US policy toward South Asia - II
by Ramtanu Maitra on 04 Jan 2015 3 Comments

Undermining Sri Lanka

Take the case of another South Asian nation, Sri Lanka. The United States did not come out directly against Colombo during the bloody battle that the Sri Lankan Army fought in 2009 to eliminate the Tamil Tiger terrorists, who had carried out 26 years of a violent secessionist movement in northern Sri Lanka, while being endowed with huge caches of cash and arms and occupying a large tract of land.


The United States did not side with the Tamil Tiger terrorists; nonetheless, Washington later helped to organise the United Nations to set up the Experts Panel on Sri Lankan Human Rights to investigate the violation of human rights by Colombo in the latter’s war against the terrorists. On June 25, 2014, the US Mission in Geneva issued this statement: “We continue to urge the Government of Sri Lanka to fulfill its obligations to its own people and to take meaningful, concrete steps to address outstanding concerns related to democratic governance, human rights, reconciliation, justice, and accountability.”


What is important to note here is that the United States had labeled the Tamil Tigers as a foreign terrorist outfit in 2001 and did not allow the Tigers to develop a strong network within the United States. But the terrorists were very active throughout their existence in Britain, Norway and Switzerland, among other European nations, where they raised funds, ran illegitimate businesses (a prostitution network in Switzerland, for instance) and purchased arms illegally.


In picking up the cudgels against Colombo recently, Washington was acting on behalf of its trans-Atlantic partners to undermine a South Asian nation’s regime. In fact, it also managed to collar then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2012 to join 23 other nations to vote against Sri Lanka at a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. The resolution passed by the UN body was sponsored by the United States and called for “promoting reconciliation and accountability” in Sri Lanka after its army won the long-drawn-out civil war by eliminating the rebel Tamil Tigers. Fifteen countries, including China and Russia, backed Sri Lanka, which had rejected the resolution, stating that the resolution unduly interfered in the country’s domestic affairs and could hinder its reconciliation process.


What prompted the United States to adopt such a policy toward a South Asian nation that fought a well-funded terrorist outfit that was waging war to break up the nation? It is difficult to pin-point a single issue, but we’ve already mentioned support for trans-Atlantic partners. Another factor may well be Sri Lanka’s growing proximity to China, considered a rival and a potential challenger to US naval domination in the Asia-Pacific region.


US Problems in China Containment Approach


India, by far the largest nation in the region, is now getting more attention from the United States. However, Washington does not have a clear South Asia policy that could help it play a significant role in its planned cooperation with India. To begin with, India is the predominant power in South Asia, and New Delhi has now begun seriously to think about integrating the entire region. Washington’s transactional ally, Pakistan, is openly hostile toward India and routinely runs terrorist operations to undermine New Delhi.

Other than making some noise, Washington does not want to make any efforts to restrain those terrorist activities; and from time to time, as during the Clinton presidency in the 1990s, has even echoed Islamabad, saying the resolution of the Kashmir dispute is the key to ending the enmity between the two South Asian nations. Washington is aware, but apparently chooses to ignore the fact, that India does not consider Kashmir a disputed territory. India considers that the accession of Kashmir was fully legitimate and that it was Pakistan who invaded and captured a part of Kashmir.


Interestingly, Washington acknowledges that such terrorist activities do take place and that the militants enjoy the protection of the Pakistani authorities. These terrorist activities were carried out back when Pakistan was Washington’s sole ally in South Asia against the Soviet Union, and are still carried out today, long after the Soviet Union became history. In other words, although the United States claims to have engaged in a worldwide “war on terror,” its failure to make anti-terrorism an anchor in its South Asia policy has created a huge trust gap with New Delhi.


The US policy toward South Asia got hazier because of the old Cold War impulses that still dominate the policymakers’ mindset in Washington. During the Cold War, any country that was not with the Western allies of the United States was identified as “them.” That policy identified India as one of “them” because of its leadership position in NAM and its refusal to identify the Soviet Union as anything but a friend.


In the present-day context, Washington’s policy determination includes some other factors that keep the American policymakers’ views similarly opaque. For instance, any nation that is friendly today toward Iran or Russia, on both of whom the United States has imposed heavy sanctions as punitive measures in recent years, is considered a “suspect,” though not labeled as one of “them,” the way a country would have been referred to during the Cold War.


