Trouble with the US out the starting gate

[ the new US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin]

Joe Biden’s razzle-dazzle inauguration as US President — Hollywood out in full force, the fireworks — is harbinger of normalcy, which was distinguished by its absence in the last four years of Donald Trump’s occupation of the White House when American policy, because impulsive, and often whimsical, became unpredictable enough to destabilise the world. While a return of normal is, therefore, to be welcomed, for Indo-US relations it meansWashington’s reverting to traditional balancing act however much the incoming American Administration might protest there’s no going back to a rehyphenation of India and Pakistan in the US scheme for South Asia in the future.

If there was any doubt, it was removed by retired Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the US-Secretary of State-deignate at his confirmation hearings in the US Senate yesterday. Pakistan, he asserted, “is an essential partner in any peace process in Afghanistan [and] will play an important role in any political settlement in Afghanistan.” Further, indicating he has bought fully into Islamabad’s position he commended Pakistan for taking “constructive steps to meet US requests in support of the Afghanistan peace process. Pakistan has also taken steps against anti-Indian groups, such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, although this progress is incomplete”. He added, as an afterthought, that “I will encourage a regional approach that garners support from neighbors like Pakistan, while also deterring regional actors, from serving as spoilers to the Afghanistan peace process.”

This warning to Delhi against interfering in the so-called peace process in Afghanistan couldn’t be clearer. This is the reason why I had said in the last post that NSA Ajit Doval’s recent semi-secret trip to Kabul would evince US demands for an explanation. Here the Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh’s straightforward take on Doval’s quick turnround flight to confer with the Ashraf Ghani regime, that he “Had a pleasant meeting with NSA Ajit Doval of India. We discussed the enemy. It was an in-depth discussion”, may initiate a contentious discussion with the US.

By way of a sop to Delhi, Austin in a pro forma fashion mentioned he “will press Pakistan” to prevent its territory from being used by militants or other violent organisations” and said he would continue to build relationships with Pakistani military to “provide openings for the United States and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues”.

In my December 12 post (“Panda panderers at State and Pentagon”) I had flagged just why Austin, the four star general who retired as commander-in-chief, US Central Command in-charge of the US military in Afghanistan, and soon to be US Defence Secretary, owing to his long association during his theatre command with General Qamar Bajwa and his cohort, would naturally tilt towards Pakistan.

Austin also indicated that punitive measures against Pakistan would be off the table, saying “many factors in addition to the security assistance suspension may impact Pakistan’s cooperation, including Afghanistan negotiations and the dangerous escalation following the Pulwama attack.” It is hardly to be wondered then that Islamabad is ecstatic with these new developments, with high Pakistani officials talking about the situation for the first time “advantaging” Pakistan and, hence, moving quickly to setup a formal high-level meeting with the now suddenly more empathetic regime in Washington.

What’s important to note is that the “head in the sand” approach of the Indian media resulted in no major newspaper or outlet reporting Austin’s testimony at his confirmation hearings. One can only hope the Indian embassy in Washington and Modi’s MEA are not, likewise, in ostrich mode, and are aware about just how bad things can actually get for Delhi, and have begun working on counters. Such as repairing the frayed relations with Moscow and cultivating Russia as counterweight on priority basis. And keeping India’s hand warm in Afghanistan’s affairs in the manner that Doval has been doing, and include in the menu for the Ghani government ramped up transfers of military hardware — longrange guns, ammunition, and attack helicopters.

For starters, America at the UN Financial Assistance Task Force meetings in Paris will be less insistent about getting Pakistan on the ‘Black, list’. So the pressure on General Qamar Bajwa’s GHQ, Rawalpindi, to ease off on cross-border terrorism will be considerably lessened.

Much worse, Austin has articulated a more cautious approach to Asia, calling on the US government to show “strategic patience” with China. So, it is not just India, but all of America’s traditional allies and strategic partners — Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Singapore, and even Indonesia which’s on the cusp of partnering the US, who need to worry, because accommodating Beijing could mean Washington cutting myopic narrowly self-serving deals with Xi Jinping.

The immediate effect of these new wrinkles in US policy will be the definite activation of India’s two fronts. Not sure the Modi government is prepared for it.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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28 Responses to Trouble with the US out the starting gate

  1. Sankar says:

    The ending line “Not sure the Modi government is prepared for it” hits the nail on the head of the present dispensation in Delhi.

    In sum, a brilliant analysis!

