Since the ascendancy of American international relations as a global patron of an international liberal order, the American policy has been a key defining feature for the regions across the world. From the Middle East to Latin America, America’s role has been perceived as the guiding principles for the nations to follow. Since the Cold War, America’s project to defend liberal worldview from the communist beliefs has taken the fight between ideas to regions whose political models and policies either toe the American line or the Soviet. While the regions of Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America had been very active in this ideological struggle between two great powers, the region of South Asia with Pakistan and India as two independent, huge nation-states comprising it had occupied much lesser relevance to American policy than the aforementioned regions.
India’s non-alignment policy and then overt Nuclearization in the region motivated a much stronger relevance in the American policy circles toward South Asia. Moreover, due to its geographic proximity with Afghanistan, China, and Central Asia, the region had occupied second-tier importance with ascended to first as the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, From then onwards, and with overt Nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998, along with American invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 terrorist attacks, the region continually occupies an important position in the American foreign policy establishment.
However, the election of Donald Trump in 2016, as the American foreign policy was confronting the rise of China, conflict in Afghanistan, and hedging India as a counterweight to China on land and in the sea, these principles of American approach toward South Asia, like other American approaches, has been relegated to much lesser importance than they should motivate. Aside from occasional importance in context Trump’s China policy and Afghanistan withdrawal, the region had been left to its own devices during his term.
The election of President-elect Joe Biden and his Vice-President Kamala Harris is most likely to end this vacuum of American policy for the region and engage with the region with strategic insight and assertiveness. Joe Biden was awarded Hilal-e-Pakistan, the second-highest civil-award of the country, and Kamal Harris has ancestral roots in India. The personalized nature of their relationships to both of these countries will indeed influence the interaction once the Biden administration leads the White House. However, in the spirit of previous American interactions with the region, the Biden administration’s interaction with South Asia will be clouded by two mega strategic matters: The rise of China and the Conflict in Afghanistan.
A Biden administration would be likely to view both countries from the lens of these two mega strategic matters. The American relationship with Pakistan has always been about mega strategic issues, whether it be the nuclear program, the war in Afghanistan, or China. These trends are likely to be continued. Despite Trump’s rhetoric, the Biden administration is not inclined toward a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan without meaningful assurances and commitment from the Taliban.
From the lens of Afghanistan, the Biden administration would continue its interaction with Pakistan to facilitate dialogue and, if necessary, counter-terrorism cooperation in the areas within Pakistan and at the border of Afghanistan-Pakistan. Pakistan would also benefit from the understanding President-elect Biden would induce in American foreign policy toward the country as Biden has long-established relationships with civilian and military leaderships and a clear-eyed understanding of the importance of Pakistan to establish peace in Afghanistan.
However, complications would arise when it comes to American policy toward China. The country is now a long term threat to American foreign and defense understanding of the world. Pakistan must expect pressures from the United States, particularly in the domain of economics, human rights, and social development, as the US might try to leverage the fragile economic situation in the country to steer Pakistan away from China especially a slowdown of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Pakistan must also not expect a broaden support from the US in its relationship with India, as the latter country is considered a counterweight toward containing China.
The Biden administration is likely to pursue with India the declining progress in human and political rights especially with regards to Indian-occupied Kashmir. In understanding this, India recently released Mehbooba Mufti and is trying to mitigate its hard approach, relax stringent laws and rules, and tries to restore a semblance of normality in the occupied territory. Moreover, India is likely to confront criticism from the Biden administration on its policy toward religious discrimination and violence within India. But, despite public criticism of India for its abysmal human rights situation, the Indo-US partnership with regards to China will persist and will be strengthened. The US will continue to push India toward embracing its viewpoint on China at the cost of its competition with Pakistan. US will project India in joining multilateral forums such as QUAD to effectively counter China.
Although, complications in the Indo-US relationship will arise from the Pakistan factor, as the US will try to secure Pakistan’s goodwill in securing peace and stability in Afghanistan, Pakistan will try to leverage its role in focusing on the Indian occupational role in Kashmir and violations of human rights within India, and increased border clashes on the Indo-Pakistani border.
Notwithstanding the change in Washington’s leadership, the dynamic of US foreign policy in South Asia is likely to be more of the same. Indo-Pakistan competition will continue to frustrate US attempts to ally with Pakistan in reducing conflictual environment in Afghanistan and will attempt to ally with India in its competition with China. However, both of the countries, India and Pakistan, will attempt to use American efforts to induce attention on the activities of each other thus perpetuating the insidious cycle.