metallurgical Group Corp (MCC) paid a bribe of US$30 million to the concerned Afghan authorities for receiving a $2.9 billion project to extract copper from the Aynak deposit in Logar province.
The MCC is reportedly all set to bribe its way into another massive mining deal – an iron-ore deposit west of Kabul known as Haji Gak – and Sinochem, a Chinese state oil company, is similarly bidding for access to oil and gas deposits in northernAfghanistan. It is an unsavory tale.
Yet the London Times picked up the sleaze story on Thursday and embellished it even further. The tale already finds echo in a recent testimony by Milton Bearden, a former Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Islamabad, to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The other regional players [read China] are busily setting the stage for exploitation of Afghanistan’s natural resources, while the US remains bogged down with the war. This should change,” Bearden said.
Two weeks ago, when the Associated Press broke the story, it quoted leading American think-tanker and author, Robert Kaplan, “The world isn’t fair. A worse outcome to staying and helping the Chinese would be withdrawing and losing a great battle in the war against radical Islam.”
Therefore, where is it that US-China “communication, dialogue and cooperation” can work in South Asia? In Nepal? Indeed, Washington has already begun backtracking from the Obama-Hustatement.
On Wednesday, addressing the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC, William J Burns, under secretary for political affairs, said, “Of course, we all share an interest in stability and peace between India and Pakistan. We all know the stakes. America has always supported the two countries’ peace process and the resolution of outstanding disputes through dialogue. The pace, scope, and content of the peace process is for Indian and Pakistan leaders to decide.”
Burns later told Indian newsmen, “The US is interested in pursuing the best and healthiest possible partnership with China. But that doesn’t come at the expense of other increasingly important partnerships, particularly our relationship with India.” He advised them “not to read too much” into the US-Chinastatement.
Beijing will not be surprised that its South Asia connection with the Americans turned out to be ephemeral. The US similarly fired from the Chinese shoulder 11 years ago when its influence overPakistan and India was again at low ebb. That was in May-June 1998, when the two South Asian countries went openly nuclear and Bill Clinton thundered in the Oval Office, “We’re going to come down on those guys like a ton of bricks.”
Clinton dispatched his diplomats to rally the Chinese to his side and Beijing promptly obliged. A few weeks passed and Clinton changed his mind and began reconciliation talks with Delhi – without keeping Beijing (or anyone else) in the loop. History seems to repeat itself.
No sooner had Obama taken off from China, the American side began its explaining. These temper tantrums show up the fault lines in the US’s regional policies. The plain truth is that bothPakistan and India have become somewhat “unmanageable”.
Washington is acutely conscious that “anti-Americanism” is riding high in Pakistan and it cuts across all sections of society. There is growing volatility in Pakistani politics and any new government can only be less “US-friendly”.
The Afghan Taliban continue to flourish as Pakistan’s “strategic assets” and they bleed American troops while Pakistani military operations remain restricted to militants who disrupt Pakistan’s internal security.
As for Delhi, it hosted Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki on Monday, just a week before a visit by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the US. India may get back into theIran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project and Manmohan may visit Tehran in February. Most important, Iran invited India to join the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan regional format, and Delhi showed interest.
Delhi takes a dim view of the Anglo-American thinking regarding “moderate Taliban” in Afghanistan. It repeatedly ignored – including a week ago – the proposal by the US AfPak special representative, Richard Holbrooke, to visit Delhi for consultations, pleading “scheduling difficulty”.
Again, Manmohan will be visiting Moscow in early December – his second trip to Russia in six months. The traffic from Delhi to Moscow has become heavy – one presidential visit, two prime ministerial visits and visits by the foreign minister and the defense minister.
Indian strategists are finally catching up with the transformative realities in the world order and realizing that Delhi’s one-dimensional foreign policy riveted on the idea of working “shoulder-to-shoulder” with Washington as “natural allies” on the global scene is a hopelessly archaic notion.
It becomes embarrassing to look back and survey that India has held over 50 military exercises with the US in recent years. Obama prefers a “demilitarization” of US-India ties, with cooperation mainly focused on American arms manufacturers tapping into the massive Indian arms bazaar.
For the first time in the post-Cold war era, Delhi elites too are not going overboard with excitement over an impending prime ministerial visit to the US and are able to maintain equanimity and poise.
At the same time, US-Indian business ties are set to blossom. On Thursday, the Indian government tabled legislation in parliament under the misleading title “Civil Nuclear Liability Bill”, the sole purpose of which is to provide access for the US nuclear industry to the Indian market, which promises to offer over $100 billion in business in the coming five to 10 years.
Washington’s quick backtracking from the Obama-Hu statementunderscores that any enterprise to mount ill-fated Sino-American ventures in the Indo-Gangetic plains can seriously harm the American business agenda, which is the US’s top priority.
This is not the end of the story. Beijing still may have an affair to settle with Delhi – the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as its territory.
Most certainly, it was not in India’s interests to have raised the dust. It remains unclear what good purpose was served by the visit and what may have been lost.
In what may be the first Chinese response, the top Kashmiri separatist leader in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, has been invited to visit Beijing. He said he accepted the invitation and hoped to give Chinese diplomats and other officials a “perspective” on the situation in J&K. This is the first time ever that Beijing has invited any separatist leader from J&K to visit China.
Obama may have a thing or two to explain to Manmohan when they meet over the first state banquet of his presidency that he is hosting in singular honor of the Indian dignitary next week. While in Beijing, Obama might have unwittingly butted into an area in which angels fear to tread.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.