BY D.C. PATHAK
The visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to New Delhi on July 28 put the seal on strategic partnership between the two largest democracies and established India’s special position for Biden Presidency. The US and India are now on a path of unhindered friendship having moved towards convergence on a host of crucial issues including the challenge of the pandemic, climate, emerging technologies, security of Indo-Pacific and return of a democratic and inclusive regime in Afghanistan.
In his interaction with civil society groups during the visit, Blinken spoke of the democratic values and put both the US and India on the same page by describing democracy as ‘work in progress’ and emphasising the importance of fundamental freedoms and institutional independence in cementing the relationship between the two nations. There was a sense of goodwill and transparency about what was said by the visiting dignitary — the opposition here interpreting it as an oblique criticism of the present Indian ruling dispensation was just pursuing its own political agenda.
President Biden is primarily focused on China as the new leader of the Communist world and the American line of defending fundamental freedoms and human rights is directed basically against that adversary. The US President it may be recalled, had, while addressing the Congress recently, described China in his own words as ‘our most serious competitor’ and christened President Xi Jinping as ‘an autocrat who was earnest about becoming the most significant and consequential nation in the world’. The threat from an aggressive China is now the biggest global concern for US and India and this alone makes the maiden trip of Antony Blinken extremely gainful for India in terms of its strategic value. India’s External Affairs Minister and NSA handled the visit of US Secretary of State extremely well letting no ambiguity come in the way of India’s resolve to safeguard its own national interests while pushing ahead with Indo-US strategic friendship.
On the all-important issues of Indo-Pacific and Tibet, Blinken showed a degree of clarity and firmness of the US line that should please India. On the eve of Blinken’s arrival in Delhi a statement issued by Washington supported India’s emergence as a ‘leading global power and a vital partner’ for making the Indo-Pacific a region of stability and economic inclusion. At the same time US defence secretary Lloyd Austin, who had visited India before Blinken, accused China of working against the shared principles and interests of the US and its partners across the
Indo-Pacific, opposed China’s claims in the South China Sea and pointed out that there was ‘aggression of China against India, destabilising military activity against the people of Taiwan and genocide of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang’.
The Secretary of State declared on his arrival in India that there were few relationships “more vital” than the India-US partnership and remarked that this was the “key to anchoring the Indo-Pacific region and beyond”. Blinken sought to lay the groundwork for Quad ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific and at his meeting with Prime Minister Modi discussed “regional challenges, cooperation on Covid 19 response, climate change, shared values and US-Australia-India-Japan Quad advancement”. India has moved closer to Quad with the Prime Minister attending its first summit on March 12 this year — India rightly sees Quad as an instrument of added security for Indian Ocean nearer home. India is willing to participate in the exercise by naval ships of US and other Quad members in the Indo-Pacific for protecting its maritime freedom.
Antony Blinken began his formal engagements in Delhi on July 28 by meeting Ngodup Dongchung of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). Presenting a scarf from the Dalai Lama to Blinken, Dongchung conveyed CTA’s gratitude for the US administration’s backing of the Tibetan cause. Shortly thereafter, Blinken also met Geshe Dorji Damdul, Director of Tibet House in New Delhi at the civil society round table. All this came as the strongest signal from the US of support to the Dalai Lama in a long time.
The significance of these meetings being held in Delhi was not lost on the Chinese. In a rare public message from India, Prime Minister Modi wished the Dalai Lama on his 86th birthday. The Chinese government was quick to lash out at the US Secretary of State for meeting the Dalai Lama’s representative in New Delhi terming it as a violation of the “US commitment to acknowledge Tibet as a part of China”. The Chinese foreign ministry statement went on to assert that “the 14th Dalai Lama is not a mere religious figure but a political exile who has long engaged in anti-China activities trying to separate Tibet from China”.
The US-India convergence on the issue of Tibet reflects India’s determination not only to counter Chinese aggressiveness against us on LAC but also join the effort of the democratic world to contain the Chinese designs elsewhere. The Modi regime’s firm and clear responses on national security issues show the political will of the Prime Minister and his firm belief in the capacity of India as a major power to stand up to any hostile country for defending our national interests. India’s foreign policy of favouring bilateral and multilateral relations on the principles of mutual economic and security advantage as well as world peace has stood us well. Prime Minister Modi gets the credit for guiding this strategy — setting aside the ideological baggage that India had carried from the past all along.
In the context of the emerging bipolarity between the democratic world led by the US and an assertive China steering what remained of the Communist domain at the end of the Cold War, there is little doubt that India would be with the former while focusing on safeguarding our own security and economic interests. As part of his India visit, Blinken met the head of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at Kuwait and pledged his support to the UN agency’s investigation in China into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. The US has been calling for the next phase of the enquiry being handled with transparency and expediency. Blinken’s statement emphasising the importance of the “international community coming together on this matter of critical concern” will be justifiably endorsed by India and this brings us closer to US in the America-China tussle on yet another global issue of ongoing significance.
