Eagle Eye

US in South Asia: Declining Influence

14 Jul, 2014    ·   4555

Prof Chinamani Mahapatra traces the steady fall in the US' political weight in the South Asian region

The US’ influence in South Asia is fast diminishing and this trend is likely to continue deep into the future. In the aftermath of World War II, South Asia was considered a strategic backwater by the US policymakers. Additionally, South Asia offered little economic opportunities to the US corporate sector. With the solitary exception of turning Pakistan into an alliance partner, the US cared little about this region.

Even in the realm of alliance politics, the US had little to offer Pakistan. Pakistan’s membership in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and the Central Treaty Organization, and the US’ military assistance to Pakistan was ineffective during Pakistan’s military misadventures against India. It was only after the late 1970s’ Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan that Washington got critically involved in South Asia.

The US’ interest in South Asia deepened in the post-Cold War era in view of Indian economic reforms, nuclearisation of the region and the pivotal role Afghanistan played in the terrorist attack on the US in September 2001. As the US once again turned Pakistan into an alliance partner in the war against terrorism and established an extraordinary strategic understanding with India, South Asia occupied substantial priority in the US national security agenda.

The US’ war in Afghanistan that began in 2001 is about to come to a close. The US troop withdrawal from this country is indisputable. Irrespective of debates over the probable level of US engagement in Afghan affairs post 2014, it is almost certain that the closure of billions of dollars worth of war in Afghanistan will trim Washington’s influence in South Asia. The resilience of the Afghan Taliban and limitation of a superpower’s abilities to confront non-state-actors will question the US’ credibility in the region.

Secondly, the US leverage over Pakistan in the post-Afghan war phase will dry down with an almost automatic cut in the US military and economic assistance to Islamabad.  History will unquestionably repeat and the US-Pakistan alliance will terminate, as was the case after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. 

Thirdly, the US’ influence over India, resulting from an innovative “strategic partnership” project during former US President George Bush’s era may not survive his successor Barack Obama’s administration. The enthusiasm of the first Obama administration to further elevate this partnership was short-lived and the second Obama administration has paid less than modest attention to India. 

There is no doubt that the election victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party under the leadership of now Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with a strong popular mandate, has generated sizeable excitement in Washington. Hope of revival of the earlier impetus in the Indo-US strategic partnership has been rekindled. Obama’s invitation to Modi to visit Washington, Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal Desai’s trip to India soon after the new government assumed office, visits by influential Senator John McCain and Deputy Secretary of State William J Burns to prepare the ground for the Indo-US strategic dialogue between Secretary of State John Kerry and Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj are all signals of Obama’s renewed interest in India.

But Prime Minister Modi appears less animated to visit the US, more involved in constructing a peaceful neighbourhood, more focused on reviving the national economy and less enthralled to project India as a global leader. About ten months have passed since the Devyani Khobragade episode begot a psychological divide in the New Delhi-Washington bond. Repairing the mind-set is not going to be easy even for the new Indian government.

The Obama administration’s relationships with other smaller South Asian countries – especially Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – have also soured in the recent years. Washington was hesitant to do business with the Awami League government after the January 2014 elections, criticised Dhaka’s handling of human trafficking problems, and reduced import of garments after a deadly fire in a garment factory.  

The US’ efforts to hold the Sri Lankan government responsible for severe human rights violations during the closing weeks of anti-Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam operations have widened the political divide between Colombo and Washington. The Sri Lankan government has demonstrated bitterness over the US double standard in combating terrorism—one standard for itself and another for other countries. 

Significantly, India’s smaller South Asian neighbours are fast moving towards developing closer relationships with China. Although this is generally perceived as an anti-India phenomenon, the reality is that Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are looking up to China as a new guarantor of help in the face of the US’ heavy-handed approach towards them.

It is also a fact that the US has enhanced its engagement with Nepal in response to fast growing Chinese economic presence and political influence in that country. But compared to China, Washington’s influence in Nepal is minimal. It is almost certain that the drop in Washington’s political weight will further augment Chinese leverage over Islamabad as well. It is time to ponder over the diminished US and rising Chinese profile in the region.