    • San Mann says:

      But where is any mention of the QUAD and INDO-PACIFIC in Mr Karnad’s analysis? USA cannot have its cake and eat it too. You can’t have this new thing called Quad, which is based on a new understanding, while still trying to go back to the old understanding and old games of India-Pak balancing act. If USA wants to go back to India-Pak balancing games, and start pushing against India on Afghanistan and other issues, then USA cannot count on India’s cooperation against China. Lack of Indian cooperation with USA against China will impact not only USA, but also Japan, Australia, Philippines, and all of SouthEast Asia.

      China is playing the long game. They’re not giving up their aggressive expansionism just because Biden is in the Whitehouse instead of Trump. If anything, China would want to take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the arrival of Biden, with Beijing working even harder to grab whatever it can before a Trump-style nationalist comes back to contain them.

      USA is going to have to make some hard choices, if it wants the Quad. If it doesn’t want the Quad, then we’d better bow out and form our own bilateral arrangements with Japan & Australia. Otherwise, America’s newly coined phrase “Indo-Pacific” doesn’t have any particular benefit for India, and is really just meant as a crutch for America to fall back on, due to its failed strategy towards China. If India walks out of Quad and distances itself from Indo-Pacific notions, then USA and its partners would be left holding the bag. And actually, since USA at least has the luxury of geographic distance, it’s Japan, Australia and ASEAN countries who’d really suffer the most.

  2. Amit says:

    When Modi met Trump in mid 2017′, he was cold shouldered by Trump. It is after this incident that Modi quickly met with Putin and put more focus on the one on ones with Xi Jinping. Even during Doklam, US support was quite muted publicly. This forced India to try and develop RIC relations. Even before article 370, Trump had made noises about mediating with Pakistan and Modi’s quick moves were at least partly in response to this US ambivalence. So I’m not sure that the Trump administration was so cooperative for at least half it’s term. Only after the indo pacific strategy in 2018 have India and the US come closer, and in my view primarily due to Modi’s efforts. And look how India bent over backwards on Iran with the US.

    So while your points are valid about Biden’s administration, Modi has experience handling a truant US. And frankly, it’s only external pressure that will make India change as there is limited internal opposition to hold the govt to account. So just like Chinese aggression, some US ambiguity will force India to make good policy choices internally – more likely than not (or at least that’s what I hope).

    • San Mann says:

      Trump made noises about India-Pak mediation because he’s a maverick lacking experience in India-Pak politics. With Trump came opportunities & pitfalls, due to his unorthodox freshman style.

      I don’t see how Biden has the latitude to do any old thing he and his Left-leaning lobbies want. Regarding “in-sourcing” — how would Biden be able to do “in-sourcing” of jobs and still also support the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)? The “in-sourcing” idea came from Trump, the same guy who rejected TPP and scuttled it. The bottom line is that Biden cannot do “in-sourcing” under TPP.

      What I see here is that Biden would be facing strong pushback from all sides, on all policy fronts. He’s in an inherently weak political position. Like Manmohan Singh, the new US president is like a Dhritarashtra, and Kamala is his Gandhari. He’s old and weak and blind, and under his blind gaze all of his Kaurava clan will be running amok. With the weak Manmohan govt, it was necessary to pay close attention to all the lords and chieftains who’d carved out their own fiefdoms around his weak governance. This would be the case under Biden too. We can’t just pay attention to Dhritarashtra, we have to pay attention to the Kauravas around him. Maybe we’d be better off establishing separate dealings with them as well, in parallel. I’m sure China is doing this. We’d better not fall too far behind.

  3. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    The ‘cry baby’ syndrome of Indian establishment regarding Pakistan and since, last year with China will cut no ice at the international stage.

    Every nation has got its own strategic interests. No-one is interested in the sob stories of others. Indian government should realize that it has to fight its own battles.

    Either toughen up and act boldly/independently or sit back quietly and stop spending money on army and defence acquisitions.

    These funds can be better utilized for developing country’s infrastructure and the dismal state of country’s government hospitals and schools.

  4. Vikrant says:

    The incessant unease of each dispensation to not cross Washington is borne out of an awareness of American penetration in Indian levers of power- social and political. It need only to activate its regime change playbook, made far more effective owing to the acceptance of western language and consequently the Western ways of being and thinking, to deter the ruling dispensation from acquiring and consolidating power. We’ve a history as rich as that of the greco-roman civilization, and yet the minds of our elites are identical to that of the Filipino elites. Atleast the Filipinos have an excuse. what excuse could there be for Indian elites aspiring to be third-rate westerners than first-rate Indians.

    From this cultural malaise our strategic policies are forged. It is no surprise, then, that puny little Pakistan is the object of our obsession, whereas it should have been subdued and crushed without so much as wasting a bullet.

