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Jitendra asked: What has been the US policy towards South Asia in the 21st century?

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  • Priyanka Singh replies: Owing to its key geographical position as well as demographic and economic potential, South Asia is vital to the US strategic calculus. Its interest in the region has grown multi-fold over the years. Looking at the 21st century in particular, the US South Asia policy seems to have been broadly determined by two overarching parameters: the 9/11 terrorist attacks that led to the US invasion of Afghanistan, and the growing US concerns about rapid proliferation of China’s footprints in the region. Reprisal to 9/11 in the form of ‘war on terror’ made the US policy more pronounced in the South Asian security discourse. The war thrust the US deeper into Afghanistan. More than a decade-and-half, it remains invested in Afghanistan even as it struggles to make a neat exit.

    The 21st century also marked the strengthening of strategic partnership between India and the US, though not at the expense of the latter’s long-standing relationship with Pakistan. The US and Pakistan continue to work together including on the Afghan issue despite the latter’s acute complicity in virtually disserving the US interests in the region. However, due to Pakistan’s geostrategic import, the US considers it in its interest to stay engaged with Pakistan.  

    The ascendance of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ in the list of US strategic priorities has also led it to take South Asia more seriously, where it believes it needs to retain its strategic influence vis-à-vis China, which has emerged as its main strategic competitor in the 21st century, As American strategy on the Indo-Pacific unfolds, India is perceived as a key partner in fulfilling its scheme of things.

    The growing Chinese influence in South Asia is an important driver in the formulation of the US strategy towards the region, particularly in wake of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  In late 2018, the $39 million US aid to the Sri Lankan military was widely interpreted as a counter measure aimed at undercutting the Chinese influence in the island nation. The US-Maldives relationship improved when President Mohamed Solih came to power ousting a widely perceived pro-Chinese government. Even though the Trump administration ended the Special Protection granted to the Nepali immigrants living in the US after the 2015 earthquake, it has sought to maintain a cordial relationship with Nepal. With regard to ties with Bangladesh, the unsavoury memories about American support to Pakistan in 1971 seem to have diminished. Presently, the US is the largest export market for Bangladeshi goods.

    The US South Asia policy thus ranges from active interest including direct military intervention to doling out aid to win over smaller countries, to at times acting passively ignorant of certain daunting issues, aimed to suit its short and long-term strategic purposes. The US role in 21st century South Asia is as relevant as it was in the previous century. Its presence in the region can be attributed to its unmatched heft in the global politics and economic order. It will continue to remain deeply engaged with the region while making periodic variations in terms of its strategy and goals.

    Posted on July 05, 2019

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.