South Asia: Back to Basics

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Conclusions

* South Asia, with a quarter of the world's population, a demonstrated weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capability, great economic potential, and chronic instability, can no longer be regarded as peripheral to U.S. global interests.

* Achieving peace and stability, particularly in and between India and Pakistan, is the overarching U.S. interest in South Asia, and we need a well-considered, long-term strategy to pursue it.

* The United States needs to avoid the episodic, single-issue pattern of its past interaction with South Asia.

* Sustained, broad-based engagement, based on a thorough review of U.S. interests and regional realities, will preserve and enhance U.S. interests.

* A presidential visit to all the major countries of the region could signal our commitment to long-term engagement focusing on Indo-Pakistani rapprochement, good governance, economic advancement, and sane management of the region's nuclear capabilities.

With President Clinton's visit to South Asia, the forthcoming transition in the White House, and Indo-Pakistani relations in near crisis, a review of U.S. policy toward that region and options for the future is warranted. We need to reevaluate what our fundamental interests in South Asia are, because they have changed significantly from what they were when these countries gained independence at mid-century and especially since the end of the Cold War. South Asia is hardly a vital U.S. interest, but it has become much more important. The unchecked Indo-Pakistani arms race poses risks of nuclear conflict and undermines nonproliferation regimes in other regions; Afghanistan and Pakistan are grappling with forms of militant Islam that have global reach; and the stability and development of the region have an important impact on U.S. interests in China, the Persian Gulf, and Central Asia. We have to honestly assess where we have been right and wrong--know the history but not be its prisoner. The days are gone when we can afford to view the subcontinent as a backwater in our global strategy.

U.S. Interests in South Asia

The bedrock U.S. interest in South Asia has been and will continue to be peace and stability within and between the nations of the region (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Maldives). If peace and stability prevail, the United States can make progress not only on nonproliferation, economic reform and development, trade liberalization, democracy/ governance, human rights, narcotics, terrorism, and World Trade Organization issues--indeed, on all of these issues, with enormous benefit for our vision of a prosperous, democratic South Asia integrated with the global economy. Without peace and stability, little can be accomplished on any front.

South Asia Realities

By focusing serially upon the Cold War, the green revolution, the quest for global and regional nonproliferation, and the importance of human rights over the last fifty years, we have had a distorted perception of the realities on the ground. The absence of an across-the-board approach has hampered the development and implementation of a coherent, successful policy in pursuit of U.S. interests.

In any reconsideration of U.S.-South Asia policy--it is important that we begin with a reality check.

* Tensions between the region's two largest countries, India and Pakistan, are high. Hostility over Kashmir--three wars in 52 years--holds the region hostage. Resolving Indo-Pakistani tensions is the sine qua non of long-term peace and stability. Both nations have nuclear weapons and delivery systems; neither will give them up. A confrontational approach by the rest of the world demanding renunciation of nuclear capability only aggravates the problem of achieving restraint, as demonstrated by our unsuccessful nonproliferation efforts set against the realities of internal and regional politics. …