US policy toward South Asia - I
by Ramtanu Maitra on 03 Jan 2015 0 Comment

During the past five decades, like some other poorer regions of this world, the nations of South Asia have been mere spectators watching global politics unwinding and undergoing phase changes. Since the end of World War II, global political power has been monopolized by the premier Western nations, most of whom were former colonial powers much-derided by the majority population in South Asia. The first distortion these powers imposed (while the rest of the world watched) came with the launching of a Cold War.


During the Cold War days (1950-1990), the erstwhile Soviet Union and its ideological allies were targeted by the United States and its trans-Atlantic allies, who not only rejected outright the Communist system that the Soviet Union was peddling, but also organized a formidable economic and military bloc with the aim of isolating and eventually dismantling the Soviet system in, and in effect, Russia. As a result, two contesting blocs were formed.


The Old Order


The South Asian nations had been ravaged by the Western colonial powers for centuries and were mere political and economic weaklings, struggling to stay afloat. Most of these nations had little individual internal strength to resist political and economic pressures exerted by the Western powers to help facilitate their anti-Soviet campaign. An added complication was that since many of these Western nations were their former colonial rulers, the entire social, political and military establishments of these South Asian nations were directly linked to the members of the anti-Soviet bloc.


Despite the existence of those links, some countries, such as India and Sri Lanka, did attempt to maintain their distance from the contesting blocs by becoming active promoters of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). NAM was hated intensely by the powers-that-were in the United States. The unwillingness of some South Asian nations to join the anti-Soviet hunt laid the foundation of distrust in Washington on which US-South Asia relations rested for decades. The Cold War is long gone, but that distrust continues to influence almost every Western policymaker even today.


During the post-Soviet era, which started in the 1990s, the United States became the primus inter pares among nations and was most generous in exhibiting worldwide its dominant economic and military power to maintain order in this fractious and turbulent world. While the division between the two contesting global political blocs vanished when the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991, the South Asian nations, still as weak economically, politically and militarily as before, remained distant onlookers who were seldom heard in Washington, or in London, or anywhere else in the West.


Moreover, scrounging for foreign exchange reserves to import necessities, such as oil and gas and other essentials to marginally survive, some South Asian nations became fully dependent on Western markets to sell their goods and earn their blood money in the form of US dollars. In effect, the process gave the United States, and its trans-Atlantic consorts, decisive control in any particular South Asian nation over production decisions, product pricing and how many and which of those products each country could sell. Thus the Western powers secured overwhelming hands-on control over the South Asian economies and over those local individuals who were managing those weak economies.


Among the South Asian nations, Pakistan was perhaps the only full-fledged ally that the United States had in the South Asian region throughout that sordid Cold War period. Of necessity, Pakistan’s military, which played an active role in helping the West contain the Soviet Union, had developed a transactional relationship with the Western bloc. Other South Asian nations - such as India, Bangladesh (which came into existence in 1972, breaking away from Pakistan), Nepal and Sri Lanka - watched the collapse of the Soviet Union, and their leaders waited to see what the long-hoped-for changes would bring. They were expecting that the United States, now free of the “communist threats,” would institute a South Asia policy that would be mutually beneficial. But such a policy never materialized. Washington had no intention to re-work its decades-old distorted policies toward the region. The only perceived change was that none of these South Asian nations were tagged as an “enemy” or a “potential enemy” nation any longer. That was it.


Emergence of a New Order


Now, even that post-Cold War interim phase has begun to wither away. The world has moved into another phase in which, unbeknownst to US policymakers, the United States is no longer the primus inter pares. In South Asia’s neighborhood, China has developed into a full-fledged economic powerhouse and a not-to-be-taken-lightly military power. Russia - after years of chaos and transition that saw the break-up of its wings and destruction of its own distorted economy by foreign and domestic carpetbaggers and outright criminals - is once again asserting itself on the world scene by trying to put itself back as a rightful world power. Economically weak, Russia is in the process of forming strong working economic relations with its former Cold War adversary, China, while trying to find a way to improve its friendly but under-utilized economic relations with India.


Though Indo-Russian economic relations have remained virtually stagnant, Moscow recognizes, as it did during the hot days of the Cold War, that India will not act on behalf of any other nation to undermine Russia, the way Pakistan, or even China, did on behalf of the Western powers in the past. Russia is also beginning to participate in South Asian developments, albeit haltingly.


The brightest promise for the South Asian nations in the phase now unfolding is China’s rapid growth and India’s slower but significant growth over the last two decades, turning it into a major economic power in the world. The geographical contiguity of these two most-populous nations of the world has helped to bring them closer politically and economically than they ever were during the Cold War days, or during the interim period from the time the Soviet Union vanished into the pages of history and China emerged as a mighty economic power. That period, roughly speaking, lasted two decades from 1990 to 2010.


India-China trade relations, though wrought with difficulties, have now begun to grow in a limited way, and these two countries have begun to speak in unison in some international forums on various global issues. There are now indications that both New Delhi and Beijing are feeling internal pressure to get closer to resolving the difficult border-demarcation dispute. The present border that separates the two countries is contested by both parties and brought them to the verge of an all-out border war in the early 1960s. Recently both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have come to the conclusion that their vision to transform their respective countries into major powers requires benefitting from each other’s strengths and that such benefits can accrue only when the six-decades-old border dispute is resolved.