    The biggest threat facing India comes not from China but America, due to its penetration. Chinese could never even dream of the penetration that the americans have achieved. whereas China has to take crude steps – border escalation and supporting the maoist insurgency – to steer Indian policy to get the favorable outcome; US need not have to bother, its case gets made by osmosis through media, academia, cultural, political and strategic class .

    Courting Americans has always eroded the Indian Interest, whether it be Modi’s signing of foundational agreement or Singh’s disastrous Nuclear Capitulation. If it is impossible for New Delhi to openly defy the washington then at least it should work quietly to get things done, and not chained itself to any agreements that are detrimental to Indian Interest.

    • Gaurav Tyagi says:

      @Vikrant- An excellent observation. I would love to know Mr. Karnad’s analysis on the points raised by you.

      CIA as well as KGB both managed to penetrate the Indian corridors of power easily as early as lndia’s independence however, it was only after the disintegration of USSR that CIA could manage to beat KGB in the Indian sphere of operations.

      Chinese intelligence services have also managed to go deep into the Indian bureaucratic as well as political sphere but they are quite new to the game.

      Russia mostly depends on old cultivated contacts in India since, they lack the financial muscle of Uncle Sam.

      All the above factors combine to ensure a steady supply of 3 W’s (wine, women & wealth) to Indian policy makers in politics as well as bureaucracy.

      This makes the above mentioned category of elites elated but it sadly reflects in the poor and weak standing of the country at the global level.

      • Vikrant says:

        @Gaurav Tyagi
        Buying off elites with wealth and women is just one aspect of penetration. It is transactional, and therefore vulnerable to intervention. It is also easy to rectify if the government chooses to do so.

        Influence is bought not just through wealth but culture as well, and it is harder to undone the latter. As it is we have managed to emptied out reservoir of our cultural inheritance – language and religion, and have been slavishly consuming Western culture. It is no surprise, then, that loyalty is in short supply among those who see themselves reflected in the western culture they were brought into, and would not find it wrong to undermine Indian interest. Statecraft is about soulcraft, and soulcraft is about language and religion; undermine the latter and see the bonds of loyalty and mutual cohesion fade.

        Volumes could be written on this, but ask yourself, what is wrong with the China’s occupation of India? Yes, the Chinese will force us to learn their language and encourage us to assimilate in their culture. But what is precisely wrong with that?. Once you start answering that question, you realize that you’re already under occupation.

        Soren Kierkegaard is alleged to have said, “A passionate tumultuous age will overthrow everything, pull everything down; but a revolutionary age which is, at the same time, reflective and passionless, leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance.” a fitting description of the occupation India has been subjected to.

    • San Mann says:

      The Biden govt is itself weak. They look like an American version of the Manmohan govt. So if they want to use back-channels to undermine our national sovereignty, we should be prepared to cultivate similar back-channels to reply in kind. The Democrats are a coalition of special interest groups, and the various members of the coalition can be dialogued with, in order to create multiple avenues to put influence on the Biden admin. Furthermore, Biden’s mail-order election victory appears to have disenfranchised large sections of the American people, to create a large disgruntled demographic right in their midst. We should dialogue with various American interest groups in order to build a deterrent against using such back-channel weapons against India.

  5. Marco A Ciaccia says:

    Dear Sir, let me add first and foremost that a military establishment of the like of Pakistan, which has survived in a very challenging environment and through multiple internal and outside crises, would be very naive to eat the US made Afghan-bait, which is on the collision course with Chinese drive to Western Asia, including CPEC which does not resound well with many tribal constituencies of Pakistan. Because, in my view, CPEC is a backbone that cuts through these constituencies and reshuffles them in a way that Islamabad has not control over. So, if it goes indepth into Afghanistan, it is at a very high risk of either alienating Chinese support by becoming a US pretorian guard, or turning into a Chinese puppet, and in any case deluded and left alone by Washington which will never ever get into trouble with China over remote Central Asian planes. Neither of the previous strategic outcomes are favourable or even acceptable for Islamabad, so I think Pakistan won’t buy them unless in the very short run, to get some breath from Chinese grip.

  6. andy says:

    The statements by loyd Austin indicate that Pakistan,which was in the dog house for most of Trumps term,is to be restored its place in so far as Afghanistan is concerned. This probably means that the monies held back by America would now be handed over to Pakistan,overall it means that its business as usual in the US- Pak- India triangle.

    Good job that all Indian govts,,either the current one or previous,have had the good sense not to burn the bridges as far as Russia is concerned,even as they leaned more and more towards the US. The Democrats have always harped about
    Pakistani importance in Afghanistan and also been more tolerant about crossborder terrorism aimed at India,remember them advocating restraint from India after the Mumbai attack. Be that as it may, its back to ‘run with the hare and hunt with the hounds’ diplomacy for India.