On the issue of any South Asian country’s relations with China, the US policy approach rewards fear and animosity. Any country that opposes China’s alleged hegemonic proclivities and its alleged intent to dominate the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific is considered a friend who should be put on a higher pedestal. While Japan, South Korea and the Philippines fit into that category, Washington does not consider that it is time yet to identify as enemies those countries who are accommodating Chinese trade and infrastructure-related developments.


Instead, Washington is now trying to coax some South Asian and Southeast Asian nations to join those others who consider that China’s hegemonic impulses will pose a danger to their sovereignty status in the future.


But, here, too, US policy runs into a problem. The problem is that Washington’s policymaking apparatus continues to ignore the reality that the South Asian nations, like many other nations in Africa, South America and Central Asia, have long been aspiring to grow. But the prevailing international monetary system, represented most visibly by the IMF and the World Bank under virtual control of the victors of World War II, has degenerated to a point that for decades it has been well-nigh impossible for most of the South Asian nations to secure even the minimum developmental money to build up their physical infrastructure - the foundation of all economic development. The harsh conditions that these two institutions routinely impose, in the name of fiscal responsibility, protecting the environment, arresting global warming, respecting human rights, adopting an international standard in executing projects etc., made utilization of allotted developmental finance virtually impossible.


Needless to point out that the measuring stick used on all these criteria was put in place by the Western powers, with their overwhelmingly distorted voting rights in these institutions. Led by the United States, this group has meticulously avoided reforms of these institutions that would adjust downward the voting rights of many of the now-bankrupt Western nations and raise the share of votes in these institutions of nations such as China and India.


The changes mentioned earlier in this article have now given the South Asian nations some leeway to move away in the future from the old international monetary system and avail the yet-to-be-developed monetary system represented in the BRICS and AIIB proposals. In addition, China, flush with cash reserves and deeply dependent on land-based and maritime trade routes with the rest of the world, is busy trying to build high-speed railroads to interlink China with Central Asia and beyond, as well with Africa, the Americas and the Middle East through the Indian Ocean, Pacific and the Arabian Sea. Many of these transport corridors will pass through South Asian nations to reach the sea, benefitting those countries’ transport infrastructure.


Beyond developing transport corridors and offering funds for other infrastructure development in the South Asian countries, China is also keen to become a member of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), a group that was formed in 1985 and now consists of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.


China became an observer in 2005, supported by most member states. Now, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal are supporting China’s full membership in SAARC, a development that New Delhi does not condone since China is, indeed, not a South Asian nation.


However, China’s growing involvement in the South Asian region, particularly in Sri Lanka, Maldives and Nepal, through trade and investment has not gone unnoticed in Washington. China’s interest in developing a transport-cum-economic corridor through Pakistan, linking up the Karakoram Highway with the Arabian Sea, has not gone down well among US policymakers. Although Washington is not addressing this involvement of China with Pakistan and smaller South Asian nations as a plan designed to undermine India’s sphere of influence, it has expressed its own concerns about China’s alleged intent to dominate the sea routes in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.


Time to Spell Out a South Asia Policy


On the other hand, India is not sitting idle any longer and has begun to initiate moves to have its presence felt in the South Asian countries, barring Pakistan. Under the new administration led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has made proposals to enhance connectivity with the nations east of India, in particular. Modi’s newly coined “Act East,” a variation of the late Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao’s “Look East” policy, also includes helping the South Asian countries, such as Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, to link them through transport corridors and to help develop their energy sectors, either by linking up their energy generation sources with India’s power-grid system, or developing those independently.


What needs to be recognized at the outset is that India’s infrastructure is extremely weak. Under the current five-year plan, India requires $1 trillion in investment by 2017, and Prime Minister Modi is busy trying to lure foreign investors to play a significant role to help finance a part this large amount. India is also a power-starved nation. It is likely that the efforts now underway, when materialized, may alleviate most of the transport and power requirements in the smallest of South Asian nations such as Bhutan and Nepal, but it would not make much of a dent in Bangladesh’s requirements. Moreover, India does not have a direct land link with Afghanistan, where India is keen to invest, because of Pakistan’s belligerence and its refusal to allow India a direct access to that country. As a result, most South Asian nations will continue to depend heavily on investments from major economic powers such as China, Japan, the US and the EU.


Considering the state of affairs in South Asia, what role does the United States want to play? Its South Asia policy does not indicate as of now that it wants to be any part of such developmental processes. What the US policy toward South Asia presently centers around is how to contain China or how to maintain a strong presence in the neighborhood, which could prevent China from exercising its “hegemonic” tendencies.


