The Importance of South Asia's Smaller States


Why Smaller South Asia?

International relations (IR) theory has traditionally paid little attention to small states, especially with regard to security relations. In his efforts to expand theory on the subject, Matthias Maass of Yonsei University assesses that “the small state has no real place in IR theory.” IR theory has largely ignored small states despite the fact that, as Maass observes, small states have constituted a majority of states in the international system since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia.

During the Cold War, Kenneth Waltz’s seminal theory of structural realism tried to explain the dynamics of the international system in terms of the great power rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union. Waltz analytically privileges large countries in his theory due to their greater share of capabilities. Neorealists, such as John Mearsheimer, have since modified tenets of Waltz’s theory. Mearsheimer’s “offensive realist” theory of international politics likewise privileges large states, including China.

About one-fifth of world’s population resides in South Asia, with India being home to the bulk of the region’s population at 1.1 billion people. By contrast, a total of 207 million people live in Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. Although this is roughly equivalent to the 196 million who inhabit both Pakistan (168 million) and Afghanistan (28 million), smaller South Asia is largely ignored in strategy formulation for the region. Perhaps one reason is because South Asia, according to the World Bank, is the least integrated region in the world. In economic terms, intraregional trade is less than 2% of GDP, compared to over 20% for East Asia. However, GDP growth rates for most of these countries were relatively high last year. Also, a new International Finance Corporation (IFC) report finds the business environment improving in these states through stronger investor protections and decreased taxes on business. Still, India’s GDP constitutes about 80% of South Asian GDP and tends to occupy most of the economic attention given to South Asia.

Despite the sizable population and long-term economic reasons to address the region, South Asia observers have started paying more attention to the role of these small states for the role they play in the strategic calculation of large states. Among defense analysts, the “String of Pearls” thesis has received much discussion due to the potential for China to “encircle” India by developing strategic relationships with the smaller countries in the Indian Ocean – a region of strategic importance due to the vast amount of energy and goods that transport these waters. Short of the implementation of formal alliances with China, the emergence of a Chinese naval base in an Indian Ocean country such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, or the Seychelles is discussed as a possible worst-case scenario in this thesis due to varying combinations of China’s increasing economic, political, and military support to these states. In addition to opening a new embassy in the Maldives on the eve of the November 2011 South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit there, China is advocating for dialogue partner status in SAARC and has suggested the idea of SAARC+1 akin to China’s relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the ASEAN+1 framework. Even in land-locked Nepal, China has developed economic and defense ties with India’s neighbor, punctuated by a visit by Premier Wen Jiabao to Kathmandu in December 2011.

This discussion about the potential alignment of small states – and small South Asia specifically – underscores the importance of this group in international politics. Although IR theory has neglected study of this group, small states are indeed important analytical units to policymakers when conceived of as a block of states that larger nations – such as India, and by extension, the US – could “lose” due to China’s influence. In fact, a US Senate Foreign Relations Committee report discussed this threat and stated that the US “cannot afford to ‘lose’ Sri Lanka” – presumably to China – in the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s controversial civil war victory and ensuing troubled relations with western countries.

The binary balancing and bandwagoning behaviors outlined in structural realism do not adequately account for the nuances in hedging strategies adopted by smaller states, which walk a fine line in seeking ties with and assistance from large states while pursuing national development objectives. In the context of South Asia, former US ambassador Teresita Schaffer of the Brookings Institution writes that three smaller South Asian countries—Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh—“have all had ups and downs coexisting with India, and share the ambivalence that smaller neighbors frequently have toward much larger ones.” On the other hand, Schaffer notes that Bhutan and the Maldives have different models in conducting their small state diplomacy, with Bhutan being quite close to India, while the Maldives enjoys its non-preferential stance. Incidentally, Bhutan does not have formal diplomatic relations with the US, nor does the US provide Bhutan with foreign assistance.