What's Next for US Policy Toward South Asia?

If the problem with U.S. policy toward South Asia during the Cold War was too little sustained attention by Washington, the challenge now may be too much. The super-priorities of counterterrorism and the war in Afghanistan represent important national security goals for the United States. But the sheer diversity of U.S. policy interests across South Asia makes coherent, long-range strategy more difficult.

A new Asia Society report, The United States and South Asia after Afghanistan, suggests there is an opportunity to recalibrate U.S. policy toward South Asia — drawn from more than 90 interviews with experts and former practitioners throughout the interagency.

Long-term perspective is difficult when short-term priorities crowd one’s inbox. The daily challenges of South Asia policy make long-range planning difficult. Administrations are measured on what they do, not how they think, but the risk is that strategy gets parked to one side.

The good news is the Obama administration has worked hard to develop a long-range economic strategy for South Asia — the “New Silk Road,” a vision of economic integration and improved regional relations. But connecting the countries of South Asia with each other and their neighbors may not be enough.

China is rising as an actor in South Asian. Its trade with the countries of South Asia is growing fast, and other Asian states such as Japan are taking note. The United States has responded — no longer allowing the extraordinary situation of the 1990s to persist, where contact between U.S. assistant secretaries of state working on South and East Asian policy was practically non-existent.

Now, a range of exchanges, talks, and visits reflect greater policy connectivity within the State Department and between those leading on South and Central, South East, and East Asian policy. Bob Blake, the assistant secretary for South and Central Asia, visits Beijing, for instance, while Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, goes to Delhi.

As the Obama administration continues to rebalance its policy priorities toward Asia, there is a tremendous opportunity to build upon the policy accomplishments of recent years. A range of engaged, thoughtful officials from across the interagency have an opportunity to take stock, peer forward, and generate an integrated strategic approach to South Asia as a whole.

India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China are key state actors, but so are the other states of South Asia, which are all too often reduced to the briefest of mentions. Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan are close neighbors of China and have the potential to contribute to broader regional stability and prosperity, both through enhanced trade and their energy potential. As maritime trade grows ever more important for both China and South Asia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives gain rising relevance for policy makers.

These are all good reasons for Washington to renew its focus and attention on South Asia on the eve of the second Obama administration. To that end, the report, The United States and South Asia after Afghanistan, draws on the collective wisdom of past policy makers toward the region to make a series of specific recommendations — framed by a set of important principles to help guide the incoming diplomatic team. These are:

  • Avoid hyphens. Just as “Indo-Pak” limited the imagination of Washington policy makers and caused offense to New Delhi, “Af-Pak” upset both Islamabad and Kabul.  Replacing one set of stale hyphens with yet another— “India-China” — misses the strategic opportunity that is opening up for a well-calibrated South Asia and Asia-wide approach to policy.
  • Think regionally. This should build on the successful work on the New Silk Road advanced under Ambassador Marc Grossman’s leadership. Regional policy can help further counterterrorism and stability goals by bringing the collective of South Asia’s states firmly back into the functional policy picture.
  • Connect policy agendas. There is no easy fix to the perennial problem of making the interagency process in Washington work toward a cohesive, integrated policy. With so much attention toward South Asia and Asia more broadly, however, making sure that policies work in concert rather than against each other is essential. This will require hard trade-offs in some cases.
  • Integrate South Asia into an Asia strategy. The rebalancing toward Asia under the Obama administration and Secretary Hillary Clinton is a bold and important new emphasis. Additional diplomatic resources are flowing to Asia to make this real. But are there further steps that could be taken in the Washington machine to better integrate Asia strategy? Is there scope to strengthen strategic policy capacity within the key regional bureaus, as Kurt Campbell has done on East Asia? And might the incoming secretary of state consider appointing a single coordinator for Asia policy to help bridge the different regional policy bureaus, and take the rebalancing further along?

The complete report is available for download here. Launch events will be taking place on Dec. 11 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, on Dec. 12 at Asia Society's headquarters in New York, and on Dec. 20 at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, India.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Alexander Evans
Alexander Evans is Asia Society's 2012-13 Bernard Schwartz Fellow and is also a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, where he teaches international relations.