Washington’s Balancing Act in South Asia
India lambasted a proposed U.S. military sale to Pakistan as both countries’ top diplomats met with U.S. officials this week.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: U.S.-India-Pakistan diplomacy gets complicated as both foreign ministers visit Washington, the Taliban sign a deal with Russia for food and fuel, and Nepal’s president obstructs a new citizenship law.
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India and Pakistan’s Top Diplomats Visit Washington
Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar each held high-level exchanges with officials in Washington this week. After meeting with Bhutto Zardari, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for a “constructive” India-Pakistan relationship.
The developments may raise concerns in Islamabad and New Delhi that Washington is hyphenating its relationships with them—that is, viewing U.S. ties with India and Pakistan primarily in relation to each other. On Monday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price sought to head off such concerns. “These are both partners of ours with different points of emphasis in each,” he said.
Price echoes official U.S. policy, which since the George W. Bush administration has been one of de-hyphenation when it comes to India and Pakistan. Nevertheless, the last few days have still highlighted the continued volatilities of the U.S.-India-Pakistan triangle—particularly as Washington approves a new military sale to Islamabad.
De-hyphenation has largely benefited India because it’s allowed the United States to expand ties while avoiding tricky issues with Pakistan, such as the Kashmir dispute. Pakistan has long sought the same treatment from the United States as India. But with Washington and New Delhi strengthening their relationship dramatically in recent years, Islamabad now recognizes that’s an unrealistic goal. In recent years, the United States and Pakistan have scaled down their security relations; U.S. security aid to Pakistan has been frozen since 2018.
However, the White House approved a proposed sale of $450 million worth of military equipment to Pakistan this month to help it refurbish its existing F-16 fighter jet fleet, which the United States says are essential for counterterrorism. Why the deal went through now while security aid remains frozen is unclear. But given the transactional nature of U.S.-Pakistan relations, a security quid pro quo was likely at play.
Jaishankar lambasted the deal during a public engagement with the Indian American community in Washington last Sunday, implying that Pakistan sees its F-16s as a potential weapon against India. But he also criticized Washington’s broader relationship with Islamabad—resorting to an Indian version of hyphenating its relationship with the United States. “It’s a relationship that has neither ended up serving Pakistan well nor serving American interests,” Jaishankar said.
Predictably, Pakistan was unhappy. A foreign office statement advised India not to comment on U.S.-Pakistan relations. During a conversation with FP at the Wilson Center on Tuesday, Bhutto Zardari seemed unsurprised. “Obviously Indians are going to be upset, let them be,” he said. New Delhi has previously reacted negatively to U.S. military sales to Pakistan. But the proposed deal doesn’t include the transfer of new planes, only the refurbishment of existing ones.
That makes Jaishankar’s reaction somewhat surprising, especially given that the U.S.-India relationship is in a far better place than the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Bhutto Zardari’s engagements in Washington this week focused primarily on flood relief. The future of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is rather uncertain despite some encouraging developments related to expanding trade and investment.
By contrast, India is a critical U.S. partner in efforts to counter China, and a major priority for their relationship this year is to implement new bilateral defense agreements. The best explanation for Jaishankar’s reaction may be the simplest: Continued U.S. security cooperation with Pakistan doesn’t serve India’s interests. (Of course, Washington could say the same thing about New Delhi’s arms deals with Moscow.)
This week served as a reminder that when navigating relations with rivals, Washington must tread carefully.
[For more on U.S.-Pakistan relations, read or watch FP’s interview with Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.]
What We’re Following
Taliban ink deal with Russia. The Taliban have signed a preliminary agreement with Russia to receive oil and wheat at discounted rates. According to Taliban officials, the arrangement will start on a trial basis, and the two sides will finalize a long-term plan if they are satisfied with the initial results. The current proposal involves 1 million metric tons of both petrol and diesel, 2 million metric tons of wheat, and half a million metric tons of cooking gas.
The agreement is a win-win for both sides: Desperate to rein in an acute humanitarian crisis, the Taliban will receive cheap essential goods; Russia, facing down sanctions, will earn badly needed revenue. The deal also underscores Moscow’s commercial engagements in South Asia—a key reason for the region’s muted public position on Russia’s war in Ukraine. India recently agreed to import Russian fuel, and Pakistan and Russia have discussed possible investments in the natural gas sector.
