The Importance of South Asia's Smaller States


Easy Wins for the US, India, and Smaller South Asia

Smaller South Asia would welcome greater ties with the US. Sri Lanka, in particular, has been on the outs of the Western international community and would welcome a benign US visage after years of a cold shoulder. The Maldives would appreciate maritime security and counterterrorism assistance combating the threats posed by Somali pirates and al Qaeda terrorists. In the long run, however, the Maldives’ greatest threat is existential due to rising sea levels that may render its entire population environmental refugees. Bangladesh likewise faces serious environmental threats and would welcome assistance such as early warning systems and satellite data-sharing to mitigate the damage of cyclones on its shoreline. Nepal, for its part, could benefit from US support during the process of integrating Maoist rebels into the Nepal Army. Furthermore, all these countries seek Excess Defense Articles (EDA) from the US, which are usually given via grant or FMF.

Deepening such traditional and nontraditional security ties would provide the US with an opportunity to show leadership in South Asia at relatively little cost. There is of course the possibility that India might take offense to a greater US role in the region. Some Indian defense analysts may even fear that growing maritime security relations with smaller South Asia could lead the US to set up a naval base. Given budget cuts in the US, however, this is unlikely. Furthermore, the US is content with its Indian Ocean presence in Diego Garcia, and India is accustomed to this. While US officials such as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta assert that the US will not quit Asia despite incipient Pentagon budget cuts and the weariness of two land-wars in the Middle East, economic realities could give sway and ultimately dictate a gradual US retrenchment during the course of this century, although not completely.

In the meantime, a greater US role now in South Asia would provide a helpful transition for India to develop its leadership in the region—something it has been reluctant to do. India is still learning how to manage its economic and strategic rise and is not yet comfortable exerting an active leadership role, likely due to its roots in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Indian Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Nirmal Verma’s statement that India will not take a “headmaster” role in the Indian Ocean region typifies the country’s reluctance to assert its presence. Despite its formidable economic growth, India still lacks a coordinated strategic response and management of reaction to China’s increased presence in South Asia. Until India embraces the convergence of its increasing resources, capabilities, and interests, the US should not neglect the opportunity to cultivate deeper economic, political, and military ties directly with the region’s smaller countries, which are typically overlooked until a natural disaster occurs or a human rights concern emerges.

US-India Security Coordination in Smaller South Asia

Rather than being an irritant to US-India bilateral relations, expanded US security ties with smaller South Asia presents a chance for the two countries to coordinate on ensuring stability in the region. Given its increasing defense budget, India should embrace the opportunity to exercise a leadership role and shed some of its NAM baggage. Meanwhile, the US would welcome an opportunity to promote burden-sharing in the context of declining resources. A November 2011 Pentagon report to Congress stipulates that “the Department of Defense is continually looking for ways to expand defense cooperation with India.”

A wide range of motives and means for collaboration exist. Given growing Chinese relations with the smaller countries of South Asia, neither the US nor India want to concede potential strategic gains through China’s association with them. Smaller South Asia is politically stable with democratically elected leaders, and it is in both powers’ interests to preserve this state of affairs. Writing about increasing counterterrorism capacities in South Asia, former Pentagon official S. Amer Latif stresses that the US should be sensitive to how it conducts its efforts with India for fear of raising the specter of colonialism. Treating the dominant power with respect is wise in any subregion. Still, the potential benefits to India and the US outweigh the costs of coordinating on counterterrorism, as well as on other issues. On HADR, US-India coordination before the next environmental cataclysm will alleviate the blow experienced by residents in this region’s turbulent climate.

It is not surprising that the US has failed to take full advantage of its bilateral relationships with smaller South Asia. US policymakers are understandably preoccupied by challenges presented by larger countries in the region: namely, drawdown from Afghanistan, tenuous relations with Pakistan, and a new strategic partnership with India. However, in an era when US relations with India are still developing, but New Delhi is only beginning to grasp its potential for exercising leadership in this region, and as China’s ties with the smaller states of South Asia strengthen, the US should advance security relations with smaller South Asia. Not only are Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Nepal situated in a strategic location, but they constitute an important arena of competition between India and China. Enhanced ties with these states could provide the US with a cushion in South Asia, especially if relations with the larger countries disappoint and Washington is ultimately left without strong security partners in the region. In addition, the US could benefit from military exchanges with these countries and has long-term interests in building capacity in counterterrorism and HADR.

A new discourse is emerging in Washington policy circles about the “Indo-Pacific,” which is gradually displacing the more commonly used term “Asia-Pacific.” India should not be the only factor in this new conceptualization; smaller South Asia also has a role to play in the region. With proper attention to this block of states and careful management of its nascent relationship with India, the US has much to gain from intensifying security ties with the smaller countries of South Asia. ■

* Nilanthi Samaranayake is an analyst in the Strategic Studies division at CNA in Alexandria, VA. She can be contacted at  [email protected]. This article was adapted and  expanded from an essay published by the East-West Center in September  2011. The views expressed are solely those of the author and not of any organization with which she is affiliated.