If Donald Trump brings up Kashmir or troops in Afghanistan, India should put Gilgit on the table

The American president’s visit is likely to be a jumped up Page 3 story. But should he pitch any unexpected balls, his hosts shouldn’t be defensive.

WrittenBy:David Devadas
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Behind the hoopla that will be the highlight of President Donald Trump’s visit to Ahmedabad, Agra, and Delhi early next week will be an unstated test for India’s strategists. They are on the back foot too often, and they will no doubt be uneasy on three or four fronts this time too.

The possibility of Trump offering to mediate on Kashmir lurks wraith-like over them. Trump first volunteered to do this after a bilateral meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan last July. He repeated the offer in September, and again last month. “We’ve been watching that and following it very, very closely,” he said, adding, “We are getting along very well [with Pakistan]. I would say we’ve never been closer with Pakistan than we are right now. And that’s a big statement.”

(UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres also offered to mediate during a visit to Islamabad last weekend while calling for India to respect “human rights and fundamental freedoms” in Kashmir.)

Indian troops in Afghanistan

Who knows, the Afghan government’s desire for Indian troops there might also turn up on the irascible Trump’s wish list. Long hoped for by the Afghan government, the idea has bubbled up again since the Afghan National Security Advisor’s recent visit to New Delhi.

It’s a bad idea. The disaster it would likely become would make the Indian Army’s Sri Lankan foray in the 1980s seem like a kindergarten picnic. But Trump’s priority is to get US troops out of Afghanistan before his re-election campaign kicks in – quite soon. Having India’s well-trained troops hold things down during the weeks of the US’s exit would seem like a great idea to him. And he tends to push what seem like great ideas to him.

His other fetish in the region is to lean ever harder on Iran. That has already more or less put paid to India’s once-grand plan to use Iran’s Chabahar port as a gateway to Central Asia. Trouble in Iran would make supplying and moving Indian troops in Afghanistan almost impossible.

Counter move

Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla told me the visitor was “unlikely to raise any internal contentious issues” (an obvious reference to Kashmir), but added that “Afghanistan and other issues of strategic interest were likely to be discussed”.

Now, that should not mean Indian troops going to Afghanistan. In case the canny president does spring either or both these thorny issues at his hosts, they should coolly turn the focus to the Gilgit region. It is part of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir – and it is India’s route to Afghanistan.

Strategically, it is the most vital part of Jammu and Kashmir, all of which juridically belongs to India. Its strategic value has increased immeasurably for China and Pakistan; it’s a key arm of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is to be China’s short-cut to the Gulf, Africa, and to Europe via the Suez Canal.

India could spring its own out-of-the-box scheme for Gilgit: that region should be recognised as a global crossroads, perhaps policed by an upscaled version of the largely unemployed UN Military Observers’ Group in India and Pakistan (which is meant to keep an eye on the Line of Control on behalf of the comity of nations).

Access there would be India’s passage to Central Asia. That would be an enormous strategic advantage – through India’s own territory! The long-pending oil pipeline from Turkmenistan would be only the first of the economic and other strategic advantages.

This would sort out the logjam over India’s refusal to accept the Belt and Road Initiative because CPEC passes through Jammu and Kashmir. India could accept that fait accompli, while gaining its own access diagonally across CPEC. That would give both India and the US a toehold in an area of increasing strategic importance. And it could give Trump an opportunity to claim that he had solved a major problem in South Asia.

Image more than content

Trump loves that sort of projection. He has maximised projection since his inauguration. He has already projected being received by five to seven million people in Ahmedabad on Monday – which he says Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised him.

As things stand, that sort of hoopla may be the only major takeaway from this visit, except for a few rounds of giving – by India.

India’s decision to buy US shale oil is likely to be announced. That will meet Trump’s demand for balanced trade. The much-hoped-for comprehensive trade deal is most unlikely since the US Trade Representative put off his pre-summit trip to India last week, but agreements to import shale (and things like more expensive stents and less taxed walnuts) might be presented as a stand-in trade deal.

India is to buy 24 Seahawk helicopters, which are so sophisticated they can even target submarines. India may also buy hi-tech drones and a missile defence system. The whopping $1.867 billion the US is asking for the latter is double what was expected, but then this purchase is at least partly meant to assuage US angst over India’s decision to purchase a more advanced missile defence system from Russia in 2018.

One so wishes India had the confidence to buy what it definitely needs, at prices it considers right, and meanwhile develop its own technologies the way Jawaharlal Nehru, Homi J Bhabha, and other early builders of the Republic sought. A booming economy would be most handy for that. Until then, pageantry, walls, and goodwill purchases will have to do.


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