By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, January 12: The US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Alice Wells, will travel to Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan, from January 13 to 22.
From January 13 to 14, she will be in Colombo to meet senior government officials and members of civil society to discuss a range of bilateral and regional issues, including shared interests in a free and open Indo-Pacific region that fosters “prosperity, democracy, justice, and human rights,” the US State Department said in a statement.
Wells will then be in India from January 15 to 18, to attend the “Raisina Dialogue” organized by a pro-government think tank, the Observer Research Foundation (ORF); meet senior government officials to advance the U.S.-India strategic global partnership following the success of the 2019 U.S.-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue; and discuss topics of mutual interest with members of the business community and civil society.
Finally, Wells will travel to Pakistan. From January 19 to22 she will meet with senior government officials and members of civil society to discuss issues of bilateral and regional concern.
Wells’ visits to these South Asian countries are taking place at a critical period for the US due to its stand-off with Iran and the fallout of that in the region. The period is critical also for all the counties she would be in. Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan are all undergoing key changes which could affect their relations with the US.
India, though seen as pro-US, has a complicated relationship with it. On the one hand, it is a strategic ally vis-à-vis the common rival, China. India is a key component of the US’ Indo-Pacific alliance against China and shares America’s fears about China’s designs in the Indian Ocean.
But on the other hand, India is not willing to be a partner in US moves against Iran and its plans in Afghanistan. India had earlier refused to commit Indian troops in Afghanistan to replace US troops. And even as the US is on the verge of a war against Iran, the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will be the keynote speaker at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi. Even as President Trump is going to impose fresh sanctions against Iran, New Delhi will be talking to Zarif about enhancing trade with Iran.
India-US bilateral trade has gone up from US$ 142 billion to US$ 160 billion recently. But issues relating to American visas for Indian techies, the sale of Indian manufacturers in the US and US entry into the Indian retail market continue to bedevil ties.
The anti-Muslim and American nationalistic Trump Administration has nothing to say about the Narendra Modi government’s controversial decisions on Kashmir and the citizenship question. But they these issues have irked the House of Representatives and the liberal media in the US. The American media is highlighting the anti-Modi agitations in India and lashing out at Modi’s policies.
Paul Staniland of the Chicago University notes that there are concerns among liberals in the US about the “unabashed embrace of power politics” by Modi and his cohorts, Amit Shah and Foreign Minister S.Jaishankar.
Ankit Panda of The Diplomat notes that in the US now “India’s economic performance and the BJP’s expenditure of domestic political capital on longstanding issues on the party’s social agenda have been negatively correlated: Gone are the days when India was as the world’s most promising large emerging economy.”
The anti-Citizenship Act agitations still on in India, will be keenly watched by Washington before it puts anymore eggs in the Modi regime’s basket.
When Alice Wells talks to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan she would get first-hand knowledge of Pakistan’s problems vis-à-vis the US.
These now relate to US designs against Iran. While the US would want Pakistan to join its campaign against Iran, Islamabad has told Washington clearly that it does not want to participate in the conflict in any form and would certainly not allow its soil to be used against Iran. This is due to the bad experience of participating in the US war against the Soviets and the Taliban in Afghanistan when Pakistan was ruled by Gen.Zia-ul-Haq and thereafter too.
Pakistan also fears that if under economic pressure, it joins the US campaign vis-à-vis Iran, Iran could activate its Shiite Hazara militant outfit against Pakistan in the troubled border province of Balochistan where Pakistan is building a port with Chinese help in Gawadar.
Iran is wholly Shia, while Pakistan is predominantly Sunni. Thousands of Shi’ite protesters marched in several Pakistani cities to show solidarity with Iran while Shiite leaders in the country charged that Islamabad has already committed itself to the US. A fear expressed by some commentators is that an US war against Iran tacitly supported by the Sunni-dominated government in Islamabad, could trigger Shia-Sunni riots.
The Imran Khan regime is on the horns of dilemma now. On the one hand it knows that Pakistanis have a very negative view of the US especially after US Navy Seals surreptitiously invaded and killed their hero, Osama-bin-Laden, right at the doorstep of the Pakistani military Establishment. But on the other hand, the regime knows that it has to depend on the US and the IMF for rescuing its tottering, having failed to get much help from the Chinese.
Pakistan also wants to see that the US brings peace to Afghanistan through a deal with the Taliban and that it helps the Taliban gain power in Kabul unseating the pro-India Ashraf Ghani regime there.
The replacement of the pro-West Ranil Wickremesinghe regime by the nationalist Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka following the November 16 2019 Presidential election, has given cause for worry in Washington.
Firstly, there is concern about the alleged pro-China proclivity of the Rajapaksa brothers, namely, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Secondly, there is apprehension about the traditional anti-West proclivity of Sri Lankan nationalists. And the Rajapaksas are dyed-in-the-wool Lankan nationalists.
As one would expect, some nationalistic issues have arisen since the November 16 Presidential election. While the Americans tried to push for the signing of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact (MCC-C), the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government is extremely reluctant to do so, as these pacts are disapproved either wholly or in part by nationalistic Sri Lankans who had whole-heartedly voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
SOFA is wholly rejected on the grounds that it would create a set of American nationals not subjected to Lankan civil or criminal law. Their establishments too would not be under Lankan law.
But the MCC compact appears to be a different kettle of fish though only in part. Lankan nationalists are ready to accept the transport development part of the MCC scheme and this will take up 70% of the US$ 480 million grant. But they vehemently oppose the land development part of the compact on the grounds that it will make rural agricultural lands given to farmers on lease by the government, saleable to foreigners including Americans. US denial of any intention to buy off any such land has fallen on deaf ears.
According to informed forces, the Americans want the MCC compact accepted or rejected in totality. But the Lankan government wants only the transport part of it. To resolve the issue, the government has appointed a committee of experts to examine the compact and report before the April 2020 parliamentary elections.