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US, South Asia and China

The end of the Cold War has brought about a flourishing relationship between the US and the billion and a half people of South Asia, albeit on a pro-rata basis with India as the priority. People in this region value human rights, oppose terrorism, and want to protect their increasingly endangered environment. Free markets in South Asia are relatively new, but economic reform has strong intellectual support, and a growing middle class is committed to opening the economies of the region. A little over a decade ago South Asia was regarded by the United States as a third-class backwater, today it stands on the brink of becoming a major economic and military power. The dependance of many multinational firms a the service sector has made India (and increasingly other regional countries) a permanent priority to American policy makers.

This new US-India nuclear compact puts India on a fast-track emergence as a Superpower, it creates new geo-political dynamics in the region. Even though it may not be true, with staunch US ally Israel a “Jewish” State and India primarily a “Hindu” one despite its secular credentials, one should excuse muslim apprehension (and imminent rhetoric) about the ganging up of a Christian-Jew-Hindu axis against Islam. A general perception also exists in Pakistan that India has been rewarded for its years of anti-US policies, as usual Pakistan being shunted aside for being loyal to the US whenever US faces a crisis in the region. In the face of convenience why should we expect morality in inter-State relationships?

The famous May 25, 1965 Chester Bowles Memo analyzed why it was important to support India as a potential strategic US ally to contain China, and to de-link US-Pakistan and US-India relationships from “the eternal triangle” it had become. In a Houdini  achievement,  having  obtained massive military aid from the US after its sharp, short war with the Chinese in 1962, somehow India managed to maintain its non-aligned status. It remained also an unabashed Soviet ally (military and economic) during the cold war era.

The US-India nuclear deal has served to arouse Chinese suspicions. Earlier opinion piece in the People’s Daily pointedly asked if it was directed against China, calling it “of special significance….that the United States on the one hand presses the EU to keep arms embargo on China and urges Israel to cancel arms sales to China while on the other hand signs a wide-ranging defence agreement with India.” Beijing has fears about an American containment strategy. An American strategy that openly attempts to use India to balance China would be counterproductive to the development of the region itself. For India, outright confrontation with China would be expensive and pointless as has been seen in the past.

In the face of all this, a major development in South Asia has been Gen Pervez Musharraf’s encouraging both India and Pakistan to move away from their oft stated positions for the sake of peace in South Asia. Pakistan’s major departure of policy, coming from a soldier, was a 180-degree change of direction in the Army’s thinking. While recognizing the harsh ground realities, this is certainly a courageous move to settle this outstanding dispute with India. India’s response was rather cool, saying such negotiations should be confidential and through diplomatic channels rather than being debated in the media. India has been challenged to respond with ideas of their own to untangle the proverbial Gordian knot over Kashmir.

South Asia has seen a rise religious activism, this is quite deep-rooted and can be manipulated by motivated interest. Bangladesh, Pakistan and various other nations are facing the threat  of  religious   extremism  in  one  form  or   the  other.   For example, muslim protest, which started in sincere earnest against the publishing of the Danish outrage, later was provoked by motivated interests to become an outrage by itself because of the violence it gave birth to. Sectarian violence between the Sunni and Shia communities has portents of spilling over the borders of Iraq to all the territories inhabited by the Muslim Ummah, crossing an already fragile fail-safe line that holds the balance between peace and strife.

Bangladesh is increasingly witnessing a rise of ‘religious ideology’ based terrorism that has challenged the Bangladeshi liberal society more than ever before. The main terror outfit is the Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) that also unleashed the terror of suicide bombers in Bangladesh. Of late the Bangladesh government has achieved tremendous success in apprehending the two Kingpins of JMB who are currently being questioned. Nepal has been embroiled in a civil war with a Maoist communist insurgency since 1996. Recently the security problem in Nepal became worse as the revolt against the King intensified. Before the country fell to the Maoist rebels, the King restored Parliament. The insurgency has claimed more than 12500 lives, spreading to almost all of Nepal’s 75 districts, and the communist forces nearly surround the capital, Kathmandu. While they supported the movement, they have not been invited to participate in the new govt. An absolute monarch is in some cases no better than a communist dictatorship. In Sri Lanka the civil war goes on despite the cease-fire. By June 2005 the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers had managed to work out a “Joint Mechanism” for the distribution of tsunami aid, but the agreement appears fragile at best, with very little commitment on either side. The recent attack on the Army Chief triggered widespread reaction from the Sri Lankan Armed Forces, including aerial bombardment. The Cease-Fire seems virtually all over.

The minimum common requirement for Pakistanis is freedom from want while retaining our sovereignty and self-respect. Pragmatism must govern our policies, including the rush to “unfettered” democracy. As long as the masses can retain their self-respect and pride, they will be willing to compromise their freedoms. If one were to compare political emancipation to economic amelioration, the mass of the people would prefer food on the table for the family and their security than the freedoms one enjoys in a pure, unadulterated democracy.

Our own place in the sun should not hold up India in comparison or vilify the US for choosing them over us. Even if our future is with China, Central Asia and the Middle East, in that priority, why should we turn away from the US, particularly when there is no reason to? A nation independent of automatic reciprocity will not be hostage to other’s foreign policy imperatives. This includes disengaging totally from Afghanistan, a predator country (with a generally predator population) incapable of functioning without handouts. Afghanistan needs us, we don’t, it is as simple as that.

As a vast internal market, South Asia has an economy of scale with a distinct freight advantage to become a colossal economic juggernaut. That should be the vision for the future, together to be an economic power to surpass what China has now become. India, because of its dominance in the region, size-wise and economically, can take the lead and provide the impetus to its neighbours in the South Asian region. In order to overcome the morass we find ourselves in, a pragmatic approach is the need of the hour and India must take the initiative. South Asia could be the number two economic powerhouse in the world. Surely this is not beyond the realms of the impossible?

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