We're Live Bangla Tuesday, March 28, 2023

As US hones its Indo-Pacific strategy, South Asian nations come into focus

US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, left, and Bangladesh‘s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen at a press conference in Dhaka

US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun’s visit to Dhaka this past week was seen as part of Washington’s attempt to raise its visibility in South Asia at a time when China has increased engagement with countries in the region through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, which promises billions of dollars of investments in infrastructure projects, as well as enhanced trade and defence ties.

Biegun’s thee-day stay in Dhaka followed US Defence Secretary Mark Esper’s phone conversation with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in September. It represented, according to Bangladeshi newspaper The Daily Star, the “new enthusiasm” of the US for Bangladesh because of the country’s sustained growth, political stability and geographical location.

“The US sees Bangladesh as a key partner in the Indo-Pacific region,” Biegun was quoted as saying in media reports, adding that the country would be “the centrepiece of our work” to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

High-level visits from Washington to Dhaka in the past have typically taken place just before US presidential elections, according to Shahab Enam Khan, professor of international relations at Dhaka’s Jahangirnagar University. Then-US Secretary of State John Kerry came in August 2016, his predecessor Hillary Clinton visited in May 2012, and now Biegun, barely a fortnight before the November election.

The context of Biegun’s visit – aside from the current US administration trying to win the support of the 200,000-plus Bangladeshi-Americans, who are traditionally Democratic Party supporters – had more to do with finding partners for Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

“Certainly, counterbalancing China would be the rules of engagement,” Khan said.

Biegun was in Delhi earlier in the week and held talks with Indian officials on areas of mutual interest and did preparatory work for the joint strategic dialogue involving the foreign and defence ministers of the two sides scheduled for later this month in New Delhi. The meetings will likely cover China’s assertive role in the Indo-Pacific region and post-pandemic cooperation, among other issues.

Biegun’s visits are part of a larger trend in US policy to engage with not just India in South Asia, but also with other smaller countries in the region.

In September, the US signed a defence framework agreement with Maldives to allow the two sides to cooperate with each other in “maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean.” A similar approach was made in February 2019 to rope in Nepal on the Indo-Pacific strategy, when Joseph H Felter, who was then the US deputy assistant secretary of defence for South and Southeast Asia, visited Kathmandu as a follow-up to the Washington meeting between Nepal’s foreign minister, Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in December 2018.

In Delhi, Biegun also had an informal meeting with the Bhutanese ambassador to India, since Bhutan does not maintain diplomatic relations with any of the UN Security Council’s permanent members, preferring to keep the five – the US, China, Russia, France and Britain – at arm’s length.

Pompeo might also visit Sri Lanka later this month, according to media reports.

“It flows directly from the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which has made both the Indian Ocean and its rimlands more important to the United States,” Ashley J. Tellis, Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, who specialises in Asian strategic issues, said in an email.

He pointed out that the aim of the United States is to build strong partnerships with all the key South Asian states as a complement to the deepening ties the US has with India.

According to Navtej Sarna, India’s former ambassador to the US, Washington has plenty of incentives to work with friendly powers in the region: to tamp down the potential for nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan; to diminish the threat of terrorist attacks from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region; to counter an increasingly assertive China in the region; and to ensure freedom of navigation in Indo-Pacific sea lanes.

Although both the US and India have made common cause to meet the challenges posed by Beijing’s growing presence in the region, the other South Asian nations don’t want their relationship with Washington seen only through the prism of US-India ties.

“The smaller South Asian states want better relations with the United States independent of India’s relations with the US and also independent of India’s relations with them,” Tellis said. Though he feels the US should be transparent with New Delhi in regard to its strategy in South Asia, he argues that since there is broad convergence of the two countries’ goals in the region, Washington’s outreach to the other countries in the region shouldn’t be an issue for India.

Sarna, meanwhile, admits there was discomfort on India’s part about the presence of the US in its immediate neighbourhood. Now, though, with growth in the “size, scope and trust levels” of the US-India relationship and Washington’s ties with other South Asian countries, there is a synergy that can be taken advantage of.

“The commonality in perception regarding China has helped the process,” he added.

As a major aid donor to South Asian nations, as well as the biggest market for most countries in the region, the US is an attractive partner. But its effort to get them to team with it through its Indo-Pacific strategy has sharply polarised views in these nations.

For example, the US offer to fund developmental projects in Nepal worth US$630 million and US$480 million in Sri Lanka through its Millennium Challenge Corporation have evoked strong protests in the parliaments of both countries and in the streets, with fears that along with the funds will come a bulked-up US presence.

In addition, Colombo has been reluctant to sign the Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement and Status of Forces Agreement that would have given the US armed forces freer access to Sri Lankan ports and others facilities.

“Most of the protests are based on a misunderstanding that the agreements give the US rights over and above the sovereign choices of the partners. They do not,” Tellis said.

The biggest challenge to come for South Asian nations is how to balance the level of involvement from both China and the US in these countries’ developments. The US, despite being a global power, major donor and the biggest market for the South Asian nations, had not been as enthusiastic in pushing its Indo-Pacific strategy as China. But as its rivalry with China for global dominance has heated up, it has also sharpened its policy talons in the region, hoping to catch a firmer grip in the region with more than a few willing partners.