South Asia's Hinge Moment

March 13, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia

South Asia's Hinge Moment

Don't look now, but South Asia is getting its act together.

Nightmares of despair and disaster are an occupational hazard for those who follow developments in South Asia. But for once, the news from the region is not uniformly grim. Washington should take note.

National elections throughout the region have produced victors who, compared to their predecessors, appear to be agents of change. Elections last year in India and Afghanistan fit this pattern. But the starkest example is also the most recent: Sri Lankan voters, in an outcome anticipated by almost no one, summarily dispatched an autocratic ruler who had appeared entrenched for the long run this January.   

The encouraging signs go beyond elections. By some measures, India has surpassed China to boast the fastest growing economy in the world. The new prime minister, Narendra Modi, has taken a meat cleaver to bureaucracy and venality. In Pakistan, the army’s offensive against extremists in North Waziristan has proved far more sustained than most observers had expected.  The December 16 massacre of 150 people in Peshawar, most of them young schoolchildren, seems to have reinforced Pakistan’s commitment to combating terrorist violence.

Internationally, the region is experiencing a remarkable degree of change. The Modi government has demonstrated vitality and a capacity for surprise—Modi’s invitation to Pakistan’s prime minister to attend his inauguration, for instance. India-Pakistan relations remain glacial, but India’s top diplomat visited Pakistan last week. An early sign of thawing relations between the two states would be progress on long-stalled plans for cross-border trade liberalization.

Pakistan and Afghanistan, bitter adversaries from the moment of Pakistan’s creation in 1947, are now consulting and even coordinating military operations along their joint border in a manner that could not have been anticipated a year ago. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made a successful visit to Islamabad last autumn, and Pakistan seems to be prodding the Taliban to enter into serious talks with Kabul.

China has suddenly taken an interest in brokering a political settlement between Kabul and the Taliban. Ghani’s first official visit abroad was to Beijing. Recent China-Afghanistan-U.S. and China-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral consultations on Afghanistan’s future represented an unprecedented but welcome level of Chinese involvement in the region. Diplomatic sources indicate that Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Islamabad in the coming months; presumably an Afghan settlement will be at the top of his agenda.   

Russia, which for decades has been closely linked to India, is now displaying new interest in Pakistan; the Russian defense minister recently became the first Russian defense minister ever to visit Islamabad. Last month Russia, China, and India held their own trilateral meeting.

Of course, disappointments and setbacks remain plentiful. President Ghani has yet to create a full Cabinet. Many analysts found the annual budget introduced by Modi last month overly cautious.  Pakistan’s political system seems as dysfunctional as ever, while politics in underachieving Bangladesh are—to use a precise term—god-awful.  

Nor will all this diplomatic churning produce productive results. Relations between India and Pakistan, for instance, remain hostage to terror attacks by groups eager to sabotage warming ties.  China and India are no closer to settling their disputed border. A peace settlement in Afghanistan remains a distant hope.

Nonetheless, change is in the air. Might this be a hinge moment for South Asia, a moment when old patterns are broken and new ones begin to jell? The smart money would bet otherwise. But Washington would do well to take cognizance of these shifting winds. Indeed, by visiting India in January for a second time, President Obama has already shown that he believes his prediction that the U.S.-India relationship will become one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century. 

The Obama administration is also reconsidering its timetable for the drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan. In a potentially important shift, the United States and China, who bump heads on so many issues around the globe, find their fundamental interests in South Asia unaccustomedly aligned. Consultation, coordination, and cooperation on Afghanistan and Pakistan might serve to smooth some of the rough edges off what under the best of circumstances will be a prickly, even dangerous, rivalry. 

But there is much more the Obama administration can do to improve its policy toward South Asia.

First, since tension with India distracts the Pakistani military from anti-extremist operations along the Afghan border, President Obama should use his good personal chemistry with Modi to encourage concrete steps to reduce tension between India and Pakistan. 

Second, successive U.S. administrations have yet to figure out an effective foreign assistance strategy for Afghanistan or Pakistan despite having provided them billions of aid dollars, much of it wasted, over the years.

Third, the administration has been distressingly quiet on political thuggery in Bangladesh.

Fourth, responsibilities for South Asia in both the State Department and the Pentagon remain split among competing offices and bureaus, while the CIA and other intelligence agencies have sometimes seemed to conduct their own foreign policies in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Better U.S. government coordination of policy, probably at the level of the National Security Council, is essential.

Most importantly, the president must not use his desire to wind down the war in Afghanistan as a rationalization for a broader disengagement from the region. His recent National Security Strategy contained only two passing references to Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country that in the recent past has loomed large in American thinking on the region. A more balanced approach to the world must not ignore the nearly one-quarter of the world’s population who reside in South Asia.

Change is clearly afoot in South Asia. Policy makers who bet on the unlikely are seldom remembered for their successes, but neither are those who assume that the past invariably foretells the future. By finding the proper balance between the dashed hopes of South Asia’s past and the unexpected promise of its present, the Obama administration can help ensure that South Asia enjoys a brighter future.  

Robert M. Hathaway is a Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and, most recently, co-editor of New Security Challenges in Asia.

Image: Flickr/narendramodiofficial/CC by-sa 2.0