Monday, November 12, 2007

South Asia high on US list of priorities

South Asia high on US list of priorities
Syed Ali Mujtaba

As a prelude to the visit of President George W Bush to India sometime this year a lot of preparation is going on in the US to make his visit a grand success. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has come out with a statement that the whole of South Asia region is very high on the list of priorities for the US. This includes ‘enhancing’ relationship with India and at the same time maintaining a good relationship with Pakistan and helping it in its efforts to fight extremism.

The other policy outlined by the US administration is to move certain Central Asian countries from US State Department’s European bureau to its South Asia bureau. Secretary Rice's comments on this is the region of Central Asia through Afghanistan, which was once described as an "arc of crisis" by National Security Advisor to former President Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, is now, in many ways, turning out to be an "arc of opportunity.” She further stressed that US is going to work very hard on an integrated approach of South Asia as it’s important to look at it from a regional context.

The other notable move made by the US administration is the announcement to launch the National Security Language Initiative (NSLI) programme. NSLI forms an important component of US administration’s national security plan in the post 9/11 period. It envisages engaging foreign governments and peoples in the ‘critical regions’ of the world and to encourage them for reforms, promote understanding and convey respect for other cultures. For achieving this, the US administration wants to dramatically increase the number of its citizens learning “critical need” foreign languages so that they may be able communicate in the languages spoken in such countries.

Under the NSLI programme, a comprehensive plan is drawn for expansion of foreign language education. This starts at the kindergarten levels and runs through formal schooling and goes into the workforce with job opportunities and incentives for graduates of these language programmes. The US President is expected to request for USD 114 million for funding this programme.

What is striking in the NSLI programme is the identification of ‘Hindi’, to be one of the critical need foreign languages that Americans must learn to further strengthen national security and prosperity in the 21st century. This is an obvious signal that US administration is extremely keen in ‘enhancing’ relationship with India.

Notwithstanding the fact that US is looking at South Asia with a renewed interest and there seems to be a lot of activity going on with regard to fixing the spotlight on the region, there seems little unanimity among countries in South Asia about their worldview of the US. The general perception in the region is ‘it’s hard to trust the Americans.’

Its not uncommon thinking in India that US is pro Pakistan and no matter whatever way India engages US, Pakistan would be the first choice when America has to choose between the two.

Contrary to India’s view, Pakistan’s perception is the signs of US gravitation towards India, would tilt the whole balance of power to one side and that do not auger well for regional peace and stability in South Asia.

The perception from Colombo about US is totally different from the worldview of India and Pakistan. In Sri Lanka the dominant view is that America is doing nothing to rein in the LTTE, which, like Al Qiada, is adamant to achieve its political objectives through violent means. The inference drawn is that the US led war on global terrorism is selective.

The view about the US from Maldives is on a different plain altogether. There the issue of global warming dominates the social space. A thinking prevails that the US instead of wasting trillion of dollars for fighting an unimaginative war in Iraq, could have used the same resources for containing ‘global warming,’ it might help save the littoral nation from being wiped out from face of the earth.

The Bangladeshis perception about US is still different from the others. Here, the worldview is divided between the Islamists and the Communists. The Islamists are unhappy about US role in West Asia (Israel- Palestine conflict) and in Iraq and some feel that US is anti Islam and is engaged in resurrecting ‘crusades’ in modern times. The communists in Bangladesh on the other hand view the US on a different yardstick. They see America as a super power in quest of global hegemony and whose goal is to establish the domination of the capitalist mode of production in the world.

The Nepalese perception of US differs further from the rest of the South Asian countries. In Katmandu the issue is restoration of democracy. The common view there is that the US has little consideration for establishng democracy in Nepal while it proclaims to be fighting a war for the same purpose in Iraq. Nepalese are also cherry about US’s role vis-à-vis the Maoist and its obvious ‘domino effect’ on the rest of South Asia.

Notwithstanding the individual perception of the different countries, the general perception in South Asia is that the US interest in Asia largely remains focused either in West Asia, the reservoir of world’s oil wealth, or in South East Asia where countries like Japan and China matters it the most. Korean peninsula, Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia are the other spots in Asia of US interest. The general thinking is that South Asian region is of least interest to the US in Asia.

Contrary to individual or collective world views of South Asian nations, the US has made its own assessment of the region and is going ahead with its plans to shape it as an ‘arch of opportunities.’ The US seems convinced that the prevailing diverse perception against it could be converged on the point of human development of the region.

The inference drawn from the US State Department’s recent announcement about South Asia is that it aggressively wants to push the idea of regionalism in the immediate future. It is with these intentions US has put the entire South Asian region high on the list of its priorities.

The story of US renewed interest about South Asia is interestingly developing in a build up to the US President’s visit to the region. How it will unfold further that is something every South Asian must watch very carefully.
The author is a journalist based in Chennai,India and is author of the book ‘Soundings on South Asia.’ He can be contacted at

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