South Asia has always remained an area of peripheral and derivative interest to the United States. South Asia is a most complex, volatile and politically explosive region and it remains the most enigmatic and baffling in the world. The region has always been an arena where great power competition has been played and managed.
The region has been recognized as a geographical area of major strategic significance through which the routes connecting Europe, Africa and Asia. The South Asian region is important because of its connection with the vital sea-lines of communication in the Indian Ocean and is sandwiched between two politically volatile and economically critical regions i.e., the Persian Gulf and Southeast Asia. The U.S. policy in South Asia has been shaped not so much with reference to the interests of the states of the region but based U.S. interests vs. Russia and China.
The U.S. policy towards South Asia has changed considerably over the last seven decades. The nature of the U.S. engagement with different countries in the region has varied over time, as per their level of interest, while India and Pakistan have received the most attention from Washington. The United States has also been engaging with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, at different degrees.
The United States’ involvement in South Asia has fluctuated, depending upon its intensity and style of competition with other great powers at the global level. Prior to Second World War the cold war era started; the U.S. interests in South Asia were very narrow and limited which were primarily commercial in nature. After 1945, the United State left her traditional policy of “isolationism” and joined the world affairs mainly to check the expansion of Soviet Communism in the world. During 1960-70s; United State was not very much in the affairs of South Asia. The strategy of neutrality was adopted during the 1965 and 1971 war of India and Pakistan, which hurt Pakistan more than of India.
The U.S. policy towards Pakistan in these two decades was a matter for Pakistani leaders to think seriously that United States approach will not facilitate Pakistan in any future war so they should not be dependent only on her. In general, the United States accepted India as a regional power to assure peace and security in the region. In 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger acknowledged that “the size and position of India give it a special role of leadership in South Asia and world affairs.” It was hoped that, ultimately, Pakistan and Afghanistan would also come under this collaboration. However, the Indian nuclear explosion in May 1974 and Pakistan’s intention to go for nuclear, forced the U.S. administration to take interest in the region to prevent nuclear proliferation. The Carter administration took a strong stand against Pakistan’s nuclear development, through cutting-off economic and military assistance.
However, the advent of the Iranian revolution and the Soviet adventurism in Afghanistan fuelled the longstanding Western fear of Soviet expansionism and gave an acute sense of urgency to retaliate and stop the advancement of the communists. In 1979 the Russian invasion of Afghanistan was another turn in the Pak-U.S. relation. They were looking for the containment of communism in the region and the United States regional and global interests compelled it to re-establish relation with Pakistan. Afghan Jihad against Soviets in Pakistan became a frontline state. In March 1980, Secretary of Defense the U.S. said: “Pakistan has become, through a combination of circumstances and geography, a vital strategic area in the present contest between the expansionist and non-expansionist power centres. Pakistan strategic location can be a bridge between Southwest and Southeast Asia which is a physical barrier to the southward expansion of the Soviet Union and it will be the adequate counterweight to an expansionist Soviet”
Economically, the Western anxiety was quite logical and concerned about the Soviet drive toward the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean on which the West depends. If they were succeeded in taking effective control of the Persian Gulf then Europe and Japan would be at the mercy of the Soviet Union. In the same vein, the U.S. had a vital stake because they were also dependent on oil and strategic materials. The United States was less than five per cent dependent on imported oil and strategic minerals but over half of the oil consumed in the western industrialized economies. Europe, Australia and Japan were absolutely dependent on overseas sources.
The industrialized nations remain dependent on Gulf oil and during 1989-90 it accounted for 35 per cent of France’s oil, 32 per cent of Italy’s, 35 per cent of Germany’s and 95 per cent of Japan. In these circumstances, the U.S. recognized that ensuring security and stability of Persian Gulf is in her vital interest. The successive U.S. administrations formulated a long-term strategic policy with regard to the region’s oil resources and highlighted the critical importance of petroleum as the foundation of the ability to fight a modern war.
For this purpose, the postwar era has been marked by two major US interests in the Persian Gulf region: containment of Soviet influence and the preservation of the conservative local regimes through a network of treaties with the various sheikhs, rulers and its elaborate regional military presence. In the 1970s; according to an assessment, “if every oil field in the Middle East were to cease production, the Soviet Union would be almost totally unaffected, while the West would face economic and social disruption of catastrophic proportions”. This basic fact made the Persian Gulf the eye of the global storm at the end of the 20th century. The truth is that energy is the lifeblood of the economic system and economic power is the foundation of military power.
Strategically, South Asia was at the crossroads of the great powers’ interests. The basic US strategic interests in the region were to maintain the freedom of the seas and the protection of European interests in the strategic parts of the world, i.e. the freedom to keep the high seas open for navigation, not only for herself but also for her allies.
The U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged each other because of their respective regional and global interests. The Cold War lasted for over 50 years and ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of the U.S.  as the sole superpower. The world saw a transition from bipolar to a unipolar world. The ‘evil empire’ as said by Reagan, then became a part of history. Capitalism emerged as the only structure to rule the world economy but owing to the recent tensions followed by military advancements of the United States and the potentially arriving power China, another confrontation took their way.
For the United States, it is better to maintain the defensive nature of her policies rather than being offensive towards any country, be it Russia, China or anyone else, because ultimately it is not in the interest of today’s world community to engage in another war costing lives of the United States and loss of billions of dollar for the sake of dominance, pride and ideological supremacy.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.
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Amna Nisar Abbasi is an independent researcher having interest in geopolitical and geostrategic issues. She did her masters in Defense and Strategic Studies from Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad.