US dubs Hizbul Mujahideen terror outfit: Washington move will help strengthen India's hand against China

It will be misleading to interpret United States' move to designate Hizbul Mujahideen as a 'foreign terrorist organisation' as purely a counter-terrorism initiative. A debate framed in these terms will miss the point by a mile. It is not as if the US has suddenly woken up to the fact that an organisation that has been carrying out acts of subversion and terrorism on Indian soil for the last three decades is a 'terrorist outfit'.

In fact, the US State Department notification clearly identifies Hizbul as "one of the largest and oldest militant groups" operating in Kashmir since 1989. It is helmed by Mohammad Yusuf Shah aka Syed Salahuddin, whom the Donald Trump administration had branded a 'Specially Designated Global Terrorist' last June, just ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's maiden meeting with the US president in Washington.

As part of a global effort to fight terrorism, the move is largely symbolic and may only superficially affect Hizbul's ability to raise funds. Salahuddin had recently boasted in an interview to a Pakistani TV channel that "Kashmiris" all across the world are funding terrorism in India and he can procure any weapon from the international market at the right price.

FIle image of Hizbul Mujahideen chief Sayeed Salahudeen. ANI

FIle image of Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahudeen. ANI

Will this initiative choke Salahuddin's access to funds? The notification stresses that the outfit's "property and interests in property subject to US jurisdiction are blocked, and US persons are generally prohibited from engaging in any transactions with the group" but to assume that this will constrict the organisation's operations is silly, and equally harebrained is the assumption that the Trump administration is innocent of this reality.

Therefore, instead of trying to search for counter-terrorism motives in the US decision, we should interpret it as part of a series of well-coordinated steps to bolster India's position on terrorism and security in India-Pacific region. This is where the move makes greater sense, because it is not a coincidence that the tag on Hizbul closely follows US announcement of a new two-by-two ministerial dialogue mechanism with India, which is expected to put defence and strategic consultations at the front and centre of bilateral ties.

A White House statement following Trump's congratulatory phone call to Modi on 15 August read: "The leaders resolved to enhance peace and stability across the India-Pacific region by establishing a new two-by-two ministerial dialogue that will elevate their strategic consultations." The move was reportedly also discussed during external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj's telephonic conversation with US secretary of state Rex Tillerson.

Though the word 'China' wasn't mentioned anywhere in the statement, and Washington did not elaborate on the specifics, it doesn't take an Albert Einstein to deduce that closer India-US synergy on maintaining "peace and stability across the India-Pacific region" is a message to China.

The existing mechanism, which the two-by-two ministerial dialogue is expected to replace, had been started by the Barack Obama administration to bolster bilateral commercial ties. The adoption of defence and strategic consultations in the mechanism suggests that the Trump administration places greater stress on India as a strategic partner. Consider that the India-US move is being initiated at a time when China has irked both nations through its policies and actions.

Trump has flatly blamed China for not doing enough to contain North Korea's nuclear warhead and intercontinental missile programs and had recently ordered a probe into Beijing's unfair trade practices and "theft of intellectual property", triggering a stinging response from China.

Concurrently, India and China have been locked in a tense standoff in the Sikkim sector with no resolution in sight. New Delhi accuses Beijing of violating existing boundary mechanisms and agreements in trying to build a motorable road in a sensitive tri-junction area also involving Bhutan, while China has blamed India for violating its "sovereignty" and has repeatedly threatened war.

The US hasn't said much (chiefly because India doesn't want this to be highlighted) but has asked "both parties to have a direct dialogue to reduce tension" – a direct endorsement of India's stand. China has refused to talk unless Indian troops are "unilaterally withdrawn" from the tri-junction area, a condition that is unacceptable to New Delhi.

In this context, the fact that Trump administration is clamping down on terrorist outfits and their leaders inimical to India and elevating the bilateral relationship by adding a strong defence and strategic component to already existing operational and strategic underpinnings are clear indications of a South Asia strategy, that looks and sounds awfully like Obama's Pivot to Asia. US action against Pakistan-backed terrorist outfits operating on Indian soil is also a moral indictment of China's position which has repeatedly vetoed all Indian attempts to blacklist these terrorists at United Nations.

While the Trump administration is backing India against China, its military establishment has announced that it is keen to help India modernise its military.

"I believe that the US is ready to help India modernise its military. India has been designated a major defence partner of the US. This is a strategic declaration that's unique to India and the US. It places India on the same level that we have many of our treaty allies," Commander of the US Pacific Command or PACOM Admiral Harry Harris recently told PTI.

The bigger implication of this synergy is an increasing belief in the US that India — through its recent actions — is expressing a willingness to act as Asia's security guarantor. Make no mistake, Washington has noted India's decision not to join the Belt and Road initiative and interprets the Doka La standoff as India's statement of intent in not letting Asia become unipolar.

As Richard M Rossow of at the Center for Strategic and International Studies writes in The Diplomat, the US "just received a loud, clear signal that India is ready to take important steps to contribute to the global order, and it should strengthen our resolve to further deepen our emerging security partnership."

It has been said ad infinitum that a strong India is better for global, rules-based order. The US is indicating that it believes India's time has come.

Updated Date: Aug 18, 2017 06:49 AM

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