US Must Reorient Itself On South Asia

If Trump was still the President,I would have advised him of the imperative need of Washington to seize the current opportunity, amid the Ukraine crisis, to elevate US’s salience, limit the traditional economic and military weight of China and Russia in the Subcontinent. If the accidental firing of an Indian missile into Pakistan earlier this month reminded us of the Subcontinent’s old paradigm, a series of other developments highlight new structural trends within South Asia.

On the external front, Russia’s Ukraine war and the Sino-Russian alliance are setting the stage for a reordering of South Asia’s great power relations.

If it looks beyond the region’s immediate response to the war in Ukraine, Washington can seize the current opportunity to elevate the US’s salience for the Subcontinent in partnership with India. The Indo-Pacific strategy offers new pathways for the US to limit the traditional economic and military weight of China and Russia in the Subcontinent.

In the wake of the missile accident, all the familiar themes of the traditional US debate on South Asia — crisis management, strategic stability, nuclear arms control, Kashmir solutions — welled up to the surface. As always, Islamabad moved to seek international intervention, including from the UN Secretary-General. But there were few takers for this old South Asian formula, except in Beijing.

The Western capitals have long moved away from the old policy tropes for the Subcontinent. Underlining the peremptory dismissal of Islamabad’s concerns is a deeper trend — the relative decline of Pakistan’s international standing. To be sure, Pakistan still has nuclear weapons and can always be a spoiler like Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But unlike Moscow, where President Putin has spent the last couple of decades setting the Russian house in order, Pakistan has squandered its energies in pursuing unrealisable geopolitical goals in Kashmir and Afghanistan and neglecting the modernisation of its economy and the stabilisation of its polity. If Putin had a decent material basis on which to make a terrible miscalculation in Ukraine, Pakistan has none.

Rawalpindi’s “selection” of Imran Khan to reboot Pakistan a few years ago has gone terribly wrong. By going “rogue” and refusing to work with the military establishment, Imran Khan has done more damage to Pakistan than Delhi could ever imagine. Khan has pushed Pakistan into a deep constitutional crisis, ground its economy into dust, and undermined relations with long-standing benefactors in the US, Europe and the Gulf.

Since his election, US President Joe Biden has refused to call Imran Khan, who runs a “major non-NATO ally”; high-level visitors from Washington now skip Pakistan during South Asia visits. Chinese and Russian official visitors are among the few to combine trips to Delhi and Islamabad.

For decades, Pakistan dominated American mindspace in the Subcontinent. Islamabad’s decline after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is likely to accelerate amidst Pakistan’s deepening domestic political chaos. With an economy that is smaller than that of Bangladesh and limited prospects for rapid growth in the coming years, Pakistan will find it hard to match its traditional claim for “strategic parity” with India.

The focus on the economic brings us to the second regional trend — the declining charm of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in South Asia. Just a couple of years ago, China’s commercial march into South Asia seemed unstoppable. Not any longer. Today, the region can’t ignore an important fact staring at its face. Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which embraced the BRI with great gusto, are South Asia’s two worst-performing economies. Questions are being asked on the costs of BRI projects in Islamabad and Colombo. The deepening economic crises are compelling the elites of Pakistan and Sri Lanka to focus on non-Chinese financial sources to stabilise their economies.

Pakistan turned to the IMF with great reluctance under Imran Khan but abandoned the adjustment programme to play populist politics against the “deep state” that is trying to unseat him. Whoever succeeds Imran is likely to go back to the West to put the Pakistan economy back on track. Sri Lanka, which ostentatiously refused to accept $480 million developmental assistance from the US in 2020, is now desperately looking for hard currency support for its sinking economic fortunes. Earlier this month, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ended Colombo’s reluctance to engage the IMF.

In a twisted logic of its own, the South Asian political class convinced itself that economic engagement with the US would “undermine sovereignty” while uncritically embracing costly commercial cooperation with China. In Nepal, the dominant communists had made political opposition to US infrastructure assistance of $500 million as a life and death issue for a decade.

At the end of last month, Nepal’s Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and his Nepal Congress have finally broken through this surreal debate by getting the parliament to ratify the US loan that will facilitate Nepal’s infrastructure development and its economic integration with the Subcontinent. That Deuba resisted significant pressures from China to reject US economic assistance underlines the possibilities for the US, India, Japan, Australia and the European Union to blunt Beijing’s economic offensives through greater coordination on regional infrastructural investment.

Third, is the growing possibilities for US security cooperation with the Subcontinent. During the Cold War, the US military engagement was limited to Pakistan. In the 21st century, there has been a steady expansion of US defence cooperation with India. The current focus on the Indo-Pacific is getting Washington to modernise the defence partnerships with the smaller countries of the region.

The Trump Administration discarded the traditional obsession with Pakistan and began to recognise the strategic significance of the smaller South Asian states for its Indo-Pacific strategy. It signed a defence cooperation agreement with the Maldives in September 2020. It also began a diplomatic outreach to Bangladesh — which was long-neglected in Washington. The Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh publicly warned Dhaka against welcoming the US Indo-Pacific framework.

The Biden Administration seemed to drop the ball by focusing initially on human rights issues in Bangladesh, but it appears to be making some amends this week by reviving political engagement with Dhaka. The visit of US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland to Bangladesh over the weekend saw progress towards signing the so-called GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement) that codifies the commitment to protect classified military information.

The US would also like Dhaka to sign other foundational agreements that would facilitate deeper bilateral defence cooperation. During her visit to Colombo later this week, Nuland and her team might want to pick up the threads on security cooperation with Sri Lanka that were initiated when the Rajapaksas were out of power.

The prolonged military involvement with Afghanistan and the emphasis on “Pakistan first” led to extended US neglect of the smaller countries in the Subcontinent. To make matters worse, Washington’s temptation to throw the smaller states to “single-issue wolves” in the Beltway that demand a constant feed on human rights and other issues has seen the US lose ground to China and Russia on defence diplomacy in the region.

Reversing that must necessarily involve deeper security cooperation with the region and developing alternatives to military dependence on Beijing and Moscow. This is best done in partnership with Delhi. Two decades ago, George W Bush sought to strengthen India’s global position — through the historic civil nuclear initiative and more expansive defence ties. Bush also recognised that the US would be better off letting India take the lead on regional issues in the Subcontinent and the Indian Ocean. But resistance in Washington and Delhi made it hard to translate that into reality. The changed regional circumstances and the new geopolitical imperatives are now nudging India and the US in that direction.

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