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Prospects for a US-India Alliance Run Into the Pakistan Problem

Washington is ecstatic that Indian PM Modi may be open to entering into a US-led alliance vs China but Modi's price would be uncodnitional support versus Pakistan, a traditional client of the US

Against the backdrop of the upheaval in Jammu & Kashmir and ensuing India-Pakistan tensions, Washington is unmistakably signalling to Delhi to calm down and get its act together as a responsible regional power. The US is walking a fine line, given the complexities of the overall situation.

First and foremost, from Washington’s perspective, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the best thing that ever happened to the US-Indian relationship since 1947. Here is an Indian prime minister who is not obsessed with ‘strategic autonomy’ and is game to taking India into an alliance with the US. Part of the package is also lucrative US exports to India, civil and military exports.

Geopolitically, the prospects also look good for incrementally atrophying India’s ‘time-tested’ relations with Russia, which would help isolate Moscow and hurt its principal source of income out of arms exports. Above all, the Modi government genuinely believes in the efficacy of the US’ containment strategy against China and counts on advantages accruing to India.

However, just when things looked jolly good, Kashmir Valley descended into violence and anarchy and Delhi began blaming Pakistan. The nadir was reached when under the mistaken notion that the rhetoric would have a receptive international audience, PM Modi personally began a strident campaign demanding that Pakistan should be sanctioned as a state sponsoring terrorism, and even more astoundingly, that Pakistan should be held accountable for its human rights record in Baluchistan province.

Alongside, Delhi began showing interest in supplying lethal weaponry to Afghan armed forces. The anti-Pakistan rhetoric rose to a crescendo this week with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani duly echoing the Indian rhetoric, while on a visit to Delhi.

Unsurprisingly, Washington feels alarmed that Indian policies have gone berserk. This is not how Modi government was expected to behave. The American script demands that

  • India should commence a dialogue with Pakistan and seek to normalize the relations by discussing all outstanding issues, especially Kashmir issue, which is the core issue impacting the relationship and engendering cross-border terrorism.

  • Only if India normalized with Pakistan can it play an effective role as ‘counterweight’ to China.

  • Any spiraling of India-Pakistan tensions would weaken the US’ regional strategies in Afghanistan.

  • While India has a positive role to play in Afghanistan, it should not go overboard to wage a proxy war with Pakistan from that country’s soil, considering the centrality of Pakistan’s cooperation both for the stabilization of the Afghan situation and for the sustainability of the US and NATO’s long term military presence in the region.

The Modi government seems to have misread the American script. It seems to be under the illusion that since the US-Pakistan relations are passing through a difficult phase currently, an opportune moment has come to ‘isolate’ Pakistan, and piling pressure on Pakistan could only delight Washington.

Besides, Modi government estimates that its ‘hardline’ approach to China also cannot do without a Pakistani vector. It is after all the issues emanating out of China’s relations with Pakistan that constitute the bulk of the discords that Modi government has chosen to play up in a calibrated policy to keep the Sino-Indian relationship in a state of suspended animation (‘cold peace’).

All in all, the Modi government too has a script of its own, which expects Washington to be supportive of its ‘hardline’ policies toward Pakistan, without caveats. A serious contradiction arises because the American script and the Modi government’s script cannot easily be harmonized. The disharmony will continue as long as J&K is on the boil.

The Modi government may try to appease the US on other areas – such as the recent signing of the logistics agreement and the possibility of signing the two other pending ‘foundational agreements’ – but Washington finds itself between the rock and a hard place because it cannot easily ‘de-hyphenate’ its policies toward Pakistan. India is a milch cow and if it bandwagons with the US in the South China Sea, that could also give ballast to the rebalance in Asia, but, on the other hand, Pakistan’s cooperation is indispensable too.

Washington feels uneasy that if regional tensions spiral at the present rate, a flashpoint may arise at some point. In a significant remark, US state department spokesman John Kirby last week mentioned the danger of ‘incidents’ occurring if India-Pakistan tensions persisted. Shorn of diplomatese, Kirby probably meant that there could be terrorist strikes on Indian targets, which could even trigger a conflict.

Without doubt, a senior diplomat like Kirby would know what to say and what not to say on such a hugely sensitive issue. Did he speak on the basis of intelligence inputs that ‘non-state actors’ in Pakistan are mobilizing against India?

In a series of statements through the past few days, Kirby also distanced Washington across the board from the Indian positions as regards J&K situation, Baluchistan, Pakistan’s involvement in terrorism, etc. Very politely but firmly and unambiguously, Washington signaled to Delhi its unease at the range of Indian policies, while taking care not to offend Modi’s ego.

Interestingly, Voice of America featured a report on Thursday based on an interview with the Pakistani foreign office spokesman regarding India’s activities in Afghanistan. The VOA quoted the Pakistani spokesman explicitly warning that there should be no misconceptions that Islamabad has the political will and the “capability” to retaliate against any attempts to mount subversive activities from Afghan soil to destabilize Pakistan. (VOA)

How far Washington is reverting to its traditional policy to fish in the troubled waters of India-Pakistan relations is hard to tell. Interestingly, though, in a publicized hearing this week at the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the drift of discussion tended to underscore that US’s vital interests could be adversely affected if the ties with Pakistan were allowed to deteriorate. (Daily Times)

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