Mike Pompeo must navigate a minefield in South Asia: soothing Pakistan while embracing India

Andrew Hammond says the US secretary of state, on his back-to-back visits to the two neighbouring nations with fraught relations, will have to court Pakistan’s new prime minister while securing closer ties with India as part of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 September, 2018, 2:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 September, 2018, 4:39am

Mike Pompeo begins a tricky trip to Pakistan on Wednesday before travelling onto India. This latest tour, on the back of his visit last month to Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, sees the US secretary of state seeking traction in South Asia for his revamped Indo-Pacific strategy in the face of China’s growing strength. 

One of the potential windows of opportunity Pompeo senses in the Indo-Pacific – the Trump team’s preferred phrase for the geography spreading from the US west coast to India – comes with the election of new Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

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While Khan has deployed much anti-US rhetoric over the years, Pompeo is seeking early engagement with him, especially since Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi – who has called Pakistan the “iron brother” of his own nation – is due in Islamabad later in the week.

Khan is being courted by both Washington and Beijing with the latter having already made commitments of around US$60 billion to Islamabad under its Belt and Road Initiative. Pakistani troops also recently took part in exercises with some 3,000 others from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, including the Chinese military.

While Islamabad had, for decades, been a significant US ally, the relationship has frayed. This was highlighted in August when a transcript of a phone conversation between Pompeo and Khan, released by the US State Department which referred to the new government “taking decisive action against all terrorists operating in Pakistan”, was disputed as factually inaccurate by Khan’s team.

It is this vexed issue of terrorism that will be the key item on the agenda on Wednesday when Khan and Pompeo meet, joined by General Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.

And this conversation will be made no easier by the US military’s decision on Saturday to cancel US$300 million in aid to Islamabad over what Washington calls its failure to take action against militant groups operating on its soil.

US Defence Secretary James Mattis has asserted that tough talks could be needed and that the US delegation will “make very clear what we have to do, all of our nations, in meeting our common foe, the terrorists”.

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It is likely that the US team will pressure Khan to act more robustly, and also offer greater support and/or incentives for doing so following Dunford’s assertion recently that US interests in the region requires “a presence to have influence”.

What that presence means, in practice, is not completely clear, and this will be a potentially tense topic of conversation between Pompeo, Khan and Dunford. Should the talks not go well, Pakistani media are quoting officials at the nation's foreign ministry as saying Beijing will need to act as a “protective shield” against US pressure.

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With the outcome of this Islamabad leg of the tour highly uncertain, the Indian leg of the trip featuring Pompeo and Mattis is likely to be smoother sailing. To be sure, there are also complications in the Washington-New Delhi relationship, including US calls for India to end its buying of Iranian oil and threats to levy sanctions if it continues to buy Russian military equipment.

Nevertheless, both Pompeo and Mattis, and their counterparts – Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman – want the so-called “two plus two” talks to go well.

The deepening of the US-India relationship is centred around promoting a regional agenda of ensuring, according to the US State Department, “freedom of the seas and skies, promoting market economics, supporting good governance, and insulating sovereign nations from coercion”.

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A key part of the overall US rationale for the revamped US Indo-Pacific strategy is enabling India to potentially act as a growing regional counterweight to China.

To this end, Washington declared New Delhi a major defence partner in 2016, and this week’s meeting could see potential moves to finalise a Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement and to strengthen the US-India Defence Technology and Trade Initiative underpinning greater counterterrorism and defence cooperation.

Meanwhile, on the trade front, both nations are seeking to address market access challenges through tackling tariff and non-tariff barriers.

Clear movement forward on these agendas in India would help bring greater credibility to the US Indo-Pacific strategy which has been criticised for its perceived under-ambition vis-à-vis China. Hence, the secretary of state last month articulated his revamped plans for a “new era in US economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the region”.

Welcome as more details of the administration’s emerging plan were for many US allies – especially given Donald Trump’s decision on Friday not to attend November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summits – critics claim that the strategy will have less overall impact that the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership.

And the added pressure on the White House here is China’s comparatively monumental ambition, as illustrated by the US$1 trillion belt and road scheme.

In this context, Pompeo has a tough ask this week in reassuring sometimes sceptical US regional allies that the Trump team is wholly committed – politically, economically and on security – to its Indo-Pacific plan.

Even if key successes are achieved in India, and potentially Pakistan too, questions will remain about the strategy’s ambition, especially given the scale of China’s own plans.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics