In the last few months, South Asia has gone from being just a global security headache, to a region with new possibilities. How does the US keep up with the ever-changing dynamics of South Asia? South Asia expert and senior advisor to McLarty Associates Teresita C Schaffer, the former U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka who also served in India, explores the question
in her new book, wrote India and the U.S. in the 21st Century: Reinventing Partnership. She is also collaborating with her husband Howard Schaffer, former US ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh and now Senior Counselor at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, Washington D.C, on a new book on how the Pakistanis negotiate with the United States.
Recently in Bombay at a visit to Gateway House, the Schaffers tell Gateway House’s Samyukta Lakshman about the major challenges that confront the US in South Asia.
In your assessment, what are the five major foreign policy challenges that the US confronts in South Asia and how can they be addressed?
Teresita and Howard Schaffer: Pakistan, maintaining the US-India momentum, Afghanistan, Kashmir and the rise of India and China in Asia.
In order of urgency, the first is the problem of Pakistan – the weakness of the government, the tremendous challenge from insurgents who are defying the authority of the State. The US has limited ability to change that situation. The principal tools that it can use are economic assistance tools, but deploying aid to solve a political problem always makes the donor vulnerable to the charge of trying to buy loyalty.
A major challenge which ranks alongside is maintaining the momentum in US-India relations. President Obama’s visit here was very successful and persuaded Indians – by my reading – that the Obama administration was just as concerned about the importance of India as the Bush administration had been. But how do you sustain that momentum? That’s something that US policymakers have to give a great deal of attention to.
Third is Afghanistan — what kind of government will ultimately be in place when the international military forces turn security over to the Afghans in 2014? Will the government be able to bring into its tent elements of the Taliban? What kind of elements? How senior? Who is going to be in charge? Will this be a government that is capable of exercising a reasonable degree of control? And what sort of relationship will Afghanistan have with both Pakistan and India. A lot of those decisions are going to be made in Kabul and again, the US will have limited control over them.
Fourth is Kashmir. The Obama administration has been clear that it is best left to India and Pakistan to decide on how to resolve the problem peacefully, taking into account the wishes of Kashmiris. The US can urge the two sides to lower tensions, to find ways to move the bilateral relationship forward, but this kind of friendly advice is, in my view, not likely to have much effect.
The final challenge is managing the rise of India and China in such a way as to maintain the peace, security and prosperity of Asia, not just South Asia. The US government is now really looking at India in an Asian context, i.e. we are looking jointly at South Asia and East Asia, with India as one of the players who will shape the future of Asia. This is not an anti-China move. We want to engage with China, but it is based on an understanding that neither India nor the US wants to see China as the sole big power actor in East Asia.
It presents a vision of the future of Asia in which there are not one or two big powers, but at least four or possibly five or six. The four would be China, India, Japan and the US. Does one include Indonesia, South Korea and Australia? At what point does Russia become an actor on the East Asian scene? We see Asia as an arena with big players who need to have a broad network of relationships and who need to work peacefully.
The Obama administration has changed the whole perspective and looks upon Asia as a whole — one piece of territory to be dealt with in a comprehensive way which is so different from the traditional American way of looking at it.
India perceives the U.S. as encouraging a resolution of the Kashmir issue, presumably in Pakistan’s favour. Also, the U.S. thinks that scaling down India’s presence in Afghanistan will encourage Pakistan to play a more helpful role in the region. Do you concur with that view?
On Kashmir, I think the US government does not favour Pakistan. It has taken a long time for Indian opinion to believe that view. I think it goes back to the Kargil attack by the Pakistanis across the Line of Control in 1999. To Pakistan’s dismay and India’s surprise, (the US) supported the Indian position and declared that the sanctity of the LoC must be recognised by Pakistan.
What is the most important US priority in Kashmir? Stability. In practical terms it means maintaining the present situation, and the present situation favours India because India has control of the part of Kashmir that both countries consider most important – the Kashmir Valley.
In Afghanistan, I think the US government has concluded that it cannot reach an acceptable outcome against Pakistan’s opposition. So the US will be somewhat sensitive to Pakistani concerns about India’s role in Afghanistan. While Washington welcomes India’s generous contributions to Afghan reconstruction – I don’t think that makes the Pakistanis particularly happy because they are suspicious of this Indian activity – it has not encouraged any kind of security role for India and that’s where the US is going to continue to draw the line.
Pakistan is perhaps America’s most complex relationship, even more than with China. How do you see the U.S.-Pakistan relationship unfold in the short-term and in the long-term?
