Top Trump administration official’s advice to India on China, Quad | The Hindu In Fo...

Top Trump administration official’s advice to India on China, Quad | The Hindu In Focus Podcast

India mustn’t reduce its interest in the Quad as the challenges from China will continue despite the disengagement at the Line of Actual Control, says Lisa Curtis, who served as the Deputy Assistant to former US President Donald Trump (2017-2021), in this special interview for the In Focus Podcast with The Hindu‘s Diplomatic Affairs Editor Suhasini Haidar.

Ms. Curtis was the key American official on South Asia in the US National Security Council through much of the LAC tensions in 2020.

Excerpts from the interview:

First, there is news now of the disengagement being initiated at the line of actual control (LAC) between Indian troops and Chinese troops. How do you think the U.S. is reacting to this disengagement plan?

I think if there is actual disengagement of the troops along the LAC, this is a positive thing. From the U.S. perspective, the U.S. has continually called for de-escalation of the situation. The problem has been, of course, that it’s taken this long for an agreement to come. There have been several meetings of the corps commanders, even some meetings at the diplomatic level. It has been a very long stand-off since last May. This would be a positive development, if indeed, it comes to pass.

You were at the NSC through much of the stand-off. How much did India and the U.S. cooperate?

I think the India China border crisis of last year did contribute to strengthening U.S.-India ties. And I think what happened really demonstrated that the United States was a reliable partner on which India could count in times of need. The U.S. provided both moral and material support to India. This came in the form of increased information and intelligence sharing, but also by expediting critical military equipment and supplies. For instance, the United States leased two MQ-9 armed predator drones that were delivered to India last summer. Also, the U.S. expedited delivery of cold weather gear to support the deployment of the Indian military along the LAC through the winter. I think that as we reflect on the former administration’s foreign policies, there will be a recognition that there was a great deal of progress on U.S.-India relations, and that will be seen as one of the high points, I think, of the Trump administration’s foreign policy.

Even so, is there still some hesitation in openly discussing India-U.S. cooperation against China?

Yes, but I don’t think it’s that surprising. When India looks at China, it sees the country that is still ahead of it militarily, economically. India exercises a certain amount of caution when it’s public about its statements on its relationship with the U.S. or the Quad (Quadrilateral dialogue of US-India-Australia-Japan), for that matter. But I think the reality is that India quietly, very much appreciates the assistance that the U.S. had provided, and also really has gained a deeper appreciation for the importance of the quad. In the last year, we’ve seen meetings at the foreign minister level (the third FM level meeting was held on Thursday). The Biden administration now is even talking about a potential summit level meeting, which would be truly historic.

Some have argued that actually, the last year of the stand-off between India and China has actually brought home India’s real challenges, which are territorial on land. And the idea that the Indian Army is now going to be much more driven to resource its positions along the Line of Actual Control than maritime commitments… could India soften on the Quad?

Well, I certainly hope not. We’ve seen the salience in the importance of the quad, in this, you know, following the pandemic, and following China’s aggressive actions over the last year. So, I think it’s in the four countries strategic interest to maintain the quad. You know, we’re not talking about an Asian NATO, as China often fears, but certainly there’s a need to coordinate not only on, you know, potential military issues, but also on economic issues, how to deal with the economic fallout, the global economic fallout of the pandemic, how to meet the challenges of China’s Belt and Road initiative. So, I think it would not be in India’s own strategic interest to soften on the Quad, as you say, I think that would that would make it more complicated for India to deal with its land boundary challenges that will continue from China.

Where do you think the Indo-U.S. relationship under the Biden administration will head?

I think we will see a re-emphasis on climate cooperation, and perhaps more coordination on climate-friendly energy technologies. You know, there may be some areas of tension that we did not see so much in the previous administration. For instance, any threat to civil liberties, particularly of the Muslim minority, I think the Biden team would be more likely to publicly address any potential violations of civil liberties if they arise. And of course, the Trump administration avoided addressing these domestic issues. Another point of tension that could arise fairly quickly is the Russian sale of the S- 400. To India, this this could become a major irritant for the relationship.

You had met with Indian officials along with Ambassador Khalilzad to discuss India’s role in Afghanistan, talks with the Taliban… Were there ever talks of Indian boots on the ground in Afghanistan?

I don’t think there was ever talk of India having boots on the ground in Afghanistan, I think there was recognition that this would just make the situation a lot worse and deepen the war there, given the provocations to the Pakistanis. But I think the enhanced role that was envisioned in the South Asia strategy when it was released in 2017, was more of an economic and political role, a supportive role for the Afghan government, maybe the security forces in terms of training and equipment. I think some of India’s scepticism (about Taliban talks) is now bearing out. India’s role will become increasingly important, if the U.S., you know, draws down its troops presence further. I think, you know, India probably is considering policies or contingencies that it may have to engage in whether, you know, it looks something like their 1990s policy in Afghanistan, when they worked with other regional powers like Russia, like Iran, to support anti-Taliban forces.

India has also worried about the role of Pakistan in Kabul if the U.S. does pull-out. Do you think that the threat of cross border terrorism emanating from Pakistan groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Jaish-e-Muhammad has in any way reduced?

I would say there have been slight improvements. Pakistan has taken some steps to support the Afghanistan peace process, they released Mullah Baradar on the request of Ambassador Khalilzad. They have weighed in at critical times, to keep the Taliban in the talks with U.S. So that’s positive. Do we need to see Pakistan do more? Of course, we need to see them use their leverage with the Taliban to reduce violence, to back away from this idea that they’re going to re-establish this Islamic Emirate. So, you know, Pakistan has an important role to play. They want to get off on the right foot with the Biden administration. I think it’s important that the administration will condition their bilateral relationship with Pakistan on whether or not Pakistan helps with the peace process in Afghanistan.

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