One of the key policy initiatives during President Obama’s first term was what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described in her article published in October 2011, titled “America’s Pacific Century”, as a “pivot” the “Indo-Pacific”” region, straddling the Asia-Pacific and the shores of the western Indian Ocean. 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” area. But the American confusion and uncertainty remain on how to deal with an “assertive” and growingly powerful China,which is not averse to using force to enforcing territorial claims on neighbors ranging from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.
Within days of the commencement of the Obama Administration’s second term, an ebullient Vice-President Joe Biden returned from the Munich security conference. He 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. President Obama confirmed the 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 a net exporter of gas but also the largest producer of oil in the world before the end of this decade. It has also led to the confidence of re-emergence of the US as a growing industrial power, readying to market its gas surpluses across the Atlantic. Given these developments, it cannot be a mere coincidence that both Senators Kerry and Chuck Hagel,who will steward the State and Defense Departments, favor the establishment of a trans-Atlantic trade and economic zone as the cornerstone of the 2013 agenda. Both are veterans of the Vietnam War and 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 same approach will guide the American approach to its “end game” in Afghanistan. The doubt that remains is whether the US will leave adequate forces behind in Afghanistan and how their role will be fashioned. The policy of using drones in a counterterrorism role against Pakistan-based terrorists operating in Afghanistan is also under review.
Senator Chuck Hagel, labeled 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? That never was our mission”? 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 encouraged Mullah Omar to reject the American proposal. Mullah Omar flatly refused to yield.With the help 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 the payment of “blood money” to secure the release of CIA operative Raymond Davis from Pakistani custody and was the co-author of the Kerry-Lugar Bill tripling economic assistance to Pakistan, 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”.
He pointedly failed to mention that while the Pakistan army targeted its citizens, whom it labeled as terrorists, it was not merely permissive, but colluding with outfits like the Mullah Omar-led Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan and their affiliates like the Lashkar-e-Toiba,which is now operating on Pakistan’s borders with both Afghanistan and India. Moreover,what Kerry has been saying contradicts everything said earlier on Pakistani support for terrorist outfits by President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta and General David Petraeus. 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 Af-Pak neighborhood. Changes in the American policy vis-avis the Asia-Pacific in the 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 outgoing Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, Kurt Campbell, recently observed: “China is predominant in every aspect of political, financial, economic and security relations in Asia.
India is still a nascent player in Asia. I think everyone has high hopes for the role India will play moving forward”. 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 defense potential. India’s relationship with the US will remain cordial and correct, but largely transactional.We will have to refashion our Af-Pak and Look East policies accordingly.
(The author is a former career diplomat who retired from Indian Foreign Service in 2000. Presently, he is a Visiting Professor in the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)