Afghanistan Dominates Latest U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue

Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Just days before the Third U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue between the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and the Indian Foreign Minister, S.M. Krishna, in Washington, D.C., an important address was given by Robert O. Blake, a U.S. State Department official, at a meeting of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Blake stressed the unique importance of the U.S.-Indian bilateral relationship, not only to the two countries but to the world. It was noted that since these talks began in 2010, our strategic ties have led to an ever greater confluence of views on the important issues of our time. This address, the only indication thus far of the latest official thinking about this important Dialogue, was as significant for the issues it addressed as it was for those he failed to mention.

Most noteworthy was his emphasis on Afghanistan as the principal subject of the upcoming meeting. It was noted that past and continuing actions by both countries in this respect centered on economic and developmental goals, to be achieved through “strategic partnership” agreements signed by each government with Afghanistan. While both agreements include the training of Afghan forces, the American agreement (signed on May 1st, 2012) commits Kabul to allow the U.S. access and use of Afghan facilities beyond 2014 for purposes of “targeting the remnants of al-Qaeda” and for security and defense cooperation over the long-term. The security concern was once again emphasized in his closing remarks.

Thus, despite Blake’s focus on economic and scientific cooperation between India and the U.S., we see emerging a strong military and security theme, especially with regard to Afghanistan (a concern shared by the Indian Government). In his keynote address, Mr. Blake emphasizes Afghanistan’s security, as do the agreements signed by New Delhi (last year) and Washington (this year) with Afghanistan. This should not surprise us. After all, Afghanistan is a country which, in the public mind and in our daily news, is identified with the 10-year war being waged there, primarily by American military forces.

It must be stressed, however, that this emphasis goes far beyond the need to ensure Afghanistan’s stable and prosperous future. Indeed, its ramifications extend to Pakistan as well as Central Asia, and beyond that, to South and Southeast Asia. As Mr. Blake states in his concluding remarks, he feels encouraged by the progress made by the two governments towards broadening “our counter-terrorism and defense cooperation.” The economic goals, moreover, are to be achieved through cooperation and integration, not only bilaterally, but also along broad geographical lines, encompassing essentially all of Asia.

One might be tempted to question this as an overly ambitious scope on the part of an assistant secretary, until we hear Defense Secretary Panetta’s statement that the U.S. plans to increase its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, Blake goes on to praise India’s “Look East Policy” and sees the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Myanmar in May and the signing of multiple agreements while there as an example of India “assuming a larger role in the broader Asia-Pacific.” It should be noted, however, that while the Look East Policy has included recent attempts to develop economic relations with Singapore and the Association of South East Asia Nations (ASEAN), it is a policy of long-standing, initiated in 1991, and may have little to do with the current American decision to militarize its presence in the entire Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, Mr. Panetta’s announcement was almost immediately followed by a report in the Indian press that the Minister of Defense opposed India joining the U.S. “bandwagon” on the Asia-Pacific and that the U.S. ought to rethink this policy. But while some reports indicated that the Minister of Defense was in disagreement on this issue with the Indian Foreign Minister, other reports stated that Foreign Affairs Minister Krishna had told the Chinese Vice Premier at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit that “India’s relations with China are a priority in India’s foreign policy”. This could be seen as directed to the U.S. Defense Secretary whose Asia-Pacific policy is widely thought to be aimed at China.

Mr. Panetta has also figured prominently in various Asian media because of comments about Pakistan. On June 7, while in New Delhi, he warned Islamabad that Washington is “losing patience” with the Government of Pakistan, for letting its territory be used as a safe haven for those who attack American and Afghan forces and then cross back into Pakistan. He singled out the Taliban and the Haqqani network. It is believed at the highest levels of the U.S. Government that this conduct reflects long-standing official policy by Islamabad. This is what has fueled Washington’s anger with Pakistan. On top of that, the six-month blockade of NATO’s military supply route into Afghanistan has brought American patience to a breaking point.

An important issue not raised by Mr. Blake is Iran, including the question of whether America’s friends and/or interlocutors will yield to Washington’s counsel or demand to impose sanctions on Iran or face U.S. sanctions. But there has been a reversal of this policy — in the case of India. If so, it is unlikely that China alone would be singled out for sanctions. Both countries are critically important to the U.S. for a variety of reasons, some similar, some quite different. Clearly, Washington thought it best to clear the air ahead of the Strategic Dialogue.

Moreover, as American economic power weakens, it negatively affects its political influence abroad. At a time when the economic crisis has become almost worldwide, and the U.S. is involved in numerous conflicts — open, quiet or covert — Washington can hardly afford to alienate a rising power like India, who has been a hesitant friend at best and whose economic relationship with the U.S. is not as healthy as the U.S. — or India for that matter — would like. Nor can the U.S. alienate powerful adversaries like China, who is already unhappy with the return — in a big way — of U.S. military power in the Asia-Pacific region. Perhaps the most important conflict of interest between Washington and Beijing may be building up in the South China Sea, where China has important economic and energy interests. With U.S. military commitments being quite extensive, and the Defense Department facing severe budget cuts, Washington can hardly afford to pick a big fight with China. It is therefore likely that the threat of sanctions against China will be quietly abandoned, now that India has been exempted. If not, we may expect the Asia-Pacific region to heat up considerably.