There is a change in US attitude to South Asia. India should leverage the moment
American foreign policy towards South Asia is evolving at a much faster rate than most commentators comprehend. Structural shifts in the international order have ensured that even otherwise recalcitrant bureaucracies in both United States (US) and India are responding to this moment with alacrity. This is an opportunity for New Delhi to make the most of a strategic opening in bilateral ties.
A lot of the debate in India, post-Afghanistan, has been about the possibility of Washington trying to find a new modus vivendi with Islamabad, once again potentially marginalising Indian sensitivities. But this is a profound misreading of the way in which the American political establishment now looks at Pakistan. The United States (US) deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman’s visit to South Asia last week should offer a timely corrective to some of the myths prevailing in Indian strategic thinking.
Sherman made three important interventions.
One, she reiterated that the US won’t go back to the India-Pakistan hyphenation in its regional outreach. “We [the US] don’t see ourselves building our broad relationship with Pakistan and we have no interest in returning to the days of a hyphenated India, Pakistan. That’s not where we are, that’s not where we are going to be,” said Sherman, once again acknowledging that Pakistan is no longer an anchor in Washington’s priorities. That she said she was going to Pakistan for a “very specific and narrow purpose” was a reflection of how developments in Afghanistan are now shaping the US-Pakistan engagement.
Two, it is clear policymakers in Washington and New Delhi are working together to manage the externalities emanating from a Talibanised Afghanistan. Sherman said, “US profoundly appreciates India’s concerns about the potential of terrorism to spill over from Afghanistan into the wider region.” In that regard, she also underlined that she would be sharing information from her trip to Islamabad with New Delhi, as “we share information back and forth between our governments.”
This close coordination on the evolving ground realities in Afghanistan is to be welcomed and has been a longstanding demand in India. The joint statement issued after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with US President Joe Biden and the joint statement of the Quad summit both acknowledged Indian concerns centred around preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists targeting other nations. As Pakistan pitches for global support for the Taliban, the US is signalling that it has no intention of moving in that direction. Arguing that “so far they [the Taliban] have fallen short of their commitments,” Sherman maintained that “none of us will take the Taliban at their word going forward. Their words must be followed by action to prevent reprisals, build an inclusive government, allow women to work, girls to get their education and much more to end any possible terrorism.”
Three, while de-hyphenating India and Pakistan, Sherman made it a point to remark on the real story of our times — the rise of China and India and its profound implications for the global order. “India’s incredible rise over the last decades has been enabled by the rules-based international order. So too has the People’s Republic of China’s. But the two countries have taken very different paths,” Sherman suggested. In the context of Beijing trying to alter the status quo in its favour through bullying and coercing weaker states, the importance of the US-India partnership becomes even more salient. In the Indo-Pacific, this partnership has grown both in bilateral and multilateral configurations, with Quad being one of the most discussed platforms.
In India, the strategic community has tied itself up in knots in trying to deconstruct Quad and AUKUS. But policymakers in Washington and New Delhi seem much clearer in the way they see the two groupings and their roles. In the maritime geography of the Indo-Pacific, multiple frameworks and platforms will be needed to ensure that regional stability is maintained.
This is a transformative period in the US-India relationship. New Delhi should be more self-confident in its ability to shape the trajectory of this engagement.
Harsh V Pant is director, Studies, and head, Strategic Studies Programme, ORF
The views expressed are personal