Rex Tillerson’s visit to Pakistan and Islamabad’s response are more of the same and will remain so as long as their divergent national security goals are in place. What is far more interesting to analyse is Secretary Tillerson’s speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington last week.
In his speech, Tillerson articulated a fervent plea for closer US-India relations while casting China as a threat to the global order and asking Pakistan to “do more’’ in fighting terrorism. He claimed that unlike rising China – which has, at times “undermined the international rules-based order’’ – rising India operates “within a framework that protects other nations’ sovereignty”.
Now, this is not quite as unflawed an argument as Tillerson would have us believe. It is always wise for someone of his stature to check the story before making absolute claims. As it happens, New Delhi doesn’t have the benign Tillersonian image in its neighbourhood and many among the local populations subscribe to a different narrative.
South Asia, like any other region, has its share of indigenous problems that impact its local politics. However, Indian interference in the political processes of Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan is not always a figment of a conspiracy theorist’s imagination. Ever since Nepal and Bhutan have moved from monarchy to democracy, the Indian meddling has intensified. Here are a few examples.
In Nepal, tensions with India increased in June 2015 when Nepal’s leaders, challenged by the disastrous earthquake, decided to expedite the process of promulgating the new constitution. India was unhappy with clauses that dealt with ethnic minorities living on both sides of the India-Nepalese border. Those on the Indian side constitute a large voting bloc in several north Indian states. Concerned with the implications of violent protests by minorities near the border, India dispatched its foreign secretary to compel Kathmandu (unsuccessfully) to rewrite terms of its constitution. As the crisis deepened, an unofficial blockade of vehicles from India into Nepal was enforced, creating serious humanitarian problems for the Himalayan nation.
Again, the K P Oli government that came into power in Nepal in October 2015 signed a trade and transit treaty with China and ended India’s monopoly. In response, New Delhi was instrumental in cobbling together a coalition government to replace Oli. According to the Hindustan Times, India was “closely involved in shaping the domestic political process in Nepal – but away from the media glare”.
In 2007, Bhutan began a shift away from its India-centric foreign policy. In the run-up to the 2013 elections, New Delhi, in a bid to thwart Thimphu’s 2012 overtures to China, abruptly cut subsidies on kerosene and gas sales to Bhutan in addition to taking other tough measures. Reflecting the public outcry, bloggers protested what they considered to be the Indian intelligence service’s attempts to rig the elections. The comments ranged from how India had punished the defeated the then prime minister Jigmi Thinley to how the “world’s largest democracy could influence elections in the world’s youngest democracy”. Similarly, India has often been involved in the internal politics of Sri Lanka. India trained and equipped Tamil militants in the 1970s and the 1980s to, among other things, offset Jayewardene administration’s growing affinity with the US. In more recent times, New Delhi has tried to leverage its connection with the Sri Lankan Tamil community to counterbalance the increasing Chinese influence.
In 2015, Sri Lanka expelled the Colombo station chief of RAW in the run-up to the presidential election, accusing him of helping the opposition oust President Mahinda Rajapaksa whose pro-China tilt spawned anxieties in New Delhi.
As for democratic India’s ‘respect’ for Pakistani sovereignty, all Tillerson has to do is listen to some of Modi’s 2015 speeches in which he acknowledged the Indian government’s active interference in the events of 1971 that dismembered Pakistan. The arrest of a serving Indian Naval officer Kulbhushan Jadhav in Balochistan in 2016 and his confession of RAW’s terrorist activities in Balochistan and Karachi is another case in point.
In short, India’s respect-for-sovereignty-record is not quite as shining as Secretary Tillerson would like it to be. In fact, it is Beijing and not New Delhi that has refrained from meddling in the internal political affairs of its neighbours.
Tillerson’s comparison of a democratic India and the US with an authoritarian China is equally fallacious. It is not Beijing that is undermining the global world order but Donald Trump, with his unilateralist approach to multilateral agreements and his protectionist slant in domestic affairs. With Trump and Modi going full-throttle to implement their racist agendas, we can only wonder what democracy has come to.
Ironically, the only liberal, inclusive and multilateral vision is emanating from Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road initiative. And herein resides the crux of the problem, eh Secretary Tillerson? It is the under-construction China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that is proving to be a thorn in the India-US hip joint.
While eulogising Indian democratic credentials, Secretary Tillerson did not have the moral courage to comment on the ongoing atrocities in Indian-Occupied Kashmir. With nearly 700,000 Indian security forces deployed in IOK, it is currently the most militarised zone in the world. Indian forces are regularly involved in targeting unarmed Kashmiris, having killed and maimed thousands and counting. The shooting of unarmed civilians, the use of blinding pellet-guns, illegal detention, abduction, rape and torture constitute the Indian ‘democratic’ tool-kit to manage IOK. Tillerson should consult reports compiled by international human rights organisations.
Of course, Tillerson’s speech could not have been complete without telling Pakistan – yet again – to ‘do more’ in fighting terrorism (more than 50,000 dead Pakistanis are apparently not enough). But here’s the thing. By excluding Kashmir from his speech, Tillerson reminded me of another US omission: the democracy-loving US turning a blind eye to military regimes in Pakistan in the name of national interest. From Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan to Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf, this omission is a sorry tale of double standards.
If only Tillerson could take some history lessons, he would discover that if today successive American administrations are forced to ask Islamabad to ‘do more’, it is largely because yesterday Washington did less.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad.