Kashmir is a sensitive issue between India and the US in the context of fundamental rights and not Indo-Pak dynamics, top US security expert Lisa Curtis has said. Speaking to India Ahead, Curtis said the US Congress will be looking to India to reinstate normal political activity in Kashmir and allow basic fundamental rights, including the right to peaceful demonstrations.
Curtis served as deputy assistant to former US President Donald Trump and as senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council from 2017 to 2021. She is currently serving as director of the Indo-Pacific Centre at Centre for New American Studies (CNAS) in Washington.
Curtis touched upon a range of geo-political issues in her conversation with India Ahead Contributing Editor Smita Sharma, including the US-China rivalry, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and India’s place in it, and investigation into the origin of Covid-19.
Acknowledging that competition between the two countries has become fierce in military, economic and diplomatic fields, Curtis said the YS must work with like-minded partners to effectively compete with China.
“Even though China has the second-largest economy, potentially the largest economy, it still has a much lower GDP per capita rate than the US.
The US still dominates financial systems. Tech companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter still dominate the digital space. So even though China is rising, improving its military capabilities, its economy, there are a still lot of advantages that the US holds,” she said.
Curtis pointed out that while the US has a “wide network of alliances and partnerships”, China is involved in territorial disputes with countries in southeast Asia. “We also have a lot of military alliances while China just has one with North Korea,” she added.
Xi Jinping’s Speech
Commenting on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party, Curtis said the “hyperbole” was on expected lines. In his speech, Jinping had said that China would no longer be “bullied” at the world stage.
“There is not going to be tremendous surprise among US officials.
The US is not perfect but at least our systems are open. A few weeks ago, President Xi pointed out that China needed to provide a more ‘lovable’ image to the international community,” she said.
Curtis added that the statement showed China’s recognition of the fact that its aggressive political and military strategy are not really paying dividends.
Calling President Joe Biden’s investigation into the origins of Covid-19 a “milestone”, Curtis said it was unacceptable that China, where the pandemic is believed to have originated, remains unwilling to provide data and access to its facilities.
“We know that information was being stifled early on in the pandemic. It is China’s responsibility to be more forthcoming… The (Wuhan) lab leak theory is plausible. Not saying that it happened. We don’t know yet. But we need to get to the bottom of this,” Curtis said.
On Allegations of US Funding to the Wuhan Lab
Speaking about alleged US links to the Wuhan lab, Curtis said the priority is to trace the Covid-19 origins to prevent a similar pandemic. “I have seen some of the media reports on whether or not there was some US funding for this controversial lab research. The most important thing right now is to figure out if this was transmitted from animal species to humans,” she said.
Curtis said it was clear that the virus did not originate in the US. “There may be some questions back in the US about funding the lab activities. That is something we have to look at. But we really do need to know the origin of the virus in order to prevent future pandemics and to also get a handle on the variants that are coming up. There may be some US angles to the issue but I wouldn’t get distracted by it.”
India’s Place in the Quad
Curtis said she was accurately quoted in a Financial Times article about India’s position in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, but disagrees that the second Covid-19 wave shows India as a weak link in the informal association with US, Japan and Australia. “That is not fair. The US was struggling mightily with the Coronavirus just a year ago. I think it really is inaccurate and unfair to say that India’s struggle with the second wave of Covid-19 told us anything about the role it would play in the Quad.”
Curtis said another Quad summit is being planned in September and could even be an in-person interaction. “Quad is not going away anytime soon and India’s role is important as ever. I wouldn’t say it is just a political alliance. It is technically not a military alliance and it will never be. But the goals and priorities of Quad will continue to evolve as we see challenges develop in this region,” she said.
She added that the Quad has other goals, including infrastructure, countering China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), providing alternatives to other countries to reduce their reliance on China. The security expert also did not concede that the Quad was reticent in admitting its objective to counter China.
“I don’t think it is a reticence. Probably it is a nod to countries that don’t want to choose between China and the US. And I am talking about southeast Asia. We have seen a lot of reticence from ASEAN countries towards the Quad. First they worry that Quad will somehow displace ASEAN as the architecture for the region which won’t happen. ASEAN has a very important role.”
Asked if the Quad will back India in the event of a military escalation with China, Curtis said that while New Delhi may not be expecting statements, it would be looking for operation and maritime support.
She said it would be a force multiplier for India to join Quad countries in the maritime route. “China succeeded only in driving India closer to the US. One doesn’t always understand what China is calculating. They miscalculate sometimes,” she said.
Curtis said that while the Quad should not be seen as an exclusive club, it will not officially expand either.
Kashmir Factor in Indo-US Ties
The revocation of special status and provisions of Article 370 raised concerns in the US with focus on internet being cutoff, Curtis said. “It is not so much about the Indo-Pak dynamics, but about what is happening inside Kashmir. Are Kashmiris rights being respected? Is India following its own Constitution? You cannot deny the fact that India has had the most Internet shutdowns among countries in the last three years. That is not really a positive attribute for the world’s largest democracy,” she said.
Curtis added that the internal situation in Kashmir and the situation between India and Pakistan at the LoC are two separate issues. She said the US Congress would expect India to reinstate normal political activity in Kashmir, allow elections, free media, and peaceful demonstrations.
“The ball is currently in India’s court,” she said.
Given the situation in Afghanistan, Curtis advised India and Pakistan to hold a dialogue to brace for regional instability and turmoil. Curtis also termed the Doha agreement “damaging” for the US and said it favours the Taliban. “The government has to release thousands of Taliban prisoners and yet there is no assurance that the Taliban will make a peace agreement with the Afghan negotiating team,” she said.
“The Doha agreement simply says that the Taliban will prevent the group from plotting attacks against the US. It doesn’t say anything about ejecting Al Qaeda, about not allowing new foreign terrorist fighters from coming into the country. There are tremendous loopholes in the US-Taliban agreement,” Curtis pointed out.
She added that India has to make its own decision about how it wants to engage. “Every country is going to have some kind of contact with the Taliban. But what I am arguing is fine have your contacts but don’t have any illusions about their links to terrorism.”
On Standoff Between Twitter and Govt of India
Curtis said tech giants like Twitter, and the Government of India have to work out their differences over the new IT Act since India is a huge growing market for such companies.
“These are complicated issues. Security concerns of the Indian government have to be respected. If they are simply trying to control the political narrative, that is another issue. What happens in India will set the tone for the rest of the world,” she said.