    A few defense deals hanging fire need to be fast tracked to ensure Russians are kept in good humor. The Ka226 helicopters, AK 203 assault rifles, 21 mig29s, 12 SU30s etc,with maybe a govt to govt deal 6 conventional submarines thrown in for added effect, need to be culminated forthwith. What’s puzzling about the delay in most of these deals,which have critical operational necessity, is the nitpicking over the pricing. There’s no qualms over paying top dollar for western kit,remember Rafale? but the same rules dont seem to apply for Russian made defense items.

    India needs Russia to balance against both the USA and China,much as the US needs India to balance against China in Asia.

  7. whatsinitanyway says:

    Patience with China that’s a bummer. So what are we looking at Doc – no.1 and no.2 ganging up on to be no. 3. And then distribute the pie. America should never be trusted even if Indians run it (pun was unintended). It’s a great place to study and make moolah though. Just what the yanks have been doing since colonization of the continent.
    Russia understands the nuances of New Delhi better than any other country…. I don’t think the relations are as bad as mentioned in the article . We are still buying S400 and aircrafts from them, rifles and as a consequence of misdeeds of ministry their outgunned(by Arjun ofcourse) T-90s. I read somewhere that defence ministry is considering a Russian light tank which can be airlifted this comes after rejecting tankex.
    We have been quite altruistic with our defence budget and equipment and in some cases even our men.


    Talking about Pakistan just today the Russian vaccine maker has applied to Pakistan for registering their vaccine in Pakistan. So do you think that the Pakistani establishment in future can expect more lucrative military deals from Russia provided they build some strong economic muscle ?

  9. Sankar says:

    @Professor Karnad:
    There has appeared an informed (?) view of Indo-US strategic development by highly placed former officials here:
    Common concerns over challenges from China to result in deepening of Indo-US ties
    Could you please give us your assessment on that since I find it more wishful thinking than the ominous reality facing India with Pres Biden?
    Thank you.

  10. krishna soni says:

    Respected Sir @Professor Karnad,though my comment is out of the topic do you think to counter China’s string of pearls strategy India is taking enough steps to set up foreign naval bases like the one in seychelles and whether our diplomatic efforts are in right direction.

    • Yes, IO bases are a must and I have been advocating using these as sites — Mauritius, Seychelles, Gan Island in the Maldives, northern Mozambiqan coast and Trincomalee in Sri Lanka for starters. This subject treated in great detail in my 2015 book ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’.

  11. Ram says:


    In the initial years, the Modi government possibly enjoyed better relations with the Arab countries. Couldn’t have we used this and along with US pressure to wean Pakistan away from CPEC ( at least the naval base part of it)?

    All the development it wanted could have been done through multilateral institutions at concession rates and give that the US controls most of them, this wouldn’t have been a problem. An icing would have been India going soft for some time on terrorism and possibly opening up its markets, education and health for the well off.

    Given its dependency on the middle East for employment and cheap oil, it wouldn’t have been possible to ignore them.

    Surely the arabs wouldn’t want another super power ( especially a disruptive one that indirectly helps their arch rival Iran ) in their midst and would have privately communicated this to Pakistan.

    It’s only because of CPEC that China isn’t much concerned about the Quad or any war in the seas.



      I believe all the GCC countries want strong economic ties with China. Saudis sell more oil to China than to India. UAE ruler just gave a huge vaccine order to China. Actually the GCC enjoy playing one power against another like they always want to purchase arms from Russia. So they would not give up their stakes in China just for India’s sake.

      When it comes to Pakistan, I believe Pakistan is looking at a different economic paradigm that thinks about reducing dependency on West Asian Sheikhs. Remember Pakistan did not send troops to Yemen even though the Saudis put every sort of pressure on Nawaz Sharif who was virtually saved from gallows by the direct involvement of the Saudi royal family at the last minute. You should note that Pakistan just repaid Saudi debts by borrowing from China. I believe Pakistan is looking to boost its ties more with China, Russia, Turkey and Iran so in future it will think about reducing its dependency further with the GCC countries.

      When it comes to the Islamic solidarity issue, I believe that the GCC did not make itself popular with the Pakistani elite as well as the general Pakistani society by endorsing Modiji on Kashmir. There is a consensus in the wider Pakistani population and the diaspora to build up ties with countries like Turkey and Iran who have strong civilizational heritage similar to what Pakistan has. What makes Pakistan maintain ties with the GCC is the economic support and the GCC is not doing its best to retain that support.