Relevant to attaining the objective of mutual cooperation, both countries have since taken a positive step forward. Russia, India and China, along with Brazil and South Africa, a late-comer, have formed an economic and cultural cooperation power bloc called BRICS - the acronym is made up of the first letter of these five countries. Although the first BRIC Summit took place in 2009 (South Africa joined the group in 2010), the BRICS came to life during the past year.


At the sixth summit in July 2014 at Fortaleza, Brazil, the group made some historic decisions. Identifying the utter bankruptcy of the present global monetary system and the mule-like obstinacy of the Western nations, who continue to wield monopoly control over all international institutions as they have since the post-World War II period, BRICS challenged the  G5 to recognize the economic power of the BRICS nations and pay heed to the decades-old necessities of developing nations. In its 72-point Fortaleza Declaration, the BRICS nations announced the formation of a New Development Bank (NDB), initially capitalized at $50 billion, to fund infrastructure projects in BRICS and other countries, as well as a Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA) with $100 billion to help nations deal with capital flight and other forms of financial warfare.


Subsequently, in October, China and India, along with 19 other Asian nations (including three other South Asian nations: Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal), signed a memorandum of understanding initiated by China to set up a $100-billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The bank will formally set up shop in 2015 and will be capitalized with $50 billion. Most of the money will be contributed by cash-rich China.


The focused objective in setting up the AIIB was elaborated at a press conference last November by the Chinese president at the conclusion of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing. President Xi said on that occasion: “How to develop infrastructure is the main bottleneck obstructing economic development. China has initiated the AIIB to offer support and facility to regional infrastructure development. These proposals and initiatives are open and inclusive in Asia; they are not exclusive. We welcome the active participation of the United States and other relevant countries, so that together we can promote and share prosperity and peace in the Asia Pacific. We recognize the positive actions both have taken in helping African countries.”


A similar theme was expressed earlier at the Fortaleza Summit, as well. Indian Prime Minister Modi emphasized then to the plenary session of the Summit “the uniqueness of BRICS as an international institution.” Modi said that “the very idea of BRICS is thus forward-looking,” and averred that it brings together “a group of nations on the parameter of ‘future potential,’ rather than existing prosperity or shared identities.” Modi concluded his presentation stating: “We have an opportunity to define the future—of not just our countries, but the world at large. ... I take this as a great responsibility.”


South Asia’s Infrastructural Needs


What Prime Minister Modi’s statement at Fortaleza and President Xi’s statement in Beijing suggest is that the old economic and political order is not only no longer acceptable to the newly emerged powers, such as India in South Asia, but the BRICS nations as a whole are keen to chart a different course, one which will ensure economic and skill development, building of physical infrastructure and recognition and fulfillment of the future potential exhibited by hundreds of millions of youth in the developing nations, many of whom reside in South Asia. The BRICS nations conveyed that the interlinking of the world through high-tech transportation systems to lay the foundation of a worldwide development that benefits all is the future; and the old geopolitics that the Western nations have orchestrated for decades to maintain overall control under the pretext of stabilizing the world only resulted in creating unacceptable levels of disparity worldwide and a world replete with conflicts and wars.


These BRICS-initiated developments point in only one direction, and that is: the world is not only changing, but it has changed - despite the fact that the so-called keepers of the world have refused to acknowledge those transformations. Significantly, the Western world has made no effort yet to move away from its old distorted order and make the necessary arrangements to embrace the new world order that has begun to emerge. In fact, no one at the highest level in the Western countries has even shown the courage to publicly acknowledge this reality.


Because of such an ostrich-like approach, US policy toward South Asia remains stuck in the old rut. The rise of China and India as economic and military powers of substance, and the Western countries’ unending animosity toward Russia, have seemingly further narrowed Washington’s options in defining what should be its policies toward South Asia. Two geopolitical issues define its vision of the entire South Asian region: How to maintain its presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia following the withdrawal of a majority of Western troops from Afghanistan; and how to form a coalition of allies in Asia to ensure the containment of China. Washington continues to look at the region, and beyond, through that narrow prism.


The Old US Geopolitics


Those two issues now dominate US policymaking in a wide region from Afghanistan in the west to the Korean peninsula in the east. South Asia, located in that long stretch of land mass, is looked at by Washington as a potential willing contributor to those policies or an obstacle to those policies. In the past US policy has never addressed the South Asia region as a whole.


Washington has maintained a transactional policy with Pakistan and a geopolitical relationship with India, but has no substantive primary relationships with the smaller countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The US approach to these countries is generally defined by circumstantial convenience.


For instance, following the January 2014 Bangladesh parliamentary elections, Washington refused to acknowledge Sheikh Hasina’s legitimacy because the pro-Islamist Khaled Zia-led Bangladeshi Nationalist Party boycotted those elections. An election in which one party boycotts, Washington argued, is contrary to democratic norms that the United States says Bangladesh must follow. Ignoring Sheikh Hasina’s insistence that a boycott by the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party did not undermine her legitimacy, Washington rallied international pressure for a swift re-run that would include all the major parties.


