South Asia contains one of America’s most important long-term partners in sustaining a global order safe for the interests and values of free societies, India, as well as a fragile, nuclear-armed state in Pakistan whose weakening and radicalisation could be more consequential for American security interests than nearly any other single contingency. The region also contains a country, Afghanistan, that may not be the centre of Asia but is a centre of strategic competition among key Asian powers and has cost the West a decade of war to defeat extremism and build lasting stability.
Over the coming four years, US leadership to shape this region will be essential, for both positive and negative reasons. Positively, the consolidation of a wide-ranging strategic partnership with India could change the course of history in the 21st century by establishing lasting habits of cooperation between the world’s largest democracies. Negatively, US leadership is essential to prevent Pakistan’s many pathologies—state complicity in terrorism, weak institutions, a foreign policy that exports insecurity among others—from spilling over in ways that undermine fundamental US (and Indian) interests in the future of Afghanistan, non-proliferation, the defeat of terrorism and the dampening of extremism.
India is still in the process of casting off its legacy of non-alignment and statist economics. But its leaders have identified the US as a vital partner for India in the long term, just as American leaders have pursued a revolutionary strategic partnership with India with an eye on shaping the future balance of power and values in the international system. The US and India share a convergence of interests across the spectrum. Both seek to balance growing Chinese power and influence in Asia to encourage China’s peaceful rise. Both want to defeat terrorism, moderate extremism and promote democratic state-building in South Asia, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan, to ensure that responsible governments rule with a focus on internal development rather than fomenting external insecurity. Both want to ensure freedom of the maritime commons in the Indian Ocean, across which most world trade in energy flows. Both want to strengthen an open and liberal international economy in ways that will fuel their knowledge, technology and manufacturing sectors.
The next US administration can work with India to take bilateral relations to the next level. This should start with a specific agenda to deepen the underdeveloped economic relationship between the two countries through robust investment and free trade agreements—matched by expanded opportunities for people-to-people ties in mutually rewarding commerce, education and research. Washington and New Delhi can cooperate more intimately on Afghanistan, the Arab Awakening, missile defence, maritime security in the Indian Ocean, East Asian security with partners like Japan, and in multilateral institutions like the UN.
The overall objective of Indo-US alignment on the key issues facing our societies would be the construction of a preponderance of democratic power in Asia and the international system—with the US-India partnership at its core. India need not abandon “strategic autonomy” as part of closer US ties. On the contrary, American investment, training, trade and military sales are all designed to make India stronger and more prosperous. Only a strong and successful India can be strategically autonomous, given the growing challenges posed by its dangerous neighbourhood.
Both India and the US have vital roles in ensuring Asia remains pluralistic and not Sino-centric. A closer Indo-Us relationship might curb Chinese military threats and deter revanchism.
As America draws down its forces from Afghanistan, Pakistan will lose the leverage it has hitherto held on US policy by virtue of its control of the primary supply routes into that troubled country. This creates the prospect for a more mature and evenly balanced US-Pakistan relationship in which US policy concentrates not on buying off the Pakistani military, but instead on strengthening the development of Pakistani civilian institutions. US policy must not rehyphenate India and Pakistan, but rather pursue independent policies towards both countries that do not allow one country to hold US policy towards the other hostage.
The US may want to focus more on strengthening Pakistan’s economy and, in particular, its deficient energy sector, as a way to offset the rise of radicalism associated with the country’s chronic economic crises and to build goodwill among a population that is fervently anti-American. Liberalisation of trade, including duty-free treatment of Pakistani textiles into the US, will be as important (if not more important) than official assistance in this regard. India can play the leading role here by further lifting restrictions on trade and visas with an eye on strengthening Pakistan’s moderate majority that opposes the militarisation and radicalisation of the state and its foreign policies.
In Afghanistan, the next American administration will need to fill out the existing strategic partnership agreement with a commitment to keep substantial US forces in-country: to train Afghan forces, contain Taliban attacks against state institutions, keep insurgents in Pakistan off-balance and ensure that neighbouring powers with predatory designs do not fill a vacuum that would otherwise be left by US retreat. Afghanistan’s 2014 elections will be pivotal to the post-Western dispensation of the country, and US engagement with friends like India will be key to ensuring that the gains the country has made over the past decade are sustainable.
International support for Afghanistan will also be instrumental to helping it build a self-sustaining economy not dependent on foreign aid. In this regard, Afghanistan can serve as a gateway for South Asian trade and investment with Central Asia. Joint American and Indian approaches to the states of Central Asia can help that region sustain its independence from its neighbouring great powers. Central Asia could also be pivotal to India’s ability to secure energy resources to drive an economy that is expected to grow rapidly. And crucially, the more moderate states of Central Asia also play an essential, if often unrecognised, role in containing the export of Pakistani extremism.
American policy, often working on parallel lines with India’s, can contribute to the process of democratic state-building and free-market economic growth in the other key South Asian states of Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, all of whom are underdeveloped, post-conflict societies in which the military plays a strong role. Bangladesh is especially promising as a potential partner for greater US engagement. Goldman Sachs has identified Bangladesh as one of its “N-11” economies or next-generation BRICS. Differentiated partnerships with both New Delhi and Washington will be critical to helping Bangladesh consolidate these gains and join India as part of a “South Asian miracle” of the kind East Asian economies have experienced.
Beyond the many affinities that link the American and Indian people, and the many interests that compel their governments to pursue closer cooperation, India and the US have a vital role to play in ensuring that Asia remains pluralistic and free rather than Sino-centric. India’s rise requires China to be more cautious in its support of Pakistan—because Beijing now has more to lose from pursuing policies that undermine Indian interests. A closer Indo-US alignment would also give China a greater stake in stabilising its own fluctuating relations with India—because Chinese military threats and territorial revanchism risk putting China on a path to conflict not only with India, but with its American friends.
Given America’s own stake in improving relations with a rising China, it is imperative for New Delhi and Washington to put in place joint concepts of operations and pursue joint planning for a range of scenarios related to Chinese activities in Asia. And it is essential for the US and India to work together in regional and international institutions to ensure that they uphold basic international standards. Our countries can also enjoy the multiplier effects of concerting with other like-minded Asian states, including Japan, America’s most important Asian ally and a growing partner for India.
Looking ahead, the prospects for American renewal and Indian reform could recast the global balance of power and values in ways that make our two countries, more than China, the leaders of the 21st century.
(Daniel Twining is Senior Fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a former member of the US Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff responsible for South Asia.)