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Traditional equations in South Asia are shifting and the region is approaching a binary of US-India and China-Pakistan as the major local power blocs.

Shifting alliances in South Asia

July 28th, 2016

By Kalyani Subbiah – Research Assistant

The traditional hesitancy of the United States to develop strategic ties with India rested on Cold-War alliances and the necessary partnership with Pakistan to combat terror in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. However, with the rise of Daesh, the region has declined in importance and with it, the indispensability of a close partnership with Pakistan. This has resulted in a greater convergence of interests between the US and India, as the US seeks powerful allies against China. Meanwhile, US-Pakistan relations are on the decline as US pressure on Pakistan to battle terror groups increases.

During Narendra Modi’s visit to the US in early June, the US recognized India as a ‘major defence partner’ in a joint statement. However, an amendment to the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA-17) to “recognise the status of India as a global strategic and defence partner” (proposed by Senator John McCain) was defeated in the Senate because of opposition to modifying certain defence export regulations. Nevertheless, the declaration of India as a ‘major defence partner’ shows a significant shift in the traditional hesitancy on strategic ties with India. Further, the superior power of the US executive in shaping foreign policy means India and the US are likely to see growing ties and defence partnerships in the future. Many observers point to domestic factors in the US to explain the burgeoning relationship with India, including the growing clout of the wealthy NRI (Non-Resident Indian) population in the US and their increased lobbying in Capitol Hill, which is eclipsing the formerly formidable Pakistani lobbying apparatus that punched well above its weight to influence policy. India, the largest importer of arms in the world, is also a viable customer for US military equipment, sales of which will continue to grow substantially due to the outdated and inadequate state of Indian defence assets.

On the other hand, following the US drone strike that killed the Taliban leader Mullah Mansour on May 21st in Pakistani territory, relations between Pakistan and the US have reached new depths. This follows the parallel of tense US-Pakistani relations from 2011 to 2013, when the US conducted numerous ‘signature strikes’ – wherein targets are identified solely on the basis of ‘suspicious behavior’ – in Pakistani territory. The Pakistani military and civilian establishment regularly condemns drone strikes as an infringement of Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty, though some experts have expressed suspicion over Pakistan’s real role in the recent drone strike due to Mullah Mansour’s unwillingness to bring the Taliban to the table for the Pakistan-supported Quadrilateral Coordination Group peace talks.

Despite protestations to the contrary, the Pakistani military continues to maintain close links with the Taliban as part of its ‘strategic depth doctrine’ (though the military denies its existence) wherein Pakistani troops can retreat to Afghanistan in case of a conventional attack from the eastern frontier with India – a withdrawal scenario that could become necessary due to the geographically ‘thin’ nature of the Pakistani state. Therefore, Pakistan views growing ties between India and Afghanistan with great suspicion. The Special US Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Olson, in a message directed at Pakistan, argues that Pakistan’s concerns over the role of India in Afghanistan are ‘overestimated’ and that India has only provided limited military and civilian aid to Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s concerns gain partial credence due to high tensions along the disputed Durand Line with its western neighbour Afghanistan. The Durand Line splits homogenous tribal territories between the two countries, which Afghanistan tends to claim for its own due to their greater similarity with the Afghan demographic. After Narendra Modi’s visit to Afghanistan, which was filled with bonhomie, Pakistan introduced passport and visa checks on the vital cross-border route at Torkham, effectively closing it to thousands of Afghans. While this is a legitimate concern on Pakistan’s part, given the free movement of terrorists and Taliban operatives across the border, Afghanistan was provoked because such a border checkpoint legitimizes the Durand Line, which it refuses to accept. This resulted in clashes on the border with four deaths and unified national uproar in Afghanistan, but since then the border has been reopened after bilateral talks. However, Pakistan has delivered its warning to Afghanistan.

In its Country Reports on Terrorism, 2015, which the Indian media remarked upon with a sense of victory, the US Department of State condemned the Pakistani government for its lack of action against the Taliban, HQN, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), and for allowing the UN-designated terrorist Hafeez Saeed free reign to make public speeches and hold gatherings. Recent reports also indicate that the Pakistani central government has allowed the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial government to provide $3 million in funds to the Darul Uloom Haqqania, otherwise known as the University of Jihad (notable alumni include former Taliban chiefs Mullahs Omar and Mansour, and Jalaluddin Haqqani).

As a result, the US House of Representatives passed its version of the NDAA-17 bill allotting $900 million of aid to Pakistan under the new provision: ‘Pakistani Security Enhancement Authorisation’, but withholding $450 million of that sum until the Defence Secretary certifies that Pakistan is taking adequate steps to combat the HQN. The US Senate reduced these figures to $800 million and $300 million respectively. These funds are no longer part of the Coalition Support Fund (CSF), hence delinking Pakistan from Afghanistan and indicating downscaled partnerships in the region. It is also notable that Defence Secretary Ashton Carter has still not released the $300 million of conditional aid to Pakistan from 2015-16 due to similar conditions being attached to the NDAA-16.

This move follows close on the heels of Congress refusing to subsidize the sale of F-16 fighter jets – an act which would have cut their cost from $700 million to $270 million – after which Pakistan claimed it would buy the aircraft from another country. Though the White House has repeatedly urged restraint upon the Congress prior to such decisions, the Congress remains antithetical to Pakistan purportedly due to its support for the HQN and the dangers it poses to nuclear proliferation.

The sense of betrayal among the Pakistani establishment is palpable. Though the US continues to designate Pakistan as a ‘long-standing strategic partner’, a step above India, Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaj Aziz describes the Indo-US partnership as a threat to the balance of power in South Asia. Mr. Aziz alleges that the Obama administration focuses on Pakistan for short-term strategy and on India for strategic partnership, reiterating the feeling of ‘being used’. He claims that the Mullah Mansour drone strike has breached Pakistani sovereignty and undermined the Taliban peace process. On the other hand, Mr Aziz himself acknowledges that the US-Pakistan relationship has soured following Pakistan’s closer ties with China and the proposed $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

The de-escalation of NATO operations in Afghanistan and the emergence of Iraq and Syria as the region of greatest geopolitical importance after the meteoric rise of Daesh has lowered Pakistan’s importance in the US’s strategic vision. As Al-Qaeda’s influence wanes, the US’s attention turns to other terrorist groups towards which Pakistan has ambiguous policies, with a focus on long-term stability in the region, hence the sharpening of Washington’s rhetoric and tying aid to action against these groups. On the other hand, India’s status as the rival power to China and its similar positions with the United States on security and defence issues has knitted the two erstwhile hesitant partners together in an increasingly close relationship. As a result, traditional equations in South Asia are shifting and the region is approaching a binary of US-India and China-Pakistan as the major local power blocs. This will have significant implications for both interstate rivalries and the fight against terrorism.

About Kalyani Subbiah

Kalyani Subbiah is currently a Masters student of Development Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. She has previously interned with her institute's China Studies Centre, authoring a special report on China's 'One Belt One Road' initiative. Her research interests include international development and aid flows, China in global politics, Russia and NATO, and the Middle East.