Chester Bowles, a former US ambassador to India, once called for a single assistant secretary of state to cover the whole of Asia in order to strengthen the state department’s capacity to think strategically about the region. As foreign policy attention turns away from Afghanistan towards China’s rise, it is time for Washington to reorganize its foreign policy machine to recognize that China is an actor in South Asia. US South Asia policy therefore needs to be properly integrated into a broader Asia policy—and one that encompasses all the states across the region, not just the prominent duo of India and China.
There is no better time to do this than 2013. Finally, South Asia matters enough to Washington to merit sustained policy attention. No longer is it the “backside of the state department globe”, as former undersecretary Tom Pickering once famously called it. And for the first time in over a decade, no single policy priority sucks up all the air in the room. Afghanistan will continue to be important even as it moves to transition. The US-India relationship is intimate, mature and is moving forward. Counterterrorism remains important, but Osama bin Laden’s death along with those of many of his lieutenants means that the campaign against terrorists is no longer a super-priority. At least for now, the US-Pakistan relationship is out of the headlines and being worked on.
The Barack Obama administration will require good, imaginative people with a firm grasp of the possible to take advantage of this opportunity. Moreover, there needs to be a degree of bureaucratic tinkering—not to solve the riddle of strategic policymaking, but to properly connect those thinking about East Asia with those working on South Asia. Until the late 1990s, the assistant secretaries for South Asia and East Asia in the state department had virtually no contact. Neither China’s rivalry with India nor China’s close alliance with Pakistan encouraged US diplomats to cross the imaginary bamboo wall that divided the two regions. The good news is this has begun to change. Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, has worked hard with his South and Central Asian counterpart Bob Blake to forge closer ties between their bureaus. US South Asia specialists travel to China and US East Asia specialists travel to India.
More can and should be done. Over the past five months, an Asia Society team has reached out and interviewed more than 90 current and former practitioners working on South Asia. They include officials who have worked on the region from every administration since 1965. They include optimists and pessimists about different aspects of US South Asia, Afghanistan and counterterrorism policy. But if there is one message from many among this august alumni network, it is this: a longer-term, integrated strategy makes sense. A previous opportunity as the Cold War ended in 1989 was missed because attention was consumed by reshaping Europe’s future and preparing for the first Gulf War.
As one former assistant secretary of state for South Asia told us, “there wasn’t a lot of attention given to a broad South Asia strategy” in the 1990s. A former US ambassador to Islamabad argued there was “close to zero long-range planning on Pakistan”. This needs to change. The second Obama administration should take the opportunity not just to stock-take the US-South Asia relationship but to set out a long-range vision of how the US relationship with the region should evolve.
The approach should not be a focus on a single country alone. This is not about an India strategy, with neighbours attached. India’s importance speaks for itself, both regionally and globally. A close US-India relationship will benefit both countries. New Delhi will be able to advance some US policy goals, but not all. Nor should US policy revolve solely around a counter-terrorism strategy, with geography attached. Afghanistan deserves serious attention, but should not be the dominant focus of regional security concerns. Unlike the early 1990s, the US should not and will not leave Afghanistan to its neighbours alone. Meanwhile, Pakistan policy needs careful thought. Washington should drop a hyphenated Af-Pak policy approach and deal with Pakistan as a discrete policy agenda. Other countries in the region also need to be dealt with on their own terms as much as in a regional context.
Any US assessment of its interests in and policy towards South Asia should begin with a clear-headed analysis of core US strategic goals. It should be informed by expertise, but not fall victim to experts’ special interests. It should not consist of glittering generalities: speeches alone do not make strategy. It needs to be aspirational and specific, meaningful and measurable.
Relations between China and India will be enormously important in the decades to come, but the Beijing-Delhi relationship alone will neither define Asia’s future, nor capture all the regional South Asia issues that deserve attention. China is a South Asian power. China’s policies have an impact on every South Asian state, and China’s trade with South Asia is growing at breakneck speed. The first Obama administration included South Asia in its strategic rebalancing towards Asia. The second Obama administration needs to take this a step further, and integrate thinking about China into its South Asia policy.
Alexander Evans is a Bernard Schwartz fellow at the Asia Society and a senior fellow at