The other issue is Afghanistan, which is now a part of the SAARC. With the withdrawal of the bulk of the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, the United States would like Afghanistan to remain close to Washington. It is evident that the United States’ South Asia policy will also be attentive to the SAARC nations’ actions vis-a-vis Afghanistan. If any South Asian nation opposes the US policy toward Afghanistan, it is likely Washington will react adversely.


At the same time, Washington will be trying to organize the South Asian nations to distance themselves as much as possible from both China and Russia. That policy could lead to some security arrangements; but the South Asian nations must not expect any monetary benefit coming out of such association in the short or mid-term. For instance, India and the United States, along with Japan, are carrying out annual naval exercises, the Malabar naval exercise. This exercise is conducted basically to coordinate three navies; but it is also an effort to develop a trilateral cooperation. Left unsaid is that the United States considers this a necessary countermeasure against the growing naval power of China.


It is likely that the United States will make efforts in the coming years to expand this exercise to incorporate some Southeast Asian nations, as well. Last July, at a Senate Committee hearing, answering Sen. McCain’s query, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Nisha Desai Biswal said: “We will be doing joint exercises with Japan and India in the MALABAR exercises later this fall. And we see opportunities for increasing the collaboration across Southeast Asia. We are engaging more frequently in consultations and dialogue with the Indians on ASEAN, and look forward to increased and frequent consultations across the East Asia sphere.”


At the same hearing, Lisa Curtis of The Heritage Foundation said: “Indo-Japanese ties, in particular, are expected to get a major boost under Modi’s administration since Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are both increasingly concerned about China and appear prepared to take new policy directions to deal with the challenges posed by Beijing’s rapid military and economic ascendance.”


While these statements cannot be construed as a policy statement of the Obama administration, precious little is coming out of Washington that could be identified as well-formulated future US policy toward South Asia. Washington must note that neither India nor China would like the United States to have a dominant position in either the Indian Ocean or in the Asia-Pacific. In fact, both would consider it better for the United States to be playing a lesser, but cooperative, role. Notwithstanding the Malabar naval exercises, Washington must note that over the decades India has steadfastly opposed any US military base in either Sri Lanka, Maldives or in Bangladesh. India’s position on that has not changed and is not likely to change in any foreseeable future.


The key to the success of US South Asia policy, if it is ever articulated in clear words and actions, will be for the United States to participate in South Asian infrastructure development along with India and other BRICS nations, and to develop non-transactional bilateral relationships with these countries. Such a policy would identify development as a key factor in securing a sovereign nation-state.


In the case of India, a big power that will get bigger in the coming years, United States’ policy should be to support India’s growing stature in the international arena and make diplomatic efforts to ensure the linkages and connectivity efforts in the region that India, China and others are engaged in come to fruition. In addition to very many individual economic and military contracts and deals that would be trumpeted by the media as examples of the strengthening of India-US relations, the Obama administration must note that the Modi administration has already put its emphasis on economic diplomacy as its cornerstone.


Prime Minister Modi will play ball with every country - China, Russia, United States, Japan and even Pakistan - if that country chooses to contribute firmly to India’s huge developmental requirements. If any country does not contribute, or does not want to contribute, India’s relations, under Prime Minister Modi, with that country may fall by the wayside. That country will not become an enemy nation, but will be simply considered by Modi’s India as less relevant.


During Prime Minister Modi’s September 2014 visit to Washington, a vision statement for the US-India Strategic Partnership - “Chalein Saath Saath (Forward Together We Go)” - was issued. That statement said, in part: “Our strategic partnership is a joint endeavor for prosperity and peace. Through intense consultations, joint exercises, and shared technology, our security cooperation will make the region and the world safe and secure. Together, we will combat terrorist threats and keep our homelands and citizens safe from attacks, while we respond expeditiously to humanitarian disasters and crises. We will prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and remain committed to reducing the salience of nuclear weapons, while promoting universal, verifiable, and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament.”


It further said: “We will support an open and inclusive rules-based global order, in which India assumes greater multilateral responsibility, including in a reformed United Nations Security Council. At the United Nations and beyond, our close coordination will lead to a more secure and just world.”


If in the coming days, the Obama administration, and the administration that will follow in 2016, could abide by these stated commitments, the United States will finally have a South Asia policy which is mutually beneficial for both.


Until such time, the muddle will continue.



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