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Five Big Questions September 15, 2020

Five big questions as America votes: South Asia

By South Asia Center

As part of the Atlantic Council’s Elections 2020 programming, the New Atlanticist will feature a series of pieces looking at the major questions facing the United States around the world as Americans head to the polls.

South Asia is bursting with human diversity and untapped potential. Home to nearly 2 billion people and stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Himalayas, the region is a rich melting pot of various religions, ethnicities, and cultures. In the last decade alone, globalization has encouraged the region’s emerging economies to enter global markets, generating robust growth and greater connectivity via trade networks and diplomacy. Driven by a growing young generation, the future looks promising. 

However, instability, poverty, human-rights abuses, and other issues remain. The next US administration will need to confront a slew of regional challenges, including China’s growing political and economic clout; a resurgence of majoritarian politics; strained India-US relations; the impending Afghanistan peace process; and post-COVID-19 reconstruction. To remain a thoughtful ally in South Asia, the United States must earn respect and cooperation across all eight countries; flexing political and diplomatic muscles may not be enough. 

Below are the five major questions facing the United States in South Asia as the US elections approach, answered by five top regional experts:

What does the United States owe Afghanistan?

As long as the Afghan government remains a partner in pursuing stability and combatting terrorism, the United States owes Afghanistan the same things we owe our other partners and allies: respect, consultation, and meaningful cooperation and support in addressing the issues and goals we have in common. President Obama in 2012 signed our Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan as both countries looked to the time when the Afghan security forces would take responsibility for combat, and US and coalition forces would transition to a support and assist mission at much lower force levels. The Partnership outlines objectives based on common interests and values, the most fundamental of which is the pursuit of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan which is not a base for international terrorism or regional conflict. The Partnership is the foundation for the engagement of the international community and more than forty countries in a common effort to protect our citizens, and to realize the aspirations we and most Afghans share. 

As we look to the future, hopefully on the cusp of peace talks, we might ask what we owe ourselves in Afghanistan? We have sacrificed much and, despite all the mistakes and obstacles, have achieved much. Afghanistan is struggling, poor, and severely challenged by corruption. But it is not a failed state and is working to achieve a better future, to counter the Taliban and find peace, and to cooperate with the United States to defeat ISIS and Al Qaeda. The United States is engaged with Afghanistan because of America’s security interests, not Afghan interests. We owe it to ourselves not to waste the sacrifices made and the progress achieved by continuing to work with our Afghan and international  partners to pursue peace, combat terrorism, and to continue the relatively much lower levels of support needed to protect our interests. 

James B. Cunningham is the former US ambassador to Afghanistan and is a nonresident senior fellow in the South Asia Center.

How can the United States best support pluralistic, democratic governance in South Asia amid a resurgence of majoritarian politics?

The United States should take a clear position that an attack on minority rights cannot be justified by South Asian nations as an internal matter, falling under the umbrella of sovereignty. Historically, that argument has led to a great many massacres and tragedies. Conceptually, when racial, religious, or ethnic majorities take over the reins of powers, minorities do not have the numbers to protect themselves, even in democracies.  Democracies are about majority rule, but only if the voting majorities are of a shifting multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-religious nature. 

The judiciary is about the only institution that has the power or authority to protect minorities in such circumstances. However, if the courts follow the legislature or executive, instead of standing up to them, then minorities have no internal resource or institution for their own protection. Only external pressure can save them. That is why it is important to view minority rights as human rights, whose egregious violation must be viewed as an international matter of concern, not just a matter to be treated under the principle of national sovereignty.

There are two potential corrective measures the United States can contemplate. It can censure an entire government, imposing sanctions. This is an extreme measure, which is not conceptually sound (nor often practical). It begins to equate both the offenders in the governments and their critics inside a country, punishing both. Practically, it also starts uniting much of the country behind an offending government, whose interests begin to get equated with national interests. That is why it is better to target the offenders—the elected and unelected officials associated with the worst violations of minority rights. These are typically ministers of home, governors, heads of state governments, police and military chiefs, intelligence chiefs, non-state organizations linked to attacks on minorities, and so on. Sanctioning them, denying them visas, making it hard for them to travel internationally, or closing their external financial or bank accounts, are some of the measures that can be potentially quite effective.

Dr. Ashutosh Varshney is the Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences and a professor of Political Science at Brown University, and is a nonresident senior fellow in the South Asia Center.

What measures can Washington take to reduce friction in US-India trade relations? How can a stronger US-India trade and investment relationship further American grand strategy in South Asia?

