The US Strategy in Asia


Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra – TRANSCEND Media Service

The US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia visited Bangladesh on 8 December 2012 on a four day trip, before leaving for another South Asian nation, Bhutan. Last month Barack Obama became the first ever sitting US President to visit Myanmar, and then Cambodia to attend the East Asia summit. The US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell had visited New Delhi early this year to bring India ‘to the table’ in evolving the US’ Asia strategy. A report titled ‘The United States and South Asia after Afghanistan’ by Asia Society, New York, and released on 11 December 2012, harped on the recalibrating Obama’s Asia strategy. The second term of President Barack Obama will reinvigorate the US’ Asia policy post-Afghanistan withdrawal. In this new strategy South Asia will play a key determinant. During his four-day stay at Dhaka, Blake participated in South Asia Women’s Entrepreneurship Symposium, hosted by the US Department of State in support of the New Silk Road vision for “enhancing regional economic integration and advancing economic growth, peace, and stability, by empowering women through entrepreneurship and trade.”

Two of the main items that become buzzwords in recent US policy parlance in context of South, Central and Southeast Asia are New Silk Road and Indo-Pacific Corridor. Speaking at the New Silk Road ministerial meeting in September 2011, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had emphasized on realizing “the vision of the New Silk Road.” Silk Road is the traditional network of routes that straddle South Asia and Central Asia and beyond and which played a key role in ancient and medieval period in promoting trade in the region. Besides trade, religions like Buddhism and Sufism travelled through this network of routes. The addition of word ‘new’ marks a renewed emphasis on part of the US administration to focus on this traditional network of routes. The US special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan Marc Grossman observed in Dushanbe in October 2011, “This vision of the new Silk Road is a way to bring economic development and prosperity to the very important region from Central Asia to New Delhi … it is the way to connect Central Asia to South Asia.” Robert Blake during his stint in Bangladesh emphasized the operationalization of this New Silk Road as it would facilitate regional economic integration, and promote trade in the region. He stated, “We (US and South Asia) partner a whole range of issues and New Silk Road and Indo-Pacific Corridor will play major roles in moving this forward.”

The US has evinced a keen interest in this project as it will help strengthen its relationship with the countries of the region. The US is no more interested in dabbling in protracted regional conflicts, and it seems the leadership reorients the policy and adopts a nuanced approach in which the safe bet would be to involve in the areas which entice less friction. The Asia Society report exhorted the US policy establishment that it must avoid hyphenating regions like Indo-Pak or Af-Pak as such a binary contrast does not help add to the US objectives in the region in a post-cold war globalized world. Political diplomacy at present is being underplayed while economic diplomacy is given emphasis. As Blake stated in Dhaka, “Resolution of long-standing differences between India and Bangladesh and enhanced economic dialogue between the Indian and Pakistani governments… the groundswell of momentum is extremely promising.” The US is aware of the fact that the countries of the region are at loggerheads and at present their collective trade is abysmally low (four per cent of their trade in comparison to their trade with outside world).

Besides the New Silk Road idea, Indo-Pacific corridor too has been increasingly finding mention in policy circles in recent months. The corridor as explained by Blake will link South Asian countries including India and Bangladesh to further east through Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries. The corridor will link South Asia to the Pacific through Southeast Asia. Countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar and Indonesia are rich in energy resources; hence the region will play a crucial part in the evolving US’ Asia strategy. The visit of the US President to Myanmar last year, and the increasing rapport of the US with Myanmar’s political leaders particularly Aung San Suu Kyi will propel the US to evince further interest in the region in a wider continental paradigm, than dealing with each country specifically. The Asia Society report called the US establishment to give up any policy of bracketing any particular country, and suggested to follow a wider and integrated Asia strategy. There are speculations that the Obama administration in its second term may appoint a coordinator of higher rank to overlook the implementation of strategy.

After the scheduled war in Afghanistan ends in 2014, the US will look towards east towards South and Southeast Asia. The Obama administration has already unveiled its Asia-Pacific strategy. As the locus of power is moving from the West to the East, the US will certainly raise its stakes in the East. With the rapid rise of China, and with stakes of other players like Russia, the US will likely maneuver a less frictional path in pushing forward its interests, and for that the more acceptable will be economic diplomacy than political diplomacy. That is why Blake, while urging India and Pakistan to forge good relationship by forsaking past animosity, cited the bitter past relations between his country and Germany which are friendly now.  However, the US inroads into South, Central and Southeast Asia may not be smooth, as the other stakeholders including India, Russia and China may have their own calculations and perceptions about the US policies in this huge region.


Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, currently part of the research faculty at the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, India. He specializes on areas of conflict, peace and terrorism, and strategic dimensions of Central Eurasian politics.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 17 Dec 2012.

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