India has already been addressing the matter of trade imbalance with China just as the US was engaged in dealing with that problem. Ever since the Sino-Pak military alliance became active against India following the abrogation of Article 370 relating to Kashmir by the Indian Parliament in Aug 2019, India has had to deal with China’s aggressive moves in Ladakh and Pakistan’s renewed plans of infiltrating Mujahideen into the Valley — using even drones to surreptitiously drop arms and explosives for their use. India has to frame a policy of countering these two adversaries on our borders — largely on its own and with the support of strategic partners wherever this would work.
It is here that the issue of Afghanistan has unravelled some serious points of security concern for India on which Indo-US friendship did not apparently hold out much promise. India and the US in principle have common goals in preventing a forcible Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and ensuring installation of a democratic and inclusive regime there. The dubious role of Pakistan in pretending to be helpful in bringing about a peace agreement between the US and Taliban on the one hand and implicitly backing the violent Taliban in taking on the Ashraf Ghani government, on the other, is putting India’s position in Afghanistan in serious jeopardy.
President Ghani, with whom India has bracketed itself, is on the right side of the US but is apparently fighting a losing battle with the Taliban. Pakistan is inimical to Ghani and is pressuring the latter to come to terms with the Taliban warning the world of a ‘civil war’ in Afghanistan if this was not done. While the Biden administration is pulling out American troops from Afghanistan, Russia and China are making their own arrangements to ensure that in a Taliban-dominated regime at Kabul their own national interests were safeguarded and Afghan territory was not used to destabilise their Muslim inhabited parts in the vicinity. Iran also adjoins Afghanistan and the Shia population of Afghanistan in the neighbourhood makes Iran an important stakeholder in the future Afghan regime. The Taliban is ideologically hostile to Shias but the Ayatollah-ruled Iran is strong enough to deal with the Sunni radicals of Taliban effectively.
President Biden is not calling out Pakistan for supporting the faith-based terror of Taliban as he believes Pakistan would be helpful in ensuring that the Taliban kept to its peace agreement promise of not letting Afghan territory be used again for attacking the US the way its affiliate Al Qaeda had done on 9/11. At the same time the Sino-Pak combine has been opposing India’s say and presence in Afghanistan. Unless India has a strong role in an international round table on Afghanistan, it would not be easy to check the rise of the Taliban into power at Kabul with its adverse consequences for our security particularly on the Kashmir front. Afghanistan has in historical terms witnessed erosion of Sufi tradition because of the rise of fundamentalism and extremism and this is now the story also of Kashmir because of the attempt of Pakistan to replicate the Afghan Jehad in the Valley.
Developments in the Pak-Afghan belt need to be closely watched for the reason that the latter has acquired a new profile in the post-Cold War era. Before the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet army, Pakistan as a frontline ally of US was allowed to use the Afghan territory for sending in Islamic emissaries to influence the Muslims of Uzbekistan and Xinjiang ruled by the ‘godless’ Communist regimes. The Muslim Brotherhood of Hasan al Banna served this purpose for the West in Egypt and Syria in the times when pro-left Arab leaders were governing these countries while on the Indian subcontinent Jamaat-e-Islami founded by Banna’s admirer Maulana Maudoodi, later came on the forefront of the Jehad against the Soviets in Afghanistan — spurred by the call of Nizam-e-Mustafa given by Gen. Ziaul Haq.
Jamaat’s militant front Hizbul Mujahideen was joined in by Saudi funded Lashkar-e-Toiba as expected but the battle in Afghanistan was also conducted by the Al Qaeda-Taliban combine of Islamic radicals. This radical force wanted the Communists out but it also carried the historical memory of the Wahabi resurrection of the 19th century that had been launched in Jehad mode against the West, from its epicentre in NWFP — presently the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan. Islamic radicals are ‘revivalists’ who call for return to the period of Pious Caliphs. This makes them the hardest fundamentalists in terms of religion and the biggest enemies of the US-led West politically.
Pakistan is comfortable with the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS segments of radicals — it was behind the installation of the Afghan Emirate under the Taliban at Kabul in 1996. Prime Minister Imran Khan, who politically represents the home ground of Taliban, has repeatedly spoken against the US in the context of the ‘war on terror’ that was first launched in Afghanistan for the reason that the run-up to 9/11 had begun from there. The ouster of the anti-US Afghan Emirate on which Osama bin Laden enjoyed the supreme hold is known to have triggered the attack on twin towers. The West should clearly understand that Pakistan remains wedded to using faith-based militancy originating from any part of the Islamic spectrum as a political instrument and that ideas of ‘good terrorists and bad terrorists’ are now totally out of place.
President Biden might find it convenient not to rub Pakistan the wrong way on the issue of terrorism rooted in notions of Jehad but India, unlike the US, can have no comfort of distance and has to frontally take on Pakistan’s threat that could get further compounded with the success of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Geopolitically, India has the benefit of US support in handling a hostile China but in dealing with Pakistan — a bigger adversary — we have to strategise on our own because of the American unwillingness to see the new threat of global terror of Islamic radicals emanating from the Pak-Afghan belt. India understands this threat in all its dimensions and has to work on the US to make the latter realise its global implications for America’s own interests.
(The writer is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau)
BY D.C. PATHAK