Welcome to the South Asia Foreign Policy Letter. This week’s highlights: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin makes one three day visit to IndiaThe United States faces an uphill battle to sell its accelerated Afghanistan peace planand Sri Lanka threatens a Burqa ban– anticipate international criticism.
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In India, Austin wants to consolidate the gains from the US-India security partnership
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin embarks on a three-day visit to India on Friday, part of his first trip abroad as head of the Department of Defense – and the first appearance of a senior Biden government official in India. The Austin visit underscores the importance that US President Joe Biden attaches to India, particularly its defense relations with the United States.
The US-India security partnership is heavily supported by both parties in Washington and has grown significantly since the early 2000s, largely due to shared concerns about China’s emerging power. Even during the tumultuous Trump era, Washington’s relations with New Delhi continued to flourish – one of the few important bilateral US partnerships that did not experience much stress.
Austin’s visit will include discussions on China, Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific region. Pentagon Messaging, however, suggests that a new phase of the US-India security partnership is also about to be launched, aiming to operationalize that through years of arms sales, technology transfers, defense deals, and India’s designation as Washington for 2016 in Washington a “major one.” Defense partner “.
This transition is already under way. In recent years, bilateral military exercises have been expanded, international peacekeeping forces have been jointly trained, and new agreements have been made that enable the two navies to refuel each other’s warships. Probably due to growing concerns about China’s muscle movements in the region, the Biden government appears keen to speed it up.
Speaking to reporters on March 13, David Helvey, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Indo-Pacific, said Austin would meet with Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh to discuss “improved information sharing, regional security cooperation, defense trade and cooperation in new areas. The Indian Ministry of Defense issued a similar message on March 17, adding that officials will discuss “how to strengthen military-to-military cooperation”.
This emphasis on operationalization could address one of the fundamental challenges of US-India security relations: How can a rapidly growing security partnership be promoted outside of the alliance system that Washington favors for its top defense partners but New Delhi rejects? India’s own foreign policy is based on the principle of strategic autonomy, whereby independence and flexibility are emphasized in world politics – without becoming entangled in alliances.
The Biden administration is also trying to strengthen India’s defense industry so that it is better equipped to partner with the US military. This would help address the problem that platform-related conversations often dwarf mission-oriented conversations, especially between the two navies.
Finally, Austin’s visit could address another major barrier to the security partnership: a longstanding segregation over geographic priorities. Washington regards East Asia, and the South China Sea in particular, as the area of greatest strategic importance. However, New Delhi, aware of the threat from China and Pakistan along its borders and coasts, is prioritizing the western areas of the Indian Ocean.
US officials have long recognized the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean in the Horn of Africa, where China uses its waters for sea trade and has established a military base in Djibouti. But the region doesn’t get much mention in high-profile US-India collaboration news. This time around, a Pentagon press release on Austin’s trip said he would discuss increasing bilateral cooperation in both the Indo-Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Relations between the US and India, while solid, face challenges ranging from trade disputes to partnerships each side has with rivals on the other side. (India has longstanding defense ties with Russia, and the United States works closely with the Pakistani military.) Defense ties have long been the sweet spot for both countries, underscoring the importance of removing security barriers. Austin’s visit to India can help advance this needle.
March 19-21: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin Visits India.
March 23rd: The United Nations Security Council debates the UN mission in Afghanistan.
March 24: Foreign Policy hosted a virtual dialogue on how the Afghan peace process will shape the role of the USA in the world. Speakers include Michael Kugelman, Lisa Curtis from the Center for a New American Security, Laurel Miller from the International Crisis Group, and Will Ruger from the Charles Koch Institute.
Uphill peace diplomacy. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy on Afghan reconciliation, has launched a diplomatic offensive in Afghanistan and beyond to promote the Biden administration’s new plan for an accelerated peace process. He has met leaders in Kabul and Islamabad and Taliban officials in Doha. He also attended a conference in Moscow with Afghan, Chinese, Pakistani and Russian officials and Taliban leaders.
