The Importance of South Asia's Smaller States


Current US Activities and Interests in Smaller South Asia

Besides deterring Chinese influence in smaller South Asia and cushioning the US in its new strategic relationship with India, what are the reasons for the US to develop its security policy in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Nepal? Small states in South Asia would clearly benefit from US security assistance, but how would the US benefit from cultivating stronger relations with these countries?

It is worth noting that current US policy does not completely ignore the smaller South Asian states. Speaking about the Maldives, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka before the Senate Armed Service Committee in April 2011, Admiral Robert F. Willard of US Pacific Command (USPACOM) has testified that “The US has extensive interests throughout the rest of South Asia.” In Bangladesh, 2011 was the first year for the bilateral Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise between the Bangladeshi Navy (BN) and the US Navy. This is the first time in 17 years that a South Asian country participated in this annual series of bilateral exercises held by the US Navy and Southeast Asian countries. Last year, the US donated 16 Defender-class boats to the BN for counterterrorism and maritime interdiction purposes. In Nepal, US marines participate in expeditionary and tactical exchanges with the Nepal Army. In the Maldives, the US provides assistance on maritime security and International Military Education and Training (IMET), in addition to training selected personnel from the Maldives National Defence Forces (MNDF). In Sri Lanka, the US defense community engages Sri Lanka as much as it can while walking a fine line with regard to the 2007 cutoff in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) aid and ongoing US human rights concerns. An example of engagement is the attendance of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Robert M. Scher at Sri Lanka’s Galle Dialogue in November 2011.

Still, the US could be doing more with the smaller states of South Asia while still supporting their own national interest. Secretary Blake observes that the US needs Bangladesh’s cooperation on counterterrorism. Similarly, he notes that the “Maldives is situated on the front lines of common threats including Somali piracy, narco-trafficking and the recruitment and training grounds of Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba.” Admiral Willard has testified about this threat as well. The MNDF does not have the ability to patrol all of their sprawling 1200 islands. Therefore, it is in the US interest to ensure that the Maldives does not unknowingly harbor terrorists in any of its atolls.

As policymakers seek ways to reduce defense spending, smaller South Asian states are also important for mitigating the American share of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). Admiral Willard testified that USPACOM is trying to build capacity in South Asian militaries so they can address natural disasters. For instance, the US provided relief assistance to Bangladesh through Joint Task Force Sea Angel in response to Cyclone Marian in 1991 and Operation Sea Angel II following Cyclone Sidr in 2007. Of course, the US also responded to the 2004 tsunami and aided Indian Ocean littoral nations such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia through Operation Unified Assistance. In Nepal, the greatest natural threat involves earthquakes because Nepal lies in a high seismic risk zone. The UN Development Programme estimates that a major earthquake in the Kathmandu Valley could result in the death of at least 40,000 people. The III Marine Expeditionary Force and the Nepal Army participate in an annual HADR exercise that focuses on coordination in the event of an earthquake.

Despite the US’s troubled relations with Sri Lanka, Ambassador Blake has asserted that “Sri Lanka remains of strategic interest to the US” and points to the country as a “capable and willing partner to effectively combat violent extremism, trafficking and piracy, and thereby help to ensure the maritime security of the region.” In fact, the US Navy could benefit from learning techniques employed by the Sri Lankan Navy including the creation of small boat units and counter-swarm tactics to defeat the swarm attacks by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTTE) Sea Tigers during the civil war. These methods could be useful given the threat the US may face in the Strait of Hormuz against Iran. Furthermore, Secretary Scher participated in Sri Lanka’s November 2011 Galle Dialogue and spoke about the countries’ common interests on maritime security.

Finally, as Bangladesh and the Maldives are predominantly Muslim countries, the US could use as many international partners with this religious identity given its troubles with the Islamic world and perceptions of its intent there. The Pew Global Attitudes Project consistently finds unfavorable public opinion of the United States in majority Muslim countries, except for Indonesia.