Pakistan is deeply worried about where the U.S.-India relationship is going. Most Pakistanis recognise that the U.S.-India relationship has been transformed over the last 20 years – that India has an economic motor that Pakistan doesn’t come close to matching. Pakistan is still following its traditional strategy of looking for countries that balance India. Its relationships with the U.S. and China has always been seen in this context.
Could India’s growth story be threatened by severe regional instability?
The threat to India’s growth story is as much political drift and economic decision-making drift on the part of the government as it is regional instability. The success of India’s private sector, its manufacturing and service industries has increased the momentum of its growth and its economic relations with the US and Europe. To keep that growth going, what is required is continuous decision-making on the part of India’s government, not just managing a difficult current fiscal situation or inflation, but taking steps that will continue the momentum in the opening of Indian markets and their engagement with the world. Some of this is happening automatically, but some depends on policy changes.
The political drift has less impact internationally, but more impact on India.
Bangladesh is changing, Sri Lanka is in a new place after the LTTE was vanquished, Pakistan is on the verge of implosion and India is descending into corruption and non-governance. How would you sum up the changing facets of South Asia?
The big trends are that India is economically moving ahead, Pakistan is still caught up with the problems that are spilling over from Afghanistan. Sri Lanka is an interesting case because the government’s victory over the LTTE has given rise to a kind of triumphalism and anti-Western sentiments.
The challenge for Sri Lanka will be the effort to build a new political relationship between the Sinhala and Tamil communities. We heard a lot about the politi
cal negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil National Alliance when we were travelling in Chennai. I am not terribly sanguine about where this is leading, but we’ll see.
The United States has not yet succeeded in figuring out how to manage its long term interests in Sri Lanka – of going back to its economic growth path, putting Sri Lankan politics on a sound footing and doing the job of peacemaking.
We are rather encouraged by events in Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina took a considerable political gamble in trying to develop closer relations with India and talk about interconnectivity between Bangladesh and other countries. There is still a considerable degree of stability and we have not reached the stage which is so frequently the case in Bangladesh, where people are out in the streets.
America’s tragedy seems to be its government’s ability to engage with the rulers of Muslim States like Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan, but is unable to engage with the aspirations of ordinary people, where popular resentment at America being the source of all troubles runs high.
How can the Obama and future administrations hope to address this dichotomy and re-establish its credibility with people?
In foreign policy terms, the US has always drawn a distinction between democracy at home and dealing with the world as you find it; Egypt is a particularly good example at the moment.
The US developed a strong relationship with Egypt and what at the time was a very strong government that was not dictatorial, but certainly autocratic. When that government stayed in place for 30 years, eventually discontent built up and erupted into the streets.
In Pakistan, where anti-Americanism is at record levels, it is really the result of a strong belief that the US has not been a faithful friend. It is also a combination of the frustration over the Afghanistan war, the backlash from that war inside of Pakistan, horrible security problems, lots of deaths in internal bombings and so on which will make any population unhappy. It is not terribly surprising that people are putting out the word that the US is anti-Islamic.
But US support for authoritarian regimes cannot be confined to the Islamic world alone. It is also frequently charged in the case of Latin America, of some African countries also.
How does one build a relationship with the people of an authoritarian country? With big public diplomacy campaigns that reach out to people; bring out Americans who talk about the value of democracy and finding expression for the popular will.
At the governmental level, trying to speak to people over the heads of their government is a very tricky operation. The good thing about the globalised, technologically-integrating world is that you have a lot of people in global conversations with each other who are not necessarily part of the conflict or the government. Sometimes messages get through even if they don’t come from the government.
But what to do with regard to these authoritarian regimes? As Ambassador in Bangladesh (Howard Schaffer, Dhakha, 1984-87) someone who urged me to support the cut-off of economic assistance as a way of indicating that the US did not support the authoritarian martial law regime of General H M Ershad. Should one cut-off economic assistance in ways which will be most damaging to the most vulnerable part of society? One has to take all of those things into consideration.
The US has sometimes been successful in moving forward with this process. But there always hangs over this concern that the current government could be replaced by one more inimical. One example is Iran – we should have done much more to urge the Shah to reform, but the end result as seen in hindsight is a regime, seen in the US point of view, as being very inimical.
Teresita C Schaffer is South Asia expert and senior advisor to McLarty Associates, former U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka who also served in India, and author of the book India and the U.S. in the 21st Century: Reinventing Partnership.
Howard Schaffer is Senior Counselor at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, Washington D.C, and former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Samyukta Lakshman is a Researcher at Gateway House.
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