      With these causes present I believe India will not be able to leverage GCC to wean Pakistan away from China. Of course India can hope to keep Pakistan neutral by offering it Kashmir valley. What is your view on my arguments.

      • Ram says:

        The army, civilian and all influential people who matter in Pakistan have close relations and investments in GCC countries. In spite of occasional frictions, the GCC still wields tremendous clout to force a change in Pakistan. Unlike the GCC, Turkey, Iran or Malaysia do not have the economic heft to influence the global powers on Pakistan.

        The reason Pakistan didn’t send its troops in Yemen was because they would have ended up fighting other’s wars with not much to benefit. There was a growing realization within Pakistan that fighting the decade long so called war on terror with the US had been making them increasingly unpopular on the global stage and resulted in immense social, economic and human loss to Pakistan. They managed to convince the Saudis that taking on the Houthis in Yemen would have invited trouble from Iran, a neighbor that they could ill afford to upset.

        I had earlier described how China has milked the Taiwan situation – a legacy issue to suit its strategic interests. By keeping the pot boiling, not falling for provocations of “invading” tiny Taiwan, it has created place for itself in history.

        Likewise, by not harping on Pakistan/Kashmir/Muslims incessantly for his domestic vote bank and instead having track 2 negotiations, we could have arrived at some understanding with Pakistan army on Kashmir – paving way for final settlement at a more opportune time. With the irresistible offers mentioned earlier and a gentle nudge from the GCC, it would have been very difficult for the Pakistan army to still go against the tide and opt for CPEC. The GCC would have continued to trade with China or buy arms from Russia anyway without the formidable threat of Russia-Iran-Pakistan-China axis building up in its immediate neighborhood (and by extension India).

        CPEC still doesn’t find much acceptance within Pakistan as the local population does not reap any benefits of these mega development projects. Between 2014-16, when things were not very bright for Pakistan and India hadn’t yet turned into a basket case, Modi’s strong mandate, a weak opposition in Parliament and his warm relations with the GCC could have made the difference.

        However, thanks to RSS pulling the strings, all that has been thrown out of the window. The Pakistan army can no longer afford to sell any such neutral policies to its audience that seem to favor India . We now have:

        – live borders with both Pakistan and China, something we can ill afford even during the best of times. Any rapprochement with Pakistan (including on Kashmir or CPEC) is ruled out, at least till this government is in power.

        – relations with Russia and Iran under strain to Pakistan’s advantage. This is due to the Modi government’s excessive leaning on the US and the Indian diaspora’s influence making it worse.

        – BRI in full steam crisscrossing all our neighbors and a Chinese naval base in the near future at Gwadar (extended to Iran’s Chahbahar) while the Modi government is busy opening up new fronts against our smaller neighbors using the “muscular” foreign policy for his domestic vote bank.

  12. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    The leaked WhatsApp chats of Arnab Goswami clearly reveals that before the Balakot air strikes he was boasting about it quote; “It is good for big man in this season”.

    Season is the election year (Lok Sabha polls in 2019) the aforesaid shows that Pulwama/Balakot was an example of “co-operative terrorism” done by Indian establishment in league with the Pakistani authorities so, that Modi government wins a second term on the plank of nationalism.

  13. AR says:

    Do you think that ‘ The Quad ‘ will see the light of the day with current US govt. It appears difficult now and will be delayed for sure meeting Chinese requirements.

  14. Brigadier V Mahalingam says:

    Biden has already indicated that he is likely to review the Afghan Peace accord based on the commitment shown by Taliban in fulfilling its part of the deal. China is in the cusp of Chinese influence. Under these circumstances, US will necessarily have to interact and possibly seek Pakistan’s cooperation in dealing with rhe Afghan issue. Can US be anything different dealing with Pak?
    As for US’ relarions with India – It needs india’s support in countering China in the Indo-Pacific. To that end, as long as th Chinese threat remains, US is likely to maintain cordial relationship with India. It however is likely to criticise India in Human Rights issues based on its perception of the subject. Remember, US is using Human Rights issue in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hongkong as a leverge to pressurise China.
    As for India, it will be prudent if it maintains strategic autonomy seeking a Multipolar World as its policy which will give it the flexibility to meet undiscovered challenges.

  15. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    Respected Mr. Karnad,

    I just came across this on the website of NDTV;

    Minor face-off between Indian, Chinese soldiers at north Sikkim’s Naku La on January 20, “resolved by local commanders”: army

    What’s your opinion regarding the aforesaid?

  16. Kunal Singh says:

    Sir, what’s next, a must article from u on today’s anarchism

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