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If Pakistan remains India’s problem, Taiwan will remain America’s

U.S. Department of State, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The US needs to alter its policy towards Pakistan for an enhanced partnership on the Taiwan front.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—the Quad—is getting bolder. From describing itself as a ‘flexible group of like-minded partners’ in March, it is now discussing ‘peace and security in the Taiwan Strait’. By conducting the second Quad meeting in the first few months of his presidency, one virtual and another in person, President Biden is trying to convey that ‘America is Back’ and leading. However, the Afghanistan shadow looms large over the summitry, which signalled the exact opposite.

How is New Delhi squaring these conflicting signals of reinforce and retreat? Is New Delhi prepared for an ambitious Taiwan agenda? While the Afghanistan retreat has made the US’ traditional allies jittery and led some at home to write the obituary of American hegemony, New Delhi has neither fallen for despondency nor cynicism. On the contrary, the Indian Foreign Minister, S Jaishankar, is very hopeful of American strength. There is a different sort of hesitancy subdued in New Delhi’s strategic circles. And it is concerning Pakistan.

 

"As Washington continues to signal that Pakistan is India’s problem, it should not be surprised tomorrow if New Delhi starts saying that Taiwan—which now features in the Quad agenda—is America’s problem."

 

Despite an overwhelming consensus in Washington on the Pakistan military’s role in the US defeat in Afghanistan, any policy change is unlikely given the nuclear proliferation scare and American logistical needs. The question for India is: If the United States policy towards Pakistan continues to be dictated by its narrow needs without factoring in India’s concerns, how much should India stretch itself for Taiwan?

As Washington continues to signal that Pakistan is India’s problem, it should not be surprised tomorrow if New Delhi starts saying that Taiwan—which now features in the Quad agenda—is America’s problem.

America’s Pakistan conundrum

One question that baffles many in India but evades scrutiny in the US is why a senior American senator like Lindsey Graham envisages a constructive role for Pakistan, the country that was the chief architect of the American defeat on Afghan soil, instead of talking punitive actions? Many long-time Pakistan observers in Washington have tried to come up with answers. Chief amongst them is the nuclear scare—Pakistan is ‘too nuclear to fail’ theory—that means any external sanctions are weighed against the possibility of destabilising a country with a nuclear arsenal that might fall into the wrong hands. Second, and more disingenuous, is the argument advanced by Pakistan’s interlocutors in Washington that the United States should always maintain neutrality between India and Pakistan to be an effective crisis manager in South Asia.

It seems, however, that Sen. Graham is now in the minority. An increasing number of voices, many from Sen. Graham’s own political corner like John Bolton, are demanding sanctions against Pakistan and stripping off its ‘major non-NATO ally’ tag. The issue featured in a recent Congressional hearing too, with Secretary Blinken assuring the House members that the Biden administration would soon be reassessing its relationship with Pakistan. This is a script all too familiar. Similar calls for reassessment were made post 9/11 and then post-the Abbottabad raid in 2011. The question is, if Osama bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan could not change anything, what will lead to a change now?

 

"The argument advanced by Pakistan’s interlocutors in Washington that the United States should always maintain neutrality between India and Pakistan to be an effective crisis manager in South Asia."

 

Pakistan’s proximity to Afghanistan for counterterrorism and evacuation makes it valuable for a still-evolving situation. Geography has always rescued Pakistan. Despite the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s emphatic ‘absolutely not’ remarks on hosting American troops, American Chinooks were spotted hovering over major Pakistani cities in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Kabul. It only underscores what is already well-known—foreign policy is not the bailiwick of Pakistan’s civilian governments.

In this conundrum—to sanction, or not to sanction—the White House is most likely to privilege logistical needs ignoring the past. The fact that Pakistan completely aligns itself with China will also be mostly ignored. To be fair, the Biden administration has indicated its displeasure with Islamabad by not calling Prime Minister Khan despite public threats of ‘Pakistan has options’ by his national security advisor. That snub, however, does not mean policy change.

Lack of clarity from Washington can be disconcerting. Pakistan, with its support for anti-India jihad and the China-Pakistan nexus, is still considered a problem largely for India to deal with.

And New Delhi too expects to deal with Pakistan on its own. However, the more it remains occupied on its western front, the less it can concentrate on its eastern and maritime fronts where a shared threat from Beijing is evolving. Surprisingly, such assessments of India’s capabilities rarely feature in the US policy space, which needs a rethink.

India’s reaction

For Washington to expect an inherent and automatic commitment for Taiwan from the Quad members would be unwise, even if the Quad is discussing it for now. In the Indian case, it is an issue of both capabilities and commitment. In terms of resources, it would be easier for New Delhi to invest its geopolitical stock elsewhere if it faces fewer constraints on its western border. As for commitment, even if Indian leaders were inclined to support the US, selling domestically the idea of standing with the United States that is unremittingly forgiving to Pakistan would be impossible. The last time, Indian politicians had shown some alacrity to support the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom in the aftermath of 9/11; they could not, fearing adverse public opinion. Pakistan remains a charged issue, more than ever.

 

"Lack of clarity from Washington can be disconcerting. Pakistan, with its support for anti-India jihad and the China-Pakistan nexus, is still considered a problem largely for India to deal with."

 

India continues to accommodate Washington’s core interests—from reducing arms supplies from Russia to terminating oil imports from Iran and Venezuela, sometimes at a significant cost to its exchequer, while the US continues to overlook Pakistan’s anti-India terror support and rewards it with aid at the same time. At some point, the political costs might just become too much to bear.

As the leading power, the US needs to signal to its allies and Quad partners that Washington intends to address their core concerns as much as it expects them to share burdens. In case of an absence of change in the US policy, Taiwan might just remain its own problem.

Harsh V Pant / Chirayu Thakkar
28 September 2021

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