Why the US is seeking traction in South Asia

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Why the US is seeking traction in South Asia

Mike Pompeo begins a tricky diplomatic trip on Wednesday in Pakistan before travelling onto India. This latest tour, on the back of his visit last month to Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, sees the US secretary of state seeking traction in South Asia for his revamped Indo-Pacific strategy in the face of China’s growing strength.

One of the potential windows of opportunity Pompeo senses in the Indo-Pacific, the Trump team’s preferred phrase for the massive geography spreading from the US West Coast to India, comes with the election of new Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. While Khan has deployed much anti-US rhetoric over the years, the US secretary of state is rightly seeking early engagement with him, especially because Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who has called Pakistan the “iron brother” of his own nation, is due into Islamabad later in the week.

For strategic political and potentially economic reasons, the new Pakistani prime minister is being courted by both Washington and Beijing, with the latter having already made commitments of around $60 billion to Islamabad under its Belt and Road initiative. Pakistani troops also recently took part in exercises with some 3,000 troops from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, including the Chinese military.  

While Islamabad had for decades been a significant US ally, the relationship has frayed. This was demonstrated in August when a transcript of a phone conversation between Pompeo and Khan, released by the US State Department, which referred to the new government “taking decisive action against all terrorists operating in Pakistan,” was disputed as factually inaccurate by Khan’s team. It is this vexed terrorism issue that will be the key issue on the agenda on Wednesday between Khan and Pompeo, who will be joined by US Defence Secretary James Mattis.  

Mattis has asserted that tough talks could be needed and that he and Pompeo will “make very clear what we have to do, all of our nations, in meeting our common foe, the terrorists.” It is likely that the US team will put pressure on Khan to act more robustly and offer greater support for doing so following a recent assertion by US Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Joseph F. Dunford that US interests in the region require “a presence to have influence.”  

For strategic political and potentially economic reasons, the new Pakistani prime minister is being courted by both Washington and Beijing

Andrew Hammond

What that presence exactly means, in practice, is unclear, and this will be a potentially tense topic of conversation between Pompeo, Khan and Mattis. With the outcome of this Islamabad leg of the tour highly uncertain, phase two of the trip in India is likely to be smoother sailing. 

Here, Pompeo and Mattis are meeting their counterparts – External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman – for so-called “two plus two” talks to strengthen the US-India partnership.

Part of the rationale for the revamped US Indo-Pacific strategy, from the perspective of Pompeo, is that India could potentially act as a growing regional counterweight to China.  Mattis has echoed this sentiment, noting that “we see the strengthening of India’s democracy, its military, its economy, as a stabilizing element in the world.”

The deepening of the US-India relationship is centred around promoting a regional agenda of ensuring “freedom of the seas and skies, promoting market economics, supporting good governance and insulating sovereign nations from coercion.”  To this end, Washington declared New Delhi a major US defense partner in 2016, and this week’s meeting could see potential moves to finalize a Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement and US-India Defence Technology and Trade Initiative underpinning greater counterterrorism and defence cooperation. Meanwhile, on the trade front, both nations are seeking to address market access challenges through tackling tariff and non-tariff barriers.

Clear movement forward on these agendas in India would help bring greater energy and credibility to the US Indo-Pacific strategy, which has come under criticism for its perceived ambition vis-à-vis China. Hence the secretary of state last month articulated his revamped plans for a “new era in US economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the region.” 

Pompeo announced some $113 million in regional investments focused on technology, energy and infrastructure. In his words, this is “just a down payment” on future US commitments to the region. 

Welcome as more details of the administration’s emerging plan are for many US allies – especially coming after Donald Trump’s 12-day trip to Asia earlier this year, which was the longest to the region by any US president since the 1990s – critics claim that it will have less overall impact than the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership strategy. And the added pressure on the White House here is China’s monumental ambition in comparison as illustrated by the $1 trillion Belt and Road scheme.

In this context, Pompeo faces another tough ask this week in reassuring sometimes skeptical US regional allies that the Trump team is wholly committed – politically, economically and security-wise – to its Indo-Pacific plan. Even if key successes are achieved in India, and potentially even in Pakistan too, questions remain about the ambition of the strategy, especially given the scale of China’s own plans.

  • Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
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