The Importance of South Asia's Smaller States


Putting India into Perspective for US South Asia Policy

There is much for the US to gain by expanding security ties with the smaller countries in South Asia. The US-India bilateral relationship is new and untested, and stronger relations with smaller countries would promote a more a balanced policy in the region. This is not to say that the strategic partnership between the United States and India is likely to fail. On the contrary, bilateral relations appear to be on route to strengthen incrementally over the long-term. Still, the US could expand security ties with smaller South Asia without detracting from its bilateral relationship with India. A broader regional policy in South Asia represents a cautious approach to managing relations with a country that the United States did not enjoy positive relations with during the Cold War, and whose interests and values it does not entirely comprehend today.

India, for its part, is justifiably cautious about accelerating the rate of warming relations with the US. In addition to a relentless electoral and media cycle, policymakers in India are under pressure not to appear too US-friendly and are beholden to interests that still look to Russia as India’s preferred strategic partner, particularly given their significant amount of defense trade. Cold War memories also remain of the US cutting off military supply parts to India during its wars with Pakistan.

Furthermore, some in Washington reflexively impose a transactional view on the burgeoning relationship with New Delhi, who is not always as keen to advance bilateral relations at all costs. After setbacks such as India’s rejection of American MMRCA bids in early 2011, some US officials expressed their disappointment and did not immediately adopt the long-view in bilateral relations. But many seem to have recovered from this bump in the relationship, especially after India’s subsequent purchase of C-17s, which was seen by many as an attempt to atone for the fallout over the MMRCA decision.

As seen with the MMRCA episode, another potential seam ahead is that Washington appears more exuberant than New Delhi for better relations with its new strategic partner. One way in which this is evinced is in the discourse about the common values of the two countries. Secretary Clinton has written that “President Obama told the Indian parliament last year that the relationship between India and America will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century, rooted in common values and interests.” In April 2011, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Robert O. Blake continued with this theme in testifying before Congress that all South Asian countries are governed by democratically elected leaders. He attributed this phenomenon to “an indication that India’s thriving democracy has served as a useful model in the region.”

Much discussion about intensifying US-India relations naturally emphasizes their “shared values” as the largest democracies in the world, thus implying the logic of their strengthened ties. However, Assistant Secretary Blake makes a mistake by viewing the smaller South Asian countries through the prism of India. They all have democratically elected leaders, which are not necessarily the result of their association with India, which incidentally has had its own share of high-profile, undemocratic episodes and controversies over civil liberties, as all developing countries do. Certainly, India is a great civilization with cultural linkages to all the smaller South Asian states. Yet in their exuberance for expanding ties with New Delhi, US officials should be wary of attributing the successes of individual South Asian countries to India. This action makes the US appear too eager for closer ties with a cautious (and arguably wise) India.

Consequently, US security strategy in South Asia should not make India its “linchpin.” There is already a sense that Washington will rely on New Delhi to manage the major security dealings of the smaller countries in South Asia, due to cultural and historical ties and geographical proximity. Former US ambassador Teresita Schaffer describes this “concern that “the United States might outsource its South Asia policy to India.” If the US were to “outsource” its South Asia policy to India – especially now when the bilateral relationship is still inchoate – this policy would be premature at best and disastrous at worst if expectations do not materialize. More importantly, however, building stronger relationships with small South Asia is not mutually exclusive to relationship building with India. In fact, the former may enhance the latter.