US needs an integrated Asia policy

Alexander Evans says, moreover, the region's importance goes beyond Beijing-Delhi ties

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 December, 2012, 1:28am

Chester Bowles, a former US ambassador to India, once called for a single assistant secretary of state to cover the whole of Asia in order to strengthen the US State Department's capacity to think strategically about the region.

As foreign policy attention turns away from Afghanistan towards China's rise, it is time for Washington to reorganise its foreign policy machine to recognise that China is a player in South Asia. US policy on South Asia needs to be properly integrated into a broader Asia policy - one that encompasses all the states across the region, not just the prominent duo of India and China.

There is no better time to do this than 2013. Finally, South Asia matters enough to Washington to merit sustained policy attention.

No longer is it the "backside of the State Department globe", as former undersecretary of state for political affairs Tom Pickering once famously called it. And for the first time in over a decade, no single policy priority sucks up all the air in the room.

Afghanistan is moving towards transition. The US-India relationship is intimate, mature and moving forward. Counterterrorism remains important, but Osama bin Laden's death along with those of many of his lieutenants means that the campaign against terrorists is no longer a super-priority. At least for now, the US-Pakistan relationship is out of the headlines and being worked on.

Until the late 1990s, the assistant secretaries for South Asia and East Asia in the US State Department had virtually no contact.

Neither China's rivalry with India nor China's close alliance with Pakistan encouraged American diplomats to cross the imaginary bamboo wall that divided the two regions.

The good news is this has begun to change. Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, has worked hard with his South and Central Asian counterpart, Bob Blake, to forge closer ties between their bureaus. US South Asia specialists travel to China and its East Asia specialists travel to India.

Relations between China and India will be enormously important in the decades to come, but the Beijing-Delhi relationship alone will neither define Asia's future, nor capture all the regional South Asia issues that deserve attention.

China is a South Asian power. China's policies have an impact on every South Asian state, and China's trade with South Asia is growing at breakneck speed.

The first Obama administration included South Asia in its strategic rebalancing towards Asia. The second Obama administration needs to take this a step further, and integrate thinking about China into its South Asia policy.

Alexander Evans is a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society and a senior fellow at Yale