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Stephen Cohen: US’s biggest Pakistanphobe

Stephen Cohen: US’s biggest Pakistanphobe

US President Barack Obama’s arrival in India next weekend will be an important marker in the rapidly evolving ties between the two countries, which have more shared interests today than at any other time in the past.

But can they break new ground on complex issues of the day, like the new clout that China wields or the dangerous stalemate on the AfghanistanPakistan front?

Stephen P Cohen, currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think-tank, who has written several books on the geopolitics of the region, discussed what’s possible, in an interview with DNA during a recent visit to Mumbai. Excerpts:

What does the recent Chinese browbeating of Japan, forcing the release of a ship’s captain who had strayed into Japanese waters, indicate to us about how the geopolitics of the region is evolving? Do you see China becoming increasingly assertive?

I’m not sure whether it was mismanagement by China or assertiveness by China. I remember at the beginning of the Bush administration, they brought down an American airplane, and it was seen to be an assertive, aggressive China, but it turned out to be the reaction of a single People’s Liberation Army (PLA) pilot. So I don’t think you can draw a large picture of the region from a single action.

On the other hand, the Chinese have had an obsession with Japan for a long time. It’s part of their culture and history. They teach their kids in school about Japanese aggression during World War II and so forth.

The American policy, as I understand it, is not to assume that China is necessarily going to be a hostile power as it rises.

But given the size of China’s economy and military, isn’t it inevitable that Chinese influence will dominate the region? How can India match that?

If India had grown as fast as China when China had started growing, it would have been a match for China. But India is 15 years behind China and it may not be able to close that gap. But it’s certainly a different India today than 15 years ago.

Also, I think you have to measure influence and power in different categories. I don’t see the Chinese cultural influence spreading or the Chinese model emulated even in Chinese-speaking countries like Singapore.

India on the other hand has always been a cultural superpower. From East Africa all the way to Southeast Asia, Indian culture, music, films, and sports like cricket are popular.

So I think you can measure influence on different criteria. Take the quality of diplomacy. Here the Chinese are doing very well. I’ve just come from Pakistan, and it’s clear that the Chinese influence there is growing tremendously.

Do you see a waning of US influence in Asia as we go forward?

Our influence has been waning because we’ve been up to our noses in Iraq and now Afghanistan. I agree with the view that we have neglected East Asia and South Asia because of Iraq and Afghanistan. I think Iraq was the biggest strategic blunder in modern American history and pulling out of Afghanistan too early was an even bigger blunder.

But once we sort those things out, and I think they are in the process of being sorted out, I can see the Americans and the Indians working closer together, especially to develop interoperability in naval co-operation.

It’s theoretically possible that China will turn hostile 5 or 10 years from now, although I’m not predicting anything; so consultation and interoperability [between the US and Indian militaries] are important things to do now.

But India-US ties always appear secondary to US interests in maintaining Pakistan as an ally. Can there be any change in this equation?

Pakistan is half an ally, half a problem, and the ‘alliance’ has been one of convenience. We have not seen it as directed against India, but this was the major purpose of Pakistan in seeking US arms.

We all want to see Pakistan moderate how it pursues its interests by supporting or tolerating extremist and terrorist groups. This is a big agenda for both the US and India, but Pakistan should not be seen as a zero-sum game by either.

It is in India’s interests to make its peace with its neighbours; the country that benefits the most from intra-South Asian hostility is China.

How reliable is Pakistan as an ally in the Afghanistan war?

It’s an ambiguous alliance, because Pakistan is supporting us in Afghanistan and also opposing us by supporting the Taliban. I think this is an unsustainable situation. Even the India-Pakistan dispute is not sustainable; sooner or later it will break down into a crisis and people will realise that it is draining both countries of valuable resources, especially Pakistan. So I would hope that the US strategy would be to find ways in which India and Pakistan can co-operate not only on Kashmir but also Afghanistan.

What will it take for the US to see a larger role for India in Afghanistan?

I think India made a mistake rejecting [Richard] Holbrooke’s role as a regional emissary. They were afraid he would raise Kashmir. That’s a legitimate Indian concern, but on the other hand, India has a natural role to play in Afghanistan other than simply telling the Americans ‘you go fight the Taliban’.

How does US financial indebtedness to China affect its influence in Asia? Are economic considerations overcoming the core values and ideas that the US purports to represent?

It’s a factor, but I don’t think the only one. In terms of revolutionary change around the world, what may be more important is the way in which we’ve all acquired a new nervous system: the modern media, television, the internet, messaging, they are transforming the way people see the world and I think that’s probably more important than trade deficits.

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