Decoding Ties Between the US and South Asia

Stephen Cohen, Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution, speaking in Mumbai on Oct. 6, 2010. (Asia Society India Centre)
Stephen Cohen, Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution, speaking in Mumbai on Oct. 6, 2010. (Asia Society India Centre)

MUMBAI, October 6, 2010 - The United States still lacks a coherent policy towards South Asia despite deep military and economic ties to the region. Organizational restructuring and a stronger consideration of regional rivalries are going to be necessary for the US to make progress in this part of the world.

Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution Stephen Cohen shared these thoughts at an Asia Society India Centre and American Center program titled The Balancing Game: Decoding the US-South Asia Relationship.

Cohen offered a number of insights into the complex politics of South Asia, which he called "the least integrated region in the world." For the US and India, he foresaw no insuperable obstacles. While many commentators worry about the effects of outsourcing and trade ties, Cohen insisted that trying to decipher who gained more from the economic relationship was irrelevant—both the US and India see benefits from it, and their prosperity is critically linked in this regard.

In Pakistan, however, the US still has much to work through. Pakistan's status as a rising nuclear power makes its stability vitally important to the rest of the world. Yet, Cohen lamented, predicting the future of Pakistan might conceivably be the hardest thing he would ever have to do. Evolution into a stable democracy, partition along ethnic lines, Islamic radicalization—anything is possible at this point. The "struggling" country is coming apart at many seams, Cohen said, and all countries have an interest in contributing to its stability.

Cohen described himself as puzzled by America's reliance solely on Pakistan for access to Afghanistan; he suggested it was time to consider using Iran as a supply route, as both India and Italy currently do.

Cohen closed with a reiteration of his conviction that, at a time when economic, security, and other ties have bound the US and South Asia close together, and when the stakes of mismanaging regional dynamics and military strategy are extremely high, decoding relations between the US and South Asia is, indeed, of crucial importance.