The U.S. And the Need for a New Block in South Asia

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With the end of the Cold War, the smaller nations of South Asia lost their prominence on the U.S. radar. Especially since the Civil-Nuclear agreement between the United States and India in 2005 and the subsequent deepening of defense relations, the U.S. increasingly perceived South Asia not as a fragmented region of nations with conflicting interests vis-à-vis India, but as a manageable Bloc where India enjoys preeminence. Ideally, for the U.S., a united Bloc in South Asia under India's leadership would mean to either help control Chinese inroads into the region or provide some support to promote and uphold the liberal architecture. However, such thinking overlooked at least two important factors, if not more.

First, India’s neighbors such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka, including Bhutan, have always had a relationship of conflict and cooperation with India, never fully accepted India’s domination and most likely never will due to historical, economic and political reasons. Second, India, because of its economic constraints and military limitations coupled with geopolitical factors, lacks the capacity to either convince or coerce its neighbors to accept its primacy. The result of this is an increasing advantage for China and more complications for the U.S..  The U.S. has now been reinforcing its engagement in these countries in the context of Indo-Pacific strategy but finds it much challenging.

The U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, Joe Felter, said in his recent visit to Kathmandu, Nepal: "We welcome a constructive relation with China, we welcome the investment by China, but as long as that investment is designed to serve the interest of Nepal and not just China." For her part, the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi immediately rebutted DAS Felter by saying that countries including Nepal “commend China as the most trustworthy partner” and termed Felter’s comment as “ridiculous.”

After the break-up of Pakistan, with the emergence of the new nation of Bangladesh in 1971, India got the advantage as a sole power in the region to shape the political economy of South Asia. However, the fact that India was a nation with millions of impoverished citizens proved the Indian establishment more mercantilist than magnanimous by working to increase its economic growth and status at the cost of its smaller neighbors. For their part, South Asian nations see themselves as inheriting a part of the historical and cultural legacy of the subcontinent; therefore they are guided by the psychology of being equals of India. When India’s controversial actions as a bully in South Asia were added to the mix, its neighbors made steps towards China at India’s expense.

In addition, even though there is a web of social, economic and trade ties, India has done a poor job at turning those ties into good relations. No regional or multilateral initiative taken by India, whether the BBIN (Bhutan-Bangladesh-India Nepal) or the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative of Multisectoral and Economic Cooperation) would work. In the traditional regional Bloc SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), an initiative taken by smaller nations, India did not want to cooperate. Importantly, India’s archrival Pakistan being a member of SAARC, the forum remained dysfunctional. By contrast, China is becoming successful in bringing any nations, small or large, into China-led organizations. Therefore, any proposal for sub-regional cooperation in South Asia led by China is going to desirable options for smaller neighbors of India.

India is trying in several ways to avert such a scenario, including by engaging with China in its region. But its neighbors remain reluctant to fully cooperate with India. PM Modi’s current “new India” of intense Hindu nationalism and his tack to label his neighbors as bad guys and take strong actions on the eve of elections is making the neighbors wary.  So, the door is wide open for China to pull these countries into its orbit and India cannot stop it as it is in no position to do so. Communist parties in the region are already emboldened by Chinese proximity.

India is increasingly welcoming Russia into its calculation to shape the balance of power in India’s advantage. What implications that will have remains to be seen. Similarly, India’s strategy to use its growing relations with many other powerful nations to reassert its influence in the region will backfire as neighbors will sid5ge with China to gain leverage.

Given the structural changes in the region and great power rivalry at the global level, a new model is required for the region, that is, establishing a new plurilateral format in South Asia – a model that is in the interest of all parties involved, including regional and extra-regional powers. It is time to increase the strength of the sub-region by bringing smaller nations together and increase dialogue and cooperation between them. This grouping of countries –Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives –which neither share Kashmir dispute nor have nuclear bombs, will have a total population of 215 million and spreads from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean via the Bay of Bengal. These countries are connected with China either through optical fiber link or Chinese satellite system. Their telecommunication system is primarily based on Chinese technology like Huawei and ZTE. As these nations will sooner than later become the beneficiary of China's 5G technology, it will be transformational in the sense that India's geographical domination will not be the only principal factor shaping the region.

The performance of Modi’s India, both domestically and in the neighborhood, is posing a serious question about India’s potential role as a force of stability in the region – the mix of Hindu nationalism and India’s military-intellectual complex are leading the nation to war. The increasing division in India between Hindu and Muslim caused by fanatic Hindus will have regional repercussions. Therefore, for the U.S.’s Indo-Pacific strategy, it will be valuable to build this new issue-based platform of small countries and work closely with the Bloc, set norms and standards, and promote intra-regional and inter-regional activity. A strengthened neighborhood can also assuage India's security concerns and will force China to engage transparently.

Dr. Anil Sigdel is the Director at Nepal Matters for America in Washington DC.

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