Thursday, July 5, 2012

The South Asian Question

The United States has traditionally sought long standing engagement in South Asia. However, even though the region is rich in natural resources, potential and opportunities, the unique regional politics and instability present somewhat of a challenge.

The seven countries of South Asia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, vary greatly in size and social makeup. Together they host a quarter of the world’s population, with India hosting almost 75% of it.  India’s GDP contribution is also almost 76% of the regional total. The region is rich in natural resources, however, mismanagement and intra-regional conflicts result in their poor development and distribution. Hosting the largest concentration of the world’s poor, most South Asian countries also lag behind in important social development indicators.

South Asia has been a recipient of US attention for a long time, focused more on India and Pakistan due to their size and position in the region, both geographically and politically. Traditionally, Pakistan has allied itself with the US, and India with Russia. Also relevant to the South Asian politics are Afghanistan and China that have had huge influence on the region’s politics and defense issues in the current environment.
Understandably, the US has supported any engagement based on its own interests in the region, but international interests can be well served only when local concerns are taken into consideration. The US can expect to achieve its goals of regional cooperation only by addressing the concerns of the local governments as well as their populations.

Back in the 80s, the Russian invasion engaged the United States with South Asian politics for almost a decade. Along with Pakistan, the US supported Afghan resistance through training and funding of local and foreign fighters who ultimately defeated the Russians. Right after the goal was achieved, however, Pakistan faced sanctions as a punishment for its nuclear ambitions. That followed the US tilt towards India for its growing international market appeal, until the attacks of 9/11 in New York. Pakistan chose to side with the US in the War on Terror unfolding in Afghanistan. This cooperation brought financial aid, but also the spillover of chaos from the war-torn neighbor. That, combined with its own inept governance, has crippled Pakistan’s economy, destroyed social fabric and caused institutional collapse at multiple levels.
The two allies have also learned that their modes of communication and cooperation have not worked out and created misunderstandings and friction. The US accuses Pakistan of ‘not doing enough’, while Pakistan objects to not getting due credit for its sacrifices and contributions. The Pakistani government has urged the US and NATO for introspection on its dealings with Pakistan in its own long term interest, as Pakistan fears the chaos left behind after the major withdrawal in 2014 will not be contained by the remaining 25,000 US troops, and the Afghan army may not survive its high desertion rate. Both countries need to establish transparent military and civilian cooperation to promote mutual understanding and trust that can continue to bring opportunities to serve the interests of regional security linked to global safety – which is their shared long term goal.

The United States is also seeking a long term strategic partnership with India due to many factors, including U.S. and India’s shared discomfort with China’s growing military and economic power, and India’s potential market for American business. Leon Panetta on a recent trip to India also said that the US would, “welcome India playing a more active role in Afghanistan, a more active political and economic role.” This, however, fuels Pakistan’s security concerns with a stronger Indian footprint on its western border. The historic distrust between the two neighbors is bound to cause more conflict, and the US needs to recognize that valid concern, given their history, and deal with it realistically.
 Pakistan and India have fought two conventional wars in 1965 and 1971. In 1984 India conceived plans to attack Pakistan’s nuclear capability, and both countries came to the brink of war. In 1986, India’s incursion into Siachin gave rise to a new conflict, and later in 1999 the Kargil debacle connected to the Kashmir issue introduced another serious dimension to the existing tension between them which was solved by USA’s intervention.

The China factor is also an important dimension to consider for the US in South Asia as it influences political and defense shifts in the region. India’s nuclear security perception is influenced by the much propagated ‘China threat’. The smaller countries of the region understand India’s ambition for achieving the status of a regional power and a strong global player. However, China seems to be a hurdle for India with its own ambitions of power, and longstanding support for Pakistan.

The United State’s preferential treatment of India on the nuclear issue is frustrating for Pakistan. While Pakistan receives sanctions for its nuclear ambitions, India’s pursuit of the same is not discouraged as much. Maintaining a balance of power in the region is important before resolution of conflicts can be achieved between the two countries. The United States must first acknowledge the legitimate threat perception of Pakistan in this regard before it can help both countries with technical or advisory assistance to strengthen their nuclear security. A strong, economically stable region is to global benefit.

The US’s engagement in South Asia would be incomplete without developing a positive relationship with China. The US is increasingly wary of China’s growing ability to use economic threats – since China is not interested in fighting wars that would affect its economic climb in any way – but understands that diplomacy works best between strong nations. The US defense secretary Leon Panetta said recently, “We also both understand that there really is no other alternative but for both of us to engage and to improve our communications and to improve our (military-to-military) relationships,” and, “That's the kind of mature relationship that we ultimately have to have with China.”

In short, it is clear that the United States aims to be involved in the South Asian region in the long term to achieve its various objectives ranging from global economy to security. For a long lasting relationship and to achieve these objectives, the US would have to be transparent about its own ambitions, its future role in Afghanistan, its position on Pakistan and India’s nuclear programs and their mutual relations, and its relationship with China. Peace and security boosting global stability cannot be accomplished without taking all factors into consideration.

SouthAsia, June 2012