The minutiae of Trump’s mediation claim

Chinmaya R. Gharekhan  

U.S. President Donald Trump’s claim on Monday, during a press conference with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan in Washington, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had told him at the G-20 summit in Japan in June, in so many words, that he wanted the American President’s help, either through mediation or arbitration, in resolving the Kashmir dispute is a claim that has understandably raised hackles in India and jubilation in Pakistan. The Indian External Affairs Minister has denied that Mr. Modi had made any such request to Mr. Trump.

The Opposition is not satisfied with the Minister’s denial and wants Mr. Modi personally to clarify the situation, which he seems reluctant to do; it is very difficult for the Prime Minister to call Mr. Trump a liar because that in effect is what he would be saying if he contested the latter’s claim.

It hardly needs stating that Mr. Modi did not make any such request to Mr. Trump. The President’s love for truthfulness in his own country is suspect. It is entirely possible that he thought of making such a statement, which he must have known was not true, to please his guest; perhaps he was confident that he would be able to placate the Indian leader on some subsequent occasion, by for example, extending the deadline for reducing import of Iranian oil to zero.

The bottom line

The main lesson for us in India in all this is not that we cannot trust the American President — we should not trust any foreign leader in such matters. It is an object lesson how other governments pursue their national interests single-mindedly without allowing sentiment to influence their judgment. At this point in time, the U.S. is desperate for Pakistan’s help in ‘extricating’ the American military from Afghanistan.

The use of the word ‘extricate’ was most suggestive; it indicates that the U.S. feels itself in a quagmire in that unfortunate country and is eager to pull out with some face-saving formula. Mr. Trump is thinking only of his country’s interest; he is not bothered about India’s reaction. If India feels offended, so be it. He knows that Pakistan is the only country with clout with the Taliban that can help him in reaching this objective. If Pakistan does manage to persuade the Taliban to engage in direct talks with the Afghan government, it can expect substantial dividends from Mr. Trump — beyond the $1.3 billion that was mentioned at the presser.

Imran Khan too has played his cards well. He did not allow himself to act hurt or annoyed at Mr. Trump’s pungent criticism of Pakistan’s ‘lying and cheating’ just days before his visit. On the other hand, he took some steps, including lifting the ban on overflights through Pakistan’s airspace to create an impression of reasonableness in time for his Washington visit.

We Indians do not take kindly to such strong words from foreign leaders. We feel hurt and show our hurt publicly. In the old days, what Mr. Trump said would have led to demonstrations in front of the American embassy. We also get carried away by flattery. As they say, even god loves flattery, but governments cannot afford to take praise at face value. Thus, our ego gets inflated when we are told that India has a major role to play in the Indo-Pacific.

The concept of the Indo-Pacific is nothing but containment of China by another name. The Japanese Prime Minister takes credit for coining the phrase, suggesting that the name implies the importance of India in this region. He has his own problems with China, and Japan is a close ally of America. The two no doubt work closely with each other and coordinate their actions in this area. But India has its own interests and concerns about China which are not shared by others. All ‘strategic’ experts are of one view, namely, in the event of a major crisis with China, we shall have to depend solely on ourselves; no other country will come to our help in any meaningful way. This calls for a certain amount of distancing ourselves from the game that other powers are playing. Surely, the experts in the government are conscious of these factors, especially now that we have a seasoned diplomat at the helm of Foreign Office.

The ‘K’ word

To come back to Kashmir, we are justified in our position that there can be no talks with Pakistan unless and until Islamabad effectively stops cross-border terrorism emanating from its territory. The question is: does either country really want to resolve the issue? It is not enough for either country to say that it wants to solve the problem.

When Pakistan says this, it means withdrawal of all Indian forces from the whole of Jammu and Kashmir, followed by a referendum. When India says it wants to resolve the problem, it means the vacation by Pakistan of its presence from the whole of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan’s interpretation of the UN resolution is patently wrong; the resolution calls for withdrawal of all forces under Pakistan’s control first. But it has managed to create a narrative of self-determination for the Kashmiri people which is largely swallowed by other countries.

It makes sense for the Pakistan military not being keen on resolving the conflict, because it will lose its relevance and pre-eminent position in society once the Kashmir problem is out of the way. Surely that is not the case with the Indian military. India’s military is highly disciplined and apolitical and will follow whatever the civilian government decides.

If each country wants to solve the problem only on its terms, it will never be solved. In any negotiation, both sides have to compromise, which means neither side will get all it demands. The only realistic and practical way out is the conversion of the Line of Control into an international boundary, with suitable, minor adjustments.

We did make this offer during the Bhutto-Swaran Singh talks in 1962-63. We even offered an extra 1,500 sq.km to Pakistan, but the latter wanted the whole State, except for the district of Kathua. It is obvious that neither country has the political courage or the mandate to officially put forward this proposal now or ever. Thus, the issue will not be solved bilaterally and will remain with us for a long, long time. And some might say ‘so be it’.

Chinmaya R. Gharekhan, a former Indian Ambassador to the United Nations, was Special Envoy for West Asia in the Manmohan Singh government