Khalilzad has a tough job ahead of him. The new peace plan provides for the formation of a transitional government within a few weeks to negotiate peace and a new constitution. Some Afghans are skeptical about the tight schedule of the plan. Others worry about the risk of accepting the Taliban into a transitional government. And a group of Afghan women’s organizations published a letter criticizing their lack of consultation with the Afghan public.
Laurel Miller and Andrew Watkins warned in foreign affairs this week that even if the plan succeeds, “the outcome will be worse than this move fail”.
Indian vaccine managers speak out. Officials of two Indian vaccine manufacturers are concerned that Washington’s appeal to the Defense Production Act, which limits the export of critical materials to domestic demand, will hamper efforts to meet global COVID-19 vaccine demand. “We’re talking about free global access to vaccines, but if we can’t get the raw materials from the US it will be a serious limiting factor,” Adar Poonawalla, chief executive of the Indian Serum Institute, told Financial Mal this week.
Ironically, these concerns emerged shortly after the announcement of a new joint initiative to develop, manufacture, finance and deliver 2 billion vaccines to the Indo-Pacific region. With all of the recent discussions about pandemic cooperation and vaccine diplomacy, pandemic competition and vaccine nationalism remain stubborn realities.
Sri Lanka’s proposed burqa ban. On March 13, the Minister of Public Security in Sri Lanka announced a proposal to ban burqas for national security reasons. The measure requires the approval of the cabinet and parliament, where the ruling party has a two-thirds majority. The proposed ban follows other measures that appear to discriminate against the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, which makes up around 10 percent of the population.
Last year, authorities ordered compulsory cremation for deaths in the event of COVID-19 – including for Muslims, for whom cremation is prohibited. Officials said burials posed health risks, a claim that has been denied by health experts. Training ended last month after an international uproar.
A burqa ban would also trigger global criticism. Perhaps the Ministry of Foreign Affairs read the writing on the wall and issued a statement on March 16 stating that Colombo will seek dialogue, consultation and consensus “with all stakeholders” before proceeding.
India’s drone acquisitions. In the next month, India will approve the purchase of 30 armed drones by US defense company General Atomics, valued at $ 3 billion. The acquisition reflects India’s robust presence in the global arms markets. New research shows that it was the second largest importer in the world between 2016 and 2020. Indian acquisitions from the US have increased dramatically: The value of Indian US arms imports rose from $ 6 million in fiscal 2019 to over $ 3 billion in 2020.
Buying a drone will worry Pakistan as its more powerful rival gains more military capacity. Each drone can travel for approximately 48 hours and carry a payload of nearly 4,000 pounds. The craft will enhance the capabilities of the Indian Navy to patrol Chinese warships and the army to counter threats along the India-Pakistan border.
News of the purchase surfaced just months after Washington signed an agreement with Washington that would allow the U.S. military to share sensitive geospatial data with New Delhi – a development that, according to Pakistani security analysts, marked the differences between the strength of India’s and Pakistani Conventional Forces enlarges and undermines “Strategic Stability” in South Asia.
“Only we can face our elected and unelected leaders and force them to create a much-needed peace, but we will continue to be locked out of the room.”
– A March 14 statement by Afghan women’s groups that the new US peace plan excludes the views of women and ordinary Afghans
A new Carnegie Endowment paper from Vijay Gokhale, a former Indian foreign minister and prominent Chinese analyst, argues that the deadly clash between India and China that began in May 2020 was not entirely unexpected. Gokhale claims that misperceptions spanning a decade have sparked a serious crisis. “The most fundamental misperception between the two countries is the inability to understand each other’s international ambitions, which creates fears that their foreign policy is directed against the other,” wrote Gokhale.
Gokhale argues that bilateral ties can recover if each country tries to better understand each other’s policies. It is a welcome optimistic point of view that speaks to an ongoing debate in India about the need for more China expertise. However, the tense dynamics of the relationship – two bitter rivals sharing a controversial line and still affected by the 2020 clash – suggests that thawing relationships requires more than just understanding each other better.
That’s it for this week.
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