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#478, 2 March 2001
Future of US Policy in South Asia: Controlling Pakistan
Parama Sinha Palit
Research Scholar, JNU.

Prior to his departure for South Asia in March 2000, President Clinton summed up his views on the region by calling it ‘the most dangerous place’. South Asian observers could have hardly agreed more. After Pokhran and Chagai in 1998, and Kargil in 1999, the region became exceptionally volatile. This is, of course, not to suggest that South Asia was a haven of peace before. While India demonstrated its nuclear capabilities way back in 1974, Pakistan ’s progress in assembling nuclear weapons became evident by the late 80s. Despite clear evidence regarding the nuclear threats of the region, the US chose to ignore them in the 70s and 80s. At that time, the concern for neutralising the Soviets was the overriding objective. Accordingly, it supported Pakistan ’s military ambitions. Pakistan utilised the magnanimity for building up its conventional weapons arsenal as well as nuclear strength. 



The end of the Cold War and disintegration of the Soviet Union changed the US perspective of South Asia . There were two reasons responsible for the transition. Pakistan was no longer useful to the US for deciding the balance of power in the region. Withdrawal of Soviet presence from Afghanistan marginalised Pakistan ’s significance as a political ally. Moreover, India gradually emerged as an attractive destination for US commercial investment due to economic reforms, a growing market and as a provider of information age services. A stable, secure India promised prospects of a happy hunting ground for US business interests. 



In the coming days, realisation of Washington ’s interests in South Asia would largely depend on its success in curbing Pakistan ’s aggressive designs, particularly in Kashmir . In this respect, the US has its job cut out. It has to ensure that the tensions between India and Pakistan do not snowball into a nuclear crisis for South Asia . Washington ’s handling of Kashmir and the larger issue of Indo-Pak relations would be decisive in determining the stability of the region. Its repeated insistence on a bilateral solution to Kashmir is well taken. But this doesn’t mean that it can be an indifferent observer and yet expect South Asia to fit snugly into its envisaged agenda of economic and commercial prosperity.   



Undoubtedly, the toughest challenge for US in South Asia would be restraining Pakistan from carrying on low-intensity warfare in Kashmir . Pakistan seems convinced in the capability of nuclear weapons in deterring larger, destructive wars. It believes that India wouldn’t escalate the low intensity conflict in Kashmir in the fear of precipitating a nuclear confrontation. Pakistan has inherent advantages in sporadic, small-scale conflicts, compared to full-fledged conventional tussles, where odds favour India . Washington has to be amply blunt in discouraging Pakistan from its current activities in Kashmir by pointing out the futility of the approach. 



Pakistan ’s rapid Islamisation and growth of a jihadist culture in the country have been responsible for its various irrational actions. As of now, the ruling establishment in Pakistan shows no inclination to revert to civilian governance. The sponsoring of terrorism in Kashmir , promotion of insurgency in various parts of India and provocative overtures at the LOC are part of an overall strategy to destabilise India . So far, India has resisted the temptation to cross the LOC and has prevented the conflict from blowing up. But it is important for the US to take the lead in impressing upon Pakistan the need to develop a constructive India policy. 



During the Cold War, South Asia was a politically balancing entity for the US . Now it is an economically sensitive region. The future US policy in South Asia will be determined by commercial and business motives. Cultivation of economic interests implies maintaining close ties with India . But that would call for greater distance with Pakistan . Given the present circumstances, getting closer to either India or Pakistan , would mean antagonising the other. Recent developments have underlined India ’s importance to the US as a priority zone in South Asia . Apart from economic interests, India and the US have certain common strategic concerns. These include, countering terrorism, managing nuclear proliferation and containing China



The long term US objective is to marginalise Pakistan and distance it from China too. A Chinese supported Pakistan is a substantial deterrent to the US perspective of a stable South Asia . China is a primary security threat to India . Besides, subsequent to Cold War, it is considered to be the principal strategic competitor to the US . For promoting long-term interests in Asia , the US would like to have strategic co-ordination with Japan and India . In trying to achieve the objective, the US has to ensure that the China-Pakistan alliance doesn’t emerge as a thorn in its flesh.



A crucial issue in this regard is the possible impact of other autonomous developments in US foreign policy on South Asia . One of these is the proposed NMD system. Development of NMD by the US is likely to provoke an identical reaction from China . A stronger China will imply a better-equipped Pakistan forcing India to consider new defence capabilities. The eventual outcome would be greater volatility and tension in South Asia which would be inimical to US interests in the region. 




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