In 2018, India and the United States initiated talks on a mini trade deal; one year later, a brief conversation between Indian Minister of Commerce and Industry Piyush Goyal and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer sparked excitement: the deal was seemingly at the cusp of signing. Yet, as of August 2020, negotiations are still underway. In recent months, conversations have led to a mutual compromise for the sake of a deal. Currently, talks are stalled at equalizing the amount saved in tariff rebate from each side. This approach can be explained as ‘transactional’ at best.

Historically, a trade deal carries two purposes: market access for economic growth and strategic alignment for political context. However, China recently debunked the theory that economic growth is synonymous to market access; today exports account for only 17 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

In the context of an India-US mini trade deal, the most advantageous play for both countries is to align strategically and influence their commercial gains based on the aforementioned strategic alignment, rather than focus on transactional benefits and exports. Of additional importance is to define whether their strategic alliance is purely to check China, or if it serves the greater purpose of realizing the economic benefits of two successful economies working together. An immediate solution to further trade talks would be to delink the digital trade negotiations from the mini trade deal. Digital regulations are still evolving in India and demanding mutual collaboration on something that is a ‘work in progress’ would not be fair.

Ridhika Batra is the vice president of Corporate Affairs, Americas for the Mahindra Group and is a nonresident senior fellow in the South Asia Center.

How might the United States work with China to support South Asia’s regional stability and economic prosperity?

The current prospects for US-China coordination to support South Asia’s stability and prosperity are very limited at best. China’s strident territorial claims along its disputed border with India, a growing US partner, contributed to a deadly confrontation in June that has set off alarm bells and continues to generate tensions. As such, the United States should urge China to return to the status quo ante along the Line of Actual Control.

Beijing is unlikely to listen to Washington, as the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated a deterioration in their relationship. Both US-China and India-China ties are increasingly regarded by the capitals as zero-sum competitions, if not outright confrontations. To reverse this dynamic and find common ground, China needs to address heightened Indian concerns. Many in New Delhi believe that Beijing wants to tie India down to the subcontinent and reduce India’s influence through increasing military cooperation with Pakistan, the Belt and Road Initiative, expansionist territorial claims, and a growing Indian Ocean presence. An apparent mixture of confidence and insecurity among China’s leaders, however, may make any near-term reconciliation unlikely.

Even limited, effective regional coordination will require the three major powers to keep diplomatic (and military) channels open and somewhat insulated from baleful nationalism and domestic politics. That will prove to be a very difficult task. With the requisite political will, the United States, India, and China could quietly explore whether common (if abstract) interests in reducing violent extremism and Afghanistan’s peaceful development can result in modest coordination. Similarly, each might see shared benefit in working together on a narrow regional connectivity project, such as in Nepal. In the near-term, everyone’s stability and prosperity is tied to subduing the coronavirus. Transparent information-sharing regarding ongoing vaccine trials, followed by equitable distribution of manufactured vaccines, may start to bridge the widening trust deficit.

Atman Trivedi is the managing director at Hills & Company and is a nonresident senior fellow in the South Asia Center.

How can the United States support sustainable resilience initiatives within South Asia, especially with an eye to the need for poverty reduction and economic empowerment post-COVID?

The United States must engage with new non-governmental organization (NGO) partners, which hold professional competence in shaping agendas in South Asia. For too long, USAID-like institutions have worked in isolated quarters with selected old guard agencies; this ought to change quickly. Better risk informed cross-sectoral planning and global health diplomacy must be adapted by the US State Department Missions in South Asia for strategic diplomacy, which has the potential to economically champion vulnerable groups by addressing cascading risks. The US Missions in South Asia must be strengthened by Congress to be allowed the flexibility to allocate and strengthen program implementation by better funding support.

This also enables institutions like the Atlantic Council to play a critical role in building regional activism to further US interests, and to build bridges with the United States wherein professionals from South Asia could be identified who could work with the US government and nonstate actors in shaping bilateral agendas built on shared vision and values. This must be cross-sectoral covering disciplines of diplomacy, peace and conflict, disasters, public health, trade and commerce, economy, and social development at large.

Dr. Edmond Fernandes is the founder and CEO of CHD Group and is a nonresident senior fellow in the South Asia Center. 

The South Asia Center is the hub for the Atlantic Council’s analysis of the political, social, geographical, and cultural diversity of the region. ​At the intersection of South Asia and its geopolitics, SAC cultivates dialogue to shape policy and forge ties between the region and the global community.

Related Experts: James B. Cunningham, Ashutosh Varshney, Ridhika Batra, Atman Trivedi, and Edmond Fernandes

Image: A man walks along a wall overlooking the central Mumbai's financial district skyline, India, March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui