Tue, Sep 25, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Trump playing a dangerous game in Asia

US actions to cut funding to Pakistan over concern it harbors terrorists has prompted India to express its approval

By David Andelman  /  Reuters

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis had to do some elaborate diplomatic two-steps during their swing across the Indian subcontinent during the first week of this month. And that goes way beyond simply being forced to deny that neither was the anonymous author of the stunning New York Times column disclosing that senior administration officials were “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of [US President Donald Trump’s] agenda and his worst inclinations.”

Beyond the backdrop of reported tension over Trump’s mimicking of the accent of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there were the Gordian-like questions of choosing the US’ greatest friend between arch neighbors India and Pakistan; which of the two is the most effective bulwark against Chinese expansion and Taliban militants; and which could be the most reliable partner in trade and commerce.

The visit did not get off to an auspicious start. In January, Trump accused Pakistan of rewarding past US military assistance with “nothing but lies and deceit” by continuing to grant safe haven and support to Taliban insurgents waging an unrelenting war against US forces in Afghanistan.

The US Congress promptly withdrew US$500 million in aid funds, then on Sept. 1, the Pentagon canceled another US$300 million in military assistance.

A Pentagon spokesman attributed the action to “a lack of Pakistani decisive actions in support of the South Asia Strategy.”

However, Pakistan installed a new prime minister, Imran Khan, last month, so Pompeo felt it was worth a stab at a re-start. Hence his first stop, in Islamabad, to meet the one-time World Cup cricketer, who described himself in Trumpian terms.

“I have stepped on the field and I am going to win,” Khan told Pompeo and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“A sportsman is always an optimist,” Khan explained.

Afterward, there was a cold dose of reality as Pompeo observed that he had enjoyed the meeting, but there was “a long way to go” before military aid would start flowing again.

The problem is that right after this backslapping flyby, Pompeo went on to New Delhi, where he was joined by Mattis, and where their clearly preferential treatment of India set the scene for aggravated tensions between India and Pakistan that certainly could not have made Khan’s hopes for an accommodation easier for him domestically.

From the moment of their creation as independent countries 71 years ago, India and Pakistan have been at each other’s throats along their shared 3,200km border. With each now commanding substantial nuclear arsenals, their rivalry is a critical element in Asia’s strategic equation.

The headline move by Pompeo and Mattis during their stop in India was the signing of a major military communications accord, two decades in the making, that provides for a real-time exchange of encrypted data on the same military-grade communications equipment used by the US armed forces.

Washington has only signed similar accords with fewer than 30 countries. The pact had been stalled largely on Indian fears that it would give the US military access to a range of Indian strategic communications.

The timing of this breakthrough agreement, which also includes the first joint military exercises next year between US and Indian forces off the eastern coast of India, could hardly have been coincidental.

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