Welcome to the South Asian Foreign Policy Letter.
The highlights of this week: The South Asia policy of the Biden government could shift after his withdrawal from Afghanistan, stage extremists violent protests in Pakistan, and Washington and New Delhi Holm about a US naval maneuver.
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A New US Approach to South Asia?
This week's announcement by the Biden administration that it would withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11th has had a major impact on the stuttering Afghan peace process. The victory perceived by the Taliban itself could encourage them in future talks, as Elise Labott from FP writes. And the next five months before the withdrawal is complete will be crucial, as I argue on foreign policy.
The withdrawal of Afghanistan also has implications for US policy in South Asia in a broader sense. Washington has long viewed the region through the lens of the conflict in Afghanistan. With US forces on the way out, a new frame of reference is likely to soon dominate US thinking about South Asia: China, and especially the US-China rivalry.
The United States has not developed a truly regional policy for South Asia for several decades. Instead, it approaches the region through some silos: the war in Afghanistan, the relationship with Pakistan (again shaped by Afghanistan) and the partnership between the US and India. Other South Asian countries did not play a prominent role in the strategic thinking of the USA. When then President Donald Trump presented a “Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia” in 2017, only Afghanistan, India and Pakistan were mentioned.
Bureaucratically, the USA does not see South Asia as a single, independent region. The Foreign Ministry's regional office for South Asia also includes Central Asia, and two military commands split the region down the middle: the Central Command oversees Pakistan and the Indo-Pacific Command oversees India.
This geographically limited approach to South Asia is wrong given the strategic importance of the region. It has a quarter of the world's population and sits astride the region of the Indian Ocean – an area whose map Robert D. Kaplan foretells as an "icon" for the 21st century, like that of Europe by the 20th century. South Asia is also particularly vulnerable to threats such as natural resource stress and climate change, which will determine the decades to come.
In the first few months of its tenure, the Biden administration continued the silo approach. It has focused closely on Afghanistan, has enlisted Pakistan's support in the Afghan peace process and deepened its partnership with India. The United States has largely ignored the rest of the region, despite Climate Gazar John Kerry visiting Bangladesh.
However, the imminent US exit from Afghanistan means that China, arguably the Biden government's greatest foreign policy priority, will soon be at the center of US strategic calculations over South Asia. Early signs, from public spitting with Chinese officials in Alaska to major overtures to Taiwan, suggest Biden will take a tough line against Beijing. Expect him to approach South Asia through the lens of US-China rivalry.
India, which Washington sees as its best choice in South Asia to balance Beijing, will continue to be a top priority for US politics. But Pakistan, a key Chinese ally, is likely to look outward – despite the recent clashes in Islamabad with a more multifaceted relationship with Washington that goes beyond security.
On the other hand, the rivalry between the US and China may eventually lead the US to apply a broader geographic scope to its policies in South Asia. China's increasing presence in the region, driven by the expansion of its Belt and Road initiative, means smaller South Asian nations will increasingly appear on the US strategic radar.
In addition, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, a Trump administration-focused anti-China initiative that the Biden administration is likely to maintain, calls for expansion of security and non-security cooperation with Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Infrastructure development tools associated with the Indo-Pacific region, including the new Development Finance Corporation and the Blue Dot Network, could also be used to compete with the Belt and Road.
A truly regional US strategy in South Asia would not necessarily be problem-free. Countries across South Asia are experiencing a democratic relapse. The Biden government, which has made the promotion of democracy a pillar of its foreign policy, could spark tension by criticizing problem states – particularly Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – for their democracy and human rights problems.
Overall, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan offers Washington the opportunity to become more involved in a region that is of overall importance to US interests. Motivated by increasing rivalry with China, the Biden administration is likely to have particularly closer ties with some of the smaller South Asian states – countries that are often only given a brief overview in US policy calculations.
April 22nd to 23rd: The Biden administration houses a virtual climate summit with 40 world leaders including the Prime Ministers of Bangladesh, Bhutan and India.
