Academic journal article Asia Policy

Converting Convergence into Cooperation: The United States and India in South Asia

Academic journal article Asia Policy

Converting Convergence into Cooperation: The United States and India in South Asia

Article excerpt

In response to China's rising involvement in its South Asian periphery, India has been revising its long-held policy to limit the influence of extraregional powers in its smaller neighboring states. Although traditionally reluctant to encourage the presence of outsiders in its sphere of influence, India now seeks to join forces with "like-minded" powers from outside the region and even multilateral organizations. For example, it now partners with Japan on joint infrastructure projects in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Through its Act East and "neighborhood first" policies, New Delhi is focusing on regional initiatives to increase economic and security integration.

India's new collaborative disposition also opens up a window of opportunity for regional cooperation between the United States and India. While China's expanding presence around the Indian periphery has emerged as a common concern, the levels of cooperation between the United States and India in South Asia still remain low. Except for Pakistan and Afghanistan, dialogue and cooperation between the two states regarding the rest of the region have rarely taken place, despite an overall flourishing strategic partnership since the 2000s. This contrasts with deepening cooperation in several other issue-areas, such as nuclear energy, counterterrorism, and maritime security, all of which had been points of bilateral contention even after the end of the Cold War. In some instances, U.S. and Indian policies in the region have even diverged, including after the end of Sri Lanka's civil war in 2009 and during the most recent refugee crisis in Myanmar in 2017 and 2018.

Despite their broadly converging approaches across the Indo-Pacific in recent years, what obstacles hinder U.S.-India cooperation in South Asia's small states, and how can they be overcome? Given their different alignments during much of the Cold War, the United States and India sometimes clashed in the region, most notably during the East Pakistan/Bangladesh conflict in 1971. Does this indicate a constant history of hostility, or are there cases in which both countries have related more positively in the region's small states? And if so, what lessons do these past interactions hold for U.S. and Indian initiatives to overcome such challenges and partner in South Asia today?

This article argues that the rise of China in the region is helping resolve some past differences and recommends concrete measures for the United States and India to translate their broad policy convergence into closer cooperation across South Asia. Based on historical case studies with new evidence from primary sources, the article shows how different strategic priorities, capabilities, and also perceptional challenges have often hindered U.S. and Indian policies from aligning in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar in the past.

At the same time, however, the findings also dispel the assumption that the United States and India have always been, and will continue to be, locked in an inevitably hostile relationship across the region. A closer analysis of each state's approaches to regional crises between the 1950s and 2000s shows that despite significant differences there have also been instances of policy coordination that can be drawn on to facilitate cooperation amid the current convergence. Four such past challenges are of relevance to today's U.S.-India relations in South Asia.

The first challenge relates to the United States' regional threat assessments during the Cold War, which were not always shared by India. In the 1950s, however, U.S. anxiety to contain China in South Asia, for example, was mitigated by a policy of deferral to India, which was seen as the region's predominant power. Washington thus ended up coordinating its policies with New Delhi, including joint economic assistance projects in Nepal, to limit Chinese influence. This precedent holds significant lessons for today's context in which India is more willing and confident to pool efforts to counter China in its own neighborhood. …

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