One of the key policy initiatives during US President Barack Obama’s first term was what former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described as “America’s Pacific Century” --- the “Indo-Pacific” region, straddling the Asia-Pacific and the shores of the western Indian Ocean, acting as a geo-political “pivot” . This meant that the primary focus of American policies, diplomatically and militarily, would shift to the Pacific Ocean from its Atlantic shores.
It was manifested by American participation in the East Asia Summit and a determination not to be excluded from the emerging economic, diplomatic and security architecture in the “Indo-Pacific”. But, American uncertainty remains, on how to deal with an “assertive” and growingly powerful China.
Within days of the commencement of the Obama Administration’s second term, Vice-President Joe Biden turned the entire Asia-Pacific “pivot” on its head by proclaiming: “President Obama and I continue to believe that Europe is the cornerstone of our engagement with the rest of the world. It’s that basic. Nothing has changed. Europe remains America’s indispensable partner of first resort”. This was an astonishing U-turn from the earlier emphasis on the 21st Century being America’s “Pacific Century” and its assertion that the global balance of power was shifting to Asia from Europe. This, at a time, when Asia is a conflict-ridden zone.
Obama confirmed US’ intention to launch talks for a “comprehensive trade and investment partnership” with the European Union, in his State of the Union Address. This comes at a time when the US is confident that it will not only be self-sufficient, but a significant exporter of gas before the end of this decade, readying to market its gas surpluses across the Atlantic.
Given these developments, it is not a mere coincidence that both Senators Kerry and Chuck Hagel, stewarding the State and Defence Departments, are known to favour the establishment of a transatlantic trade and economic zone as the cornerstone of the 2013 agenda. Both share President Obama’s aversion to military involvements abroad.
This is evident from Obama’s decision on avoiding direct military involvement in the Anglo-French intervention in Libya and his caution in not getting excessively drawn into events in Syria, or the French military intervention in Mali.
This approach will guide the US to its “end game” in Afghanistan. The policy of using drones in a counter-terrorism role against Pakistan-based terrorists operating in Afghanistan is also under review.
Senator Chuck Hagel, labelled as “peacenik” by Republican Party colleagues, has been a critic of the American military policies in Afghanistan. He remarked: “One of the reasons why we’re in trouble in Afghanistan is because we went well beyond our mission…” Is our mission to eliminate the Taliban?
Hagel conveniently forgets that even before military operations commenced after 9/11, both the Saudis and the Americans tried to persuade Mullah Omar to hand over Osama bin Laden.
The then ISI Chief General Mehmood Ahmed encouraged Mullah Omar to reject the American proposal. Mullah Omar flatly refused to yield. With the assistance of the Taliban and the ISI, Osama bin Laden was shifted to live comfortably, with his many wives and children, in the Abbotabad Cantonment. Senator Kerry who agreed in 2011 to a proposal involving payment of “blood money” to secure the release of CIA operative Raymond Davis from Pakistani custody has unique views on Pakistan’s support for terrorism.
He lauded Pakistan for its “logistical” support, which he claimed led to the American forces getting Osama bin Laden.
“Our folks were able to cooperate on the ground with Pakistan. That’s one of the reasons we were able to get Osama bin Laden. I don’t think the Pakistanis have gotten enough credit for the fact that they were helpful”.
Kerry also observed that the Pakistanis “have lost some 6000 people just last year in their efforts to go after terrorists”. It is doubtful if Obama shares the optimism of John Kerry on Pakistan’s support for terrorism.
The American end game in Afghanistan under the new dispensation is set to pose formidable challenges to Indian diplomacy in its Afpak neighbourhood.
China’s growing power
Changes in American policy to the Asia-Pacific in coming years also appear to be underway. Senator Hagel has noted: “China is going to emerge and grow. We should welcome that.
There are going to be competitors like India, Brazil and other nations. They (the Chinese) are a great power today and are going to remain a great power. But, we should not cower in the wake of that”.
There are indications that the new Obama team is going to ask its allies like Japan to avoid actions, which displease, or provoke China, on disputed maritime frontiers. Priority is reportedly being given to “modifying the harder edges of the (Asia-Pacific) pivot and quietly reassuring China”.
The message is that not much can be expected from a “nascent” India, unless it sets its house in order, accelerates economic growth and enhances its Defence potential.
India’s relationship with the US will remain cordial and correct, but largely transactional. We will have to refashion our Afpak and Look East policies accordingly.
(The author is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.)