Dhaka, Bangladesh
Trump’s dangerous Asian game

Trump’s dangerous Asian game

Writes David A. Andelman

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense
Secretary Jim Mattis had to do some elaborate
diplomatic two-steps during their swing across the
Indian subcontinent during the first week of
September. And that goes way beyond simply being
forced to deny that neither was the anonymous author
of the stunning New York Times column disclosing that
senior administration officials were “working
diligently from within to frustrate parts of
[Trump’s] agenda and his worst inclinations.”
Beyond the backdrop of reported tension over Trump’s
mimicking of the accent of Indian Prime Minister
Narendra Modi, there were the Gordian-like questions
of choosing the United States’ greatest friend
between arch neighbors, India and Pakistan; which of
the two is the most effective bulwark against Chinese
expansion and Taliban militants, and which could be
the most reliable partner in trade and commerce.
The visit did not get off to a very auspicious start.
Back in January, Trump accused Pakistan of rewarding
past U.S. military assistance with “nothing but lies
and deceit” by continuing to grant safe haven and
support to Taliban insurgents waging an unrelenting
war against American forces in Afghanistan. Congress
promptly withdrew $500 million in aid, then on
September 1, the Pentagon canceled another $300
million in military assistance, bringing the total to
$800 million. A Pentagon spokesman attributed the
action to “a lack of Pakistani decisive actions in
support of the South Asia Strategy.”
But Pakistan installed a new prime minister, Imran
Khan, in August, so Pompeo felt it was worth a stab
at a re-start. Hence his first stop, in Islamabad, to
meet the onetime World Cup cricketer, who described
himself in Trumpian terms. “I have stepped on the
field, and I am going to win,” Khan told Pompeo and
General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff. “A sportsman is always an optimist,” Khan
explained. Afterwards, there was a cold dose of
reality as Pompeo observed he’d enjoyed the meeting
but there was “a long way to go” before military aid
would start flowing again.
The problem is that right after this backslapping
flyby, Pompeo went on to New Delhi, where he was
joined by Mattis, and where their clearly
preferential treatment of India set the scene for
aggravated tensions between India and Pakistan that
certainly could not have made Khan’s hopes for an
accommodation easier for him domestically.
From the moment of their creation as independent
countries 71 years ago, India and Pakistan have been
at each other’s throats along their shared 2,000-mile
border. And with each now commanding substantial
nuclear arsenals, their rivalry is a critical element
in Asia’s strategic equation.
The headline move by Pompeo and Mattis during their
stop in India was the signing of a major military
communications accord, two decades in the making,
that provides for a real-time exchange of encrypted
data on the same military-grade communications
equipment used by the American armed forces. The
United States has only signed similar accords with
fewer than 30 countries. The pact had been stalled
largely on Indian fears that it would give the U.S.
military access to a range of Indian strategic
communications.
The timing of this breakthrough agreement, which also
includes the first joint military exercises in 2019
between U.S. and Indian forces off the eastern coast
of India, could hardly have been coincidental. Trump,
with his diatribe against Pakistani aid to the
Taliban, had clearly thrown down a challenge that
India was only too delighted to seize.
“India supports President Trump’s South Asia policy,”
Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj
gushed at a press briefing after the talks. “His call
for Pakistan to stop its policy of supporting cross-
border terrorism finds resonance with us.” In case
anyone missed that point, she added that “the threat
of terrorism emanating from Pakistan… has affected
India and the United states alike.”
But one key issue was left unresolved: India’s
willingness to ignore U.S. sanctions against Russia
and Iran. Indian officials are planning to buy five
advanced S-400 air-defense systems from Russia for
$5.8 billion and want to continue purchasing oil from
Iran – a close and cheap provider of 10 percent of
the energy needs for India’s booming economy. Pompeo
said only that talks are underway over the issue of
waivers for both deals. Indeed, if India bows to
Washington’s pressure to cut ties with Russia, it is
not impossible to envision Pakistan becoming a most
attractive alternative for Kremlin largesse and
closer ties than ever before. Already, Russia has
stepped in quickly and agreed to train Pakistani
military officers in Russian military institutions.
This on top of the $2 billion natural gas pipeline
Russia has built in Pakistan and is filling with LNG
at increasingly attractive prices.
At the same time China, long a potent presence in
Pakistan, is also doing its best to pull its neighbor
even closer. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has
included substantial loans from Beijing to Islamabad
since its opening in 2013, reaching a level where
Pompeo has said that any IMF aid to Pakistan must not
be used to repay Chinese debt.
The problem, of course, is that Trump’s clear tilt
toward India will hardly halt Pakistan’s continued
drift toward neighboring China and Russia.
What Trump wants from Pakistan is to ease off aid to
the Taliban, weakening their fighters enough to force
them to a negotiating table and thereby enable the
withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. But the
reality is that no matter how much Khan would love to
see $800 million flowing again into Pakistan’s
coffers, he’ll face a hard battle to persuade his
powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency to crack
down on entrenched Pakistan-based Taliban networks
that share Islamic State’s hatred for India.
Trump must recognize that getting his way across the
subcontinent could bring down a fragile edifice, one
that has been propped up by delicate presidential
balancing acts since the days of the Truman
administration.

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