US-South Asia: Relations Under Bush

Stephen P. Cohen and
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert
Sunil Dasgupta
Sunil Dasgupta Former Brookings Expert, Director - University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Political Science Program at the Universities at Shady Grove

April 1, 2001

SUBJECT: The outlook for US policy towards India and Pakistan under the Bush administration.

SIGNIFICANCE: Despite the Bush team’s emphasis on India as a rising power, the new administration is unlikely to announce dramatic departures from President Bill Clinton’s approach to the country. While an ‘India first’ strategy will probably be pursued, it is unlikely to be an ‘India only’ policy.

ANALYSIS: Secretary of State Colin Powell has articulated the administration’s belief that India should occupy an increasingly important position on the US foreign policy agenda. Nonetheless, it is not yet possible to discern the precise trajectory of the Bush team’s South Asia policy. Much depends on the administration’s as yet unappointed second-rung officials who will play a critical role in formulating strategy, particularly because the region is only of secondary strategic importance to Washington.

The new assistant secretary of state for South Asia will play a particularly strong role in setting the tone of the administration’s relationship with India and Pakistan, not least because Powell has little experience of either country. A political appointee to this post could signal the Bush team’s preferences especially clearly. For instance, a nuclear specialist would indicate a focus on non-proliferation, while someone noted for their sympathies towards either India or Pakistan would signify other concerns. Similarly, if the new administration decides to appoint an assistant secretary of state solely for India, it would symbolise the heightened prominence that the country will be given under the Bush.

In addition to personnel issues, the new administration has made organisational changes to the South Asia policy making apparatus:

  • The South Asia desk in the National Security Council (NSC) has been moved out of the Middle East section of the council and now reports to the Asia Director.
  • More generally, preliminary indicators suggest that the locus of decision-making for regions of secondary importance to Washington will shift from the NSC (which will focus more narrowly on vital US interests and undertake crisis management where necessary) to the State Department. This shift is likely to bring greater stability in policy as career foreign service officials will exert more influence.
  • A debate is underway over whether the State Department’s South Asia Bureau, created early in the Clinton administration, should be left intact, or whether India and Pakistan should be given separate profiles as the Defense Department has done.

Policy Direction. The United States has had several identifiable interests in South Asia during the post-Cold war period:

  • developing a strong economic and strategic relationship with India;
  • preserving the integrity of the Pakistani state;
  • curbing Islamic extremism;
  • containing terrorist activity in Pakistan and Afghanistan where possible;
  • preventing a potentially dangerous nuclear arms race on the subcontinent; and
  • promoting a peace process in Kashmir.

During the past decade, US South Asia policy was concerned with finding the right balance between these interests. At the end of the Clinton administration, the balance shifted slowly towards India, though it was accompanied by efforts at rebuilding a relationship with Islamabad. Thus, despite the Bush team’s emphasis on India as a rising power, it is unlikely to announce dramatic policy changes towards that country or towards Pakistan. The main US effort in the region will probably be to scale down the sanctions imposed on both states, while preserving leverage over their nuclear programmes:

1. India. Many members of the new Bush team perceive India as a potential partner in maintaining stability in the Indian Ocean region, particularly in fighting Islamic fundamentalism and checking Chinese ambitions. The Defense Department has been lobbying for several years to increase military ties with the country, but these are prohibited by the sanctions imposed by Washington after India tested nuclear weapons in 1998. Both Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Powell are expected to re-examine the utility of the sanctions. However, technology transfers and improved military relations between the two countries are unlikely unless India succeeds in improving relations with Pakistan. In this respect, US officials set considerable store by India’s moratorium on operations in Kashmir, and Pakistan’s restraint along the line of control in the disputed territory.

Economic ties will occupy an increasingly important place in relations between Delhi and Washington (see OADB, March 17, 2000, I). Trade and investment between the two countries have been growing (especially in the technology sector), although nowhere near the rate between the United States and China. To help improve this, the US business community has been lobbying for better relations with India: technology firms and industry associations have pressed hard to double the number of visas issued to high-tech workers (half of which are given to Indians), and there is some expectation that once sanctions are fully lifted, there will be a possibility of selling military equipment and dual-use technology to India (which has recently made major purchases of this nature from Israel and Russia).

A closer strategic relationship between India and the United States is predicated on what happens to the US-Pakistan relationship. Indians clearly want to prevent the revival of a US-Pakistan alliance and, if possible, even a warming in Washington’s relationship with Islamabad. As such, the administration’s success at trying to improve relations with Islamabad, without alienating Delhi, will be a key test of its diplomatic skills.

2. Pakistan. Although Pakistan is less important to the United States than India, it is likely to occupy considerable attention in Washington over the next four years. This is mainly because of the belief amongst some US policy-makers that the country could collapse into anarchy with unpredictable consequences for the surrounding region. Pakistan combines the two major security threats to the United States: weapons of mass destruction and perceived links with terrorism. The administration will think seriously about ways of strengthening the Pakistani state and civil society, while urging it to exercise a restraining influence in both Afghanistan and Kashmir. The presence of a military regime in Islamabad may make these tasks harder.

The Bush team is also likely to review the three layers of sanctions imposed on Pakistan by Washington:

The first layer was imposed in 1991, when the administration of Bush’s father chose not to certify the country as “nuclear-safe”.

The second dates from 1998 and followed Pakistan’s own nuclear tests.

The third was imposed in 1999 to protest against the military coup.

Although some officials within the Defense Department and the State Department believe that these sanctions have destroyed Washington’s leverage in Pakistan, the Bush team is likely to have a new, albeit small, opening to improve relations with Pakistan. Educational aid and the renewal of military training are areas in which cooperation could be revived.

Diaspora politics. In formulating policy, the Bush team will have to contend with the new Indian-American, Pakistani-American, and Kashmiri-American constituencies that have established themselves in the United States, especially on Capitol Hill.

The Indian-American community has contributed heavily to both the Democratic and Republican Parties in the last two presidential elections. The congressional caucus on India and Indian-Americans has more than 120 members, and is one of the biggest interest groups in the House of Representatives. Members of the caucus have helped shift US policy towards more India-friendly postures. For example, the community lobbied effectively for the removal of a number of sanctions placed on India following its nuclear tests in 1998, and pushed hard for last year’s visit to India by President Bill Clinton. Such lobbying is likely to intensify.

Nevertheless, many members of the India caucus also have significant numbers of Pakistani-American constituents as Indian and Pakistani ethnic communities tend to concentrate in the same areas in the country. The Pakistani-American community is likely to be more effective in influencing policy when it cooperates with former Reagan officials, who developed strong relationships with Islamabad during the Afghan War in the 1980s. To the extent that former Reagan officials will make a comeback in the Bush team (there is no evidence of this yet), the Pakistani-American community will be more influential.

CONCLUSION: Although the administration will continue Clinton’s ’tilt’ towards India, it will also seek to re-build a relationship with Pakistan. It will do so by attempting to reduce sanctions on both countries, while urging nuclear restraint and encouraging a peace process in Kashmir.