April 24th – May 4th: Turkey is hosting a 10 day Afghanistan Peace Conference in Istanbul with the aim of initiating a possible political solution.
Violent protests rock Pakistan. A stubborn Islamist political party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), hosted violent protests in major Pakistani cities this week. More than 300 people were injured and two police officers died in the violence. Media reports and videos indicate that protesters have taken some police officers hostage. TLP protested the arrest of its leader, which Pakistani officials said was intended to "maintain law and order" – a move that clearly failed.
In February, Pakistani officials agreed to submit a TLP request to parliament to expel the French ambassador after French President Emmanuel Macron found the TLP had been classified as Islamophobic. The deadline for the implementation of the demand ends on April 20, and the TLP has praised large demonstrations if these are not adhered to. On Thursday, the French embassy in Pakistan urged citizens to leave the country temporarily, citing "serious threats to French interests".
Pakistan has long treated the TLP, which aggressively defends Pakistan's blasphemy laws and rails against religious minorities, with child's gloves. That changed on Wednesday when the government announced it would ban the group. But Pakistan has often banned extremist groups only to reappear under new names. The TLP, which has significant support among religious conservatives, is unlikely to fall.
Maritime controversy. On April 7, the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet issued a press release stating that one of their ships had crossed India's exclusive economic zone and alleged that the maneuver was under international law without India's prior consent. The statement sparked anger in India, who insisted that such maneuvers require prior approval.
The press release was more significant than the incident itself. The US Navy performs such maneuvers frequently, and numerous countries – rivals and allies – have objected to it in the past. But the incidents are usually quietly listed in US government reports long after their deaths without much notice.
Why the change? It could be a bureaucratic optimization that requires new reporting processes. Or the Biden government would like to telegraph an indirect conciliatory message to China and other rivals that these operations are not aimed solely at them. In either case, the incident will not affect US-India relations, but it does underscore how the behavior of a superpower can upset even its closest partners.
Rising second wave. The number of new coronavirus cases continues to rise in South Asia and particularly in India. That was a tough milestone on Monday as it outperformed Brazil to become the second most hit country after the US. India's vaccination campaign got a shot in the arm on Monday as it approved the use of Russia's Sputnik V, which will complement India's two domestically made vaccines. A perfect storm of rapidly growing new cases, vaccination battles, and crowded events suggests further trouble.
Wednesday was Pakistan’s deadliest day in its current boom. Last month, Islamabad decided to allow the private sector to buy and sell shots to help alleviate vaccine shortages. More vaccines have become available, but the move has increased inequalities in Pakistan. Most of the recordings from private markets are in cities and poor rural dwellers cannot access them.
Meera Srinivasan, the Hindu correspondent in Colombo, released sobering news this week about the tens of thousands of women in Sri Lanka suffering from high debt due to their reliance on high-yield microfinance loans. Many women have gotten into a crushing cycle: They pay sky-high installments – up to 200 percent – after being harassed by debt collection agencies just to get more credit to cover their losses. These stories are harrowing, as microloans have so often been portrayed as a ticket out of poverty for South Asian women.
“Americans are responsible for the problems we go through. Now they will go with their troops, without peace, without progress. They just want to leave their war behind. "
– Hajji Abdul Samad, an Afghan pomegranate farmer quoted in the New York Times, on the Biden government's decision to withdraw
A Pakistan today The editorial argues that the US exit from Afghanistan is reminiscent of the Soviet withdrawal: "It is difficult to avoid a superpower surrendering Afghanistan again." There is cause for concern that his neighbor could take the route of Iraq, where the Islamic State emerged after the withdrawal of US forces. The leading article calls for regional powers to help save the Afghan peace process.
Meanwhile a Times of India The editorial describes the withdrawal as a "difficult situation" calling on India to "line up its ducks". It argues that New Delhi, which has done little to deal with the Taliban, should reach out to moderate factions in the group – a move that could help counter Pakistan's influence on the Taliban and in Afghanistan as a whole.