This bullying has been ignored by the Bangladesh government, which is seeking to improve Bangladesh’s economic conditions and take on the Jihadi terrorists. But it is exemplary of Washington’s selective use of “democracy” and “human rights”  or environmental and ecological concerns - as weapons in international affairs.


The US approach to Pakistan, about 1000 miles west of Bangladesh, is totally different. Washington has maintained a relationship with Islamabad for decades - democracy, or no democracy. During certain periods, such as between 1975 and 1989, Washington was celebrating the decidedly undemocratic rule of General Zia ul-Haq as Pakistan’s president. The US-Pakistan tie is a transactional relationship, based on the premise that a greater power dictates to a lesser, or a negligible, power to do what it wants to have done in exchange for financial remuneration.


Washington has been fully aware all along that it is the Pakistan military that calls the shots, and not the government elected by the people, particularly on three key issues: its dispute with India over Kashmir, Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy, and in developing, broadening and maintaining A-to-Z control over the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal. While American individuals, officials and pundits have expressed their concerns from time to time over the last two issues, in particular, Washington did not succeed in budging Islamabad on them. Yet the transactional relationship, which includes cash remuneration and other benefits, continues.


Washington has periodically tried holding back financial aid to pressurize Pakistan when it did not carry out its assigned task in the transactional relationship. Washington knows well that the Pakistan military gets first dibs on every bit of money that is given to Islamabad, and delaying, or threatening to call off delivery of military hardware to Islamabad would activate the Pakistan military to help conclude the transaction. Over the years, whenever Washington found that Pakistan was not playing ball the way the United States wanted it to play, it has directed the IMF to hold back tranches of loans or to impose harsher conditions.


A Failed Afghanistan-Pakistan Policy


Under internal financial and domestic political pressures, the United States and NATO have pulled back the bulk of their troops from Afghanistan. After a stay of 13 years, during which they have failed either to establish a stable political system there or to make it terrorist-free, that withdrawal has become a major factor in US policymaking toward South Asia. The most visible aspect of this is its shifting policy toward Pakistan.


Now the transaction is as follows: Pakistan must not play any negative role in the upcoming period. Pakistan must not use the militants and terrorists that they control and harbor to undermine the Kabul regime under President Ashraf Ghani, who Washington made sure was elected. If Pakistan plays ball with Washington this time around and does not get actively involved in undermining the Kabul regime, as it did throughout the 13 years of foreign troops’ stay in Afghanistan, the Obama administration, and the administration that would follow in Washington, will make sure that Pakistan receives its quota of annual developmental aid and that the Pakistan military continues to receive American arms and training.


That is the extent of the deal. Washington will not plan new measures that could help alleviate Pakistan’s acute energy shortages and other chronic and debilitating economic and social problems. Washington will remain one-dimensional in its Pakistan policy, as always.


Despite the transactional nature of the US policy, Pakistan is satisfied in that Washington has ignored Islamabad’s close relations with the US rival, China, and has overlooked Islamabad’s “necessity” to maintain active hostilities toward India, using its home-bred militants to carry out occasional terrorist attacks inside the Indian territory of Jammu and Kashmir. The likely explanation for this nuance in Washington’s Pakistan policy is that for decades throughout the Cold War period, Pakistan was the only real ally the United States had in South Asia, while India was close to an enemy. Moreover, Pakistan’s geostrategic location, its proximity to Central Asia and its close relations with the Sunni Gulf nations are of keen interest to some US geopoliticians.


Indeed, from the time US and NATO troops went into Afghanistan in 2002, Washington’s Pakistan policy turned uniquely narrow. Simply put, the policy turned into a request to Pakistan to help the US-NATO mission in Afghanistan to be a success by curbing the terrorists that Pakistan trains, arms, harbors and controls from operating inside Afghanistan. That request made clear that if Pakistan extended such help to Washington, it would be adequately remunerated and its regional and domestic policies will not be the subject of scrutiny in Washington.


History tells us, Pakistan did help Washington, but did so selectively, making sure that it did not need to abandon all its militant assets. Islamabad’s duplicity, visible to one-and-all, caused heartburn among some in the United States, particularly in the US intelligence community. However, weighing up its options vis-a-vis Pakistan and its need to show the world that the Afghanistan invasion was a “success,” Washington chose to fret and fume against Islamabad’s duplicity from time to time, but made no effort to change its policy toward Pakistan.


Now that the United States has withdrawn most of its troops from Afghanistan as per schedule, once again Washington has begun to court the Pakistan military that has run circles around them for years. RFE/RL reported on Dec. 2 on a “productive meeting,” according to US Secretary of State John Kerry, between Pakistan’s visiting Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif and Kerry. Sharif also met US National Security Adviser Susan Rice, US Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno and other US military leaders, including senior officials at US Central Command. On the downside, just before Sharif’s arrival in Washington, the Pentagon released a report alleging that Pakistan is using militants - such as the Afghan Taliban and Islamist fighters from the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network - as proxies to undermine India’s presence in Afghanistan.


(To be concluded…)

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