Pakistan flooding update. Pakistan is still suffering the consequences of catastrophic flooding. Waterborne disease is afflicting tens of thousands of people, many unable to reach medical assistance because they’re cut off from facilities. Food insecurity is increasing, too. According to the latest estimates from officials, Pakistan lost almost 15 percent of its rice crop in the floods, which also destroyed many farming families’ grain reserves.
Meanwhile, Islamabad continues to issue international appeals for assistance. They were a major theme of Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly last Saturday and figured prominently in Bhutto Zardari’s engagements in Washington. This week, Washington announced an additional $10 million in flood relief on top of $56 million committed earlier. However, aid officials say that not enough assistance is coming.
Deep in the flood zone, few international aid groups are on the ground. Despite all this, one of the biggest discussions in Islamabad this week was over who was behind a series of audio leaks featuring the voices of Sharif, other senior officials, and Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan.
Hindu-Muslim tensions in the United Kingdom. The British city of Leicester remains on edge this week after violence this month. The unrest pitted Hindus against Muslims in a community known for interfaith harmony. Although early reporting suggested a cricket match may have heightened tensions, an in-depth report from the Guardian found that the trouble may have begun in May after an alleged assault on a young Muslim man. Local communities also fault posts wrongly accusing Hindus of crimes as well as poor policing for exacerbating tensions.
Some observers say the Hindu nationalist ideology espoused by India’s government has played a role, although members of Leicester’s Hindu community have pushed back against those claims. The city’s top police official said the clashes this week were “not exclusively” between Hindus and Muslims. And researcher Arun Singh published an analysis this week concluding that far-right Indian groups played no direct role in the unrest, contrary to some reports.
Under the Radar
In 2019, India passed a citizenship law that stoked controversy for seemingly discriminating against Muslims. Almost three years later, a bill to amend Nepal’s citizenship law has stoked controversy. But in this case, it’s because the country’s president, Bidhya Devi Bhandari, won’t sign off on the amendments, which Nepal’s ruling coalition supports wholeheartedly.
Nepali citizenship is based on the principles of jus sanguinis, and the 2006 Nepal Citizenship Act provides a path to naturalization for long-term residents who work in the country and speak languages used there. One of the new amendments would grant citizenship to children of Nepalese mothers with unknown fathers. This measure would give citizenship rights to more than 500,000 people—nearly 2 percent of the population.
Nepali legal experts say Bhandari, who holds a largely ceremonial post, must approve the changes because they have twice been approved by a parliamentary majority. Her aides counter that her position is justified because her concerns haven’t been addressed; it is unclear why Bhandari might oppose the law. The political opposition also doesn’t support the law.
Nepal has experienced political turbulence over the last few years, with several constitutional crises and a change in government. However, Bhandari’s obstructionism is unlikely to spiral into a crisis. The government’s reaction has been relatively measured, although several lawmakers called her move unconstitutional. And it’s still an unwelcome distraction for a government grappling with plummeting foreign reserves and soaring inflation.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• Russia’s Sending Its Ethnic Minorities to the Meat Grinder by Amy Mackinnon
• Russia’s Defeat Would Be America’s Problem by Stephen M. Walt
• Russia Can’t Protect Its Allies Anymore by Maximilian Hess
In the Daily Mirror, P.K. Balachandran argues that Sri Lanka is unlikely to ink a new free trade agreement with China anytime soon despite Beijing’s inclination to do so. “The [free trade agreement] casts a heavy burden on Sri Lanka given the general fear of being flooded by Chinese goods with very little prospect of Sri Lankan goods finding a market in China,” he writes.
Retired police office Sanjeev Chopra argues in the Print that India’s police officers are not properly trained because of an overreliance on colonial-era norms. There can only be success “if we select and train our constables to understand law, forensics, and technology, and have an assured growth trajectory in their professional careers,” he writes.
In South Asian Voices, scholar Fizza Batool analyzes media coverage of Pakistan’s floods and concludes it has left much to be desired. “A look back at media coverage from when the disaster began earlier this summer shows not only unfair treatment in terms of which regions were covered, but also overall negligence,” she writes.
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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