American policy : South Asia’s socio-political dynamics

The economic dynamism of South Asia (SA) during last five years has been noteworthy, especially in the macroeconomic issues, in saving and investment and in the faster pace of integration with the global economy. While some countries in the region have performed well and some have experienced modest growth others have been poor performers. The average GDP growth in South Asia has been 8.7 and 7.7 per cent in 2006 and 2007 respectively. Maldives attained 18 per cent and 12 per cent growth in 2006 and 2007 and Nepal registered 2.3 and 2.8 per cent during the same period - the lowest in the region.

The Asia Foundation has initiated a project on “America’s Role in Asia”, which intends to examine US-Asia relations and develop policy recommendations for the United States’ new Administration and Congress to be elected in November 2008. This brief note is my personal observations on US-South Asia policy as a participant of the recently concluded workshop organised by the Asia Foundation.

Since SA is at the forefront of US’s foreign policy agenda, its role in SA can be recommended in the diversified areas of social and economic issues such as poverty reduction, economic growth, health and education, MDGs, energy and infrastructure development, and energy cooperation in the region. Since country-specific policies have been in operation in most of these sectors, they have, more often than not, been unsuccessful. The critical question that US foreign policy advisors should address is the area, methods and scope of US involvement in country-specific growth and regional cooperation.

The US foreign policy is designed to succeed in its global war on terrorism through Afghanistan and Pakistan; and commercial, scientific, technological, political and military interest with India. The US is a key intermediary in stopping the brutal civil war in Sri Lanka. It is the key player in encouraging Bangladesh to resist violent extremists and Islamists. The US has also consistently been helping Nepal for true and sustained transition to democracy.

The policy that addresses socio-political issues can only be justified when it can investigate the fact whether nations’ priority is inclusive, economic reforms are designed to support sustained growth and the political structure is democratically anchored. From this perspective, the conventional US policy in SA may not be very successful unless the social-economic, religious and political complexities of troubled nations are carefully addressed.

Good wishes and support by development partners to institutionalise democracy in SA have not yielded satisfactory results. Inadequate information on the complexities of political developments at the local level and ready-made political agenda of foreign powers at the other end has delayed the institutionalisation of democratic processes. I believe the failure of civilian government to uphold constitution, manage civil disobedience and honour their commitments to the people have encouraged army in most South Asian nations to play a decisive role. This is why democracy has become the rule OFF the people, BUY the people and FAR the people.

Both the US and Pakistan are aware that the US withdrawal of financial assistance will destabilise Pakistan’s growth by creating room for terrorist activities and thus jeopardise US security strategies. The benefit of law-based, constitutional and democratic government and the cost of continued security expenses, which has reached $9.6 billion since 2001, should be properly assessed. Based on The 9/11 Commission Report, the Congress has endorsed 2005 level of sustained annual installments of $600 million.

The US should be careful to avoid the strategic destabilisation by offsetting India’s military superiority in the region. Therefore, USA’s coalition support to Pakistan especially her military build-up should take into consideration the maintenance of military balance between Pakistan and India by advising Pakistan’s military to withdraw from politics. The USA should also be careful in getting involved in Bangladesh with its support to military generals by not undermining the sensitivity and vulnerability of domestic socio-political environment. First, USA should review its policy to align with the military under the recent uncertain political environment and second, understand India’s sensitivity.

In the context of new observer’s role of China and Japan in SAARC, the USA should harmonise SAARC policy in line with the priorities that China and Japan have identified to assist SAARC. To begin with, it is advisable that USA reviews SAARC Development Goals, SDGs (2007-2012) endorsed by the SAARC heads of the government. The SDGs have four indicators namely; livelihood; health; education and environment. Since these indicators fall under the socio-political and economic priorities of the US foreign policy, consideration of SDGs for US policy agenda is crucial.

Pyakuryal is a professor of Economics, TU