Saturday May 18, 2024

Biden and South Asia - Part II

By Dr Murad Ali
January 02, 2021

In its pursuit of its anti-China policy, the Trump administration typically turned a blind eye to the unilateral annulment of Article 370, revoking Kashmir’s special autonomy and the Modi government’s anti-Muslim policies and human rights violations in Kashmir.

Traditionally, Democrats have remained strong advocates of democracy, human rights and freedom of expression. It is to be seen how the Biden presidency will respond to such ‘American values’ as his vice-president-elect Kamala Harris had spoken about these subjects during the election campaign. Overall, however, it is unlikely to witness a drastic change of policy towards India because New Delhi’s significant clout makes it the only formidable ally in the region against the ever-growing Chinese role in South Asia.

That said, the US policy of containing Beijing via primarily military means seems inherently a flawed one. As elaborated earlier, South Asian countries need economic assistance more than security-related package. The fact is that when it comes to creating an atmosphere for greater global public goods and win-win cooperation and in investing in connectivity initiatives across countries and regions, unlike Beijing, Washington seems to be in want of both the vital wherewithal as well as political will.

To this end, granted that the US is faced with its own financial crunch at home owing to the pandemic; nevertheless, the US should come up with investment initiatives aimed at enhancing financial and trade links in the region with improved infrastructure and should assist South Asian countries to remove trust deficit and eliminate trade barriers. Any such US-backed and locally-owned move would significantly boost inter-regional trade and investments and would eventually lead to calm regional tensions. Such an initiative could be more fruitful for US interests in the region. Connectivity and infrastructure projects are a much more effective tools to create a win-win situation for the region’s countries and to counterbalance the rising role of Beijing in the region, rather than to focus primarily on military means intended to equip India against China.

Whether it is in the context of Afghanistan or Pakistan, after protracted conflict and insurgency, any new approach and policy for the region must combine economic assistance and maintain some form of security succour to enable the US in maintaining stability in both Afghanistan and the larger South Asian region. Rather than relying solely on military might to resolve regional conflict or to maintain hegemony, the new administration must put more emphasis on the economic needs of the region.

To this end, as has been done in the past, the US could use its leverage in multilateral organisations such as the World Bank, the ADB and the IMF, to maximize the benefits of development interventions via economic aid and reduce a direct burden on US taxpayers. Such initiatives have largely remained successful in the past. During his tenure as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden, along with Senator Richard Lugar was instrumental in the promulgation of the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act, known as the Kerry–Lugar Bill (KLB). The bipartisan bill, tripling non-military aid to the country, authorized the provision of $1.5 billion to Pakistan annually for five years (2010–2014).

It is unfortunate that some elements within Pakistan termed the KLB as intended for the ‘micromanagement of Pakistan’. While terrorism certainly remained an area of high priority for the US, the main impetus behind the KLB was to broaden US engagement with Pakistan and help the country in terms of economic challenges: to help in the creation of jobs, improvement of infrastructure, education, healthcare and energy sectors. Despite so many shortcomings on both sides, the KLB helped in a number of areas and sectors as US economic assistance played a pivotal part in enabling a conflict and disaster-affected Pakistan to respond effectively when confronted with man-induced (read terrorism) and natural hazards (floods). Hence, the new administration should think of such economic initiatives for the conflict-affected and financially fragile countries of South Asia.

As Democrats have conventionally perceived Beijing as a ‘competitor’ and not primarily as an antagonist, a kind of a more assuaging and benign stance towards China’s BRI/CPEC could bring substantial dividends to South Asian countries. A number of experts are of the view that the BRI could be a potentially win-win situation for American investors and companies -- provided both Washington and Beijing agree on international norms, values and principles meant to create a conducive environment of mutual trust and reconciliation. This will significantly reduce pressure on Pakistan and other South Asian countries which are part of the BRI. However, if the ongoing atmosphere of distrust and paranoia characterised by the US-China trade war and the expulsion of diplomats persist, it will certainly have considerable implications for the region.

In any situation, we hope and wish that sanity prevails in the power corridors in White House and Pentagon. However, if things do not go the way they are expected from a seasoned statesman like Biden and if the new administration trumps outgoing Trump’s China-containment policy and comes up with a more aggressive carrot and stick approach, Islamabad must be prepared to maintain a balance between the two powers.

We must also weigh the cost-benefit analysis of remaining neutral. In our past dealings with the US, history shows that we have learnt nothing from our history. Pakistan’s foreign policy wizards need to be prepared for some alternative options in an uncertain future situation.


The writer holds a PhD from Massey University, New Zealand. He teaches at the University of Malakand.