US and the South Asian Security

by: Prof. Dr. Moonis Ahmar

The beginning of 1980s marked a substantial change in the US policy towards the South Asian region. By virtue of its importance, this change raised a serious question as to why the US policy makers began to rank South Asia as a region of high priority. The perceptional shift in the US decision making nucleus is perceived to be the outcome of multiple factors which if summed would reveal that the United States provided serious attention to once neglected South Asia because its interests were at stake in the Gulf/South West Asian regions. It was due to the US debacle in Indo-China and Iran, the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan and volatile conscious about the South Asian security, which is closely linked with the security and stability of US interests in the Gulf. If the regional and the US perception towards the South Asian security issues are viewed critically, it would not be difficult to comprehend a marked degree of gap between the US and the regional approaches towards the South Asian security problem. With the passage of time, this divergence has become more wide and serious.

This paper is an attempt to discuss in detail the areas of convergence and divergence between the US and the South Asian security perception, particularly in the 1980s. A brief description of South Asia with relevance to the US interest would make the subject rather explicit and interesting.

The United States prior to 1946 had no South Asian policy, and the focus of its foreign policy at the time of partition of the Sub-Continent was Europe and its immediate post war politics between the Soviet block and Western Europe. But, South Asia didn’t remain remote for the United States after its decolonisation in 1947. Wide range American involvement in South Asia began in the fifties. In this context, the US strategy in South Asia was mainly limited to the economic assistance to the regional states, with the aim of involving these newly independent nations against the growing spread of Communism in Asia, particularly in South East and West Asia. By mid-fifties, its success with the European recovery programme (the Marshall plan) of economic aid to the war affected West European countries encouraged the US Congress to pass the act for International development. This act was to become the major theme of the US policy in Asia, and Mr. Chester Bowles, the first US Ambassador to India was assigned the job to introduce in the South Asia.

However, in the initial years of its independence, South Asia played a minimal role in the US objectives to contain Communism even if it received a considerable amount of American economic and military aid. From the very beginning, Washington, placed a high priority on certain strategic considerations that were peripherally concerned with the happenings in South Asia. Initially, Pakistan, rather than India, became the principal focus of US policy in the region. Nevertheless, the US security commitments and bilateral military assistance programme were supplemented with significant participation in economic development plans of the South Asian countries, in order to produce political stability, thus making it easier for Washington to protect its interests in areas which were adjacent to the region.


The Pak-US strategic alliance in mid-fifties lowered India in the list of US priorities, but the Democrat administrations were pro-India in their policies and posture, as they felt that India had achieved a considerable degree of democratic principles while comparing with the regional states and that the future American policy was expected to acknowledge this fact. The leaders of the Republican Party, although not pro-India, were also not considered vocal in their support for Pakistan over India. As a result the US policy towards South Asia in mainly based on the divergence of interests and perceptions between India and Pakistan on the one hand and between these two countries and the US on the other, which had made the US security policies in the region counter productive. The American military aid to Pakistan since the 1950s alienated India and pushed it towards the Soviet Union. But there were other factors involved such as that of China etc, Whereas, its assistance to India during the 1962 Sino-India border war forced Pakistan to choose other options in its foreign relations and not to depend entirely on the United States. It decided to develop close bilateral relations with China and the Third World Countries. In this background, any assistance to Pakistan is often regarded by New Delhi as ‘containment’ of India and any support to India or lack of support to Paistan vis-à-vis India is regarded by Islamabad as the American acknowledgement of Indian ‘hegemony’ over the region, which of course is not acceptable to Pakistan. Simultaneously, the US recognition of Nepal’s claim to be a Zone of peace results into Indian charges of American interference in the regional affairs.

The US security perception in South Asia prior to the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan was inconsistent in nature due to the absence of any wide-range geo-strategic interests in the region. Its policies rather dealt with the interests and relevant positions of the Soviet Union, China and itself, than with those of India, Pakistan or other regional countries. Support to Pakistan during the 1950’s, to India after the 1962 Sino-Indian war and again to Pakistan in the 1980’s couldn’t easily be regarded as consistent. However, the policies pursued by the Nixon Administration alienated all three major regional states i.e., India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The focus in South Asia was to support China as to counter the Soviet Union. Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing via Islamabad had finally led to the signing of August 1971 Soviet-Indo treaty of Friendship and Cooperation which played a decisive role in the dismemberment of Pakistan and reorientation of the South Asian geo-political setting. Similarly, the US so-called tilt towards Pakistan during the 1971 East Pakistan crisis antagonised the leaders of Bangladesh, and strained the US-Bangladesh relations till the demise of Sheikh Mujib in August 1975.

Prior to the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, on many occasions, US considered South Asia, and especially Pakistan, as a low priority area in which extra attention was not required. Many US Government officials argued that since Pakistan constitutes only one-fifth of the population of India, therefore it can never match the international status of India. That its army is less than one – third as compared with that of India and its political system can only be characterised similar to an authoritarian type. India, on the other hand, is the worlds’ fourth largest country in population and seventh largest in the industrial output. In this way, India, rather than Pakistan is a source of attraction for the United States.


India and the United States however disagree on the issues like the Afghanistan crisis, US naval buildup in the Indian Ocean, Kampuchea and the US-Pak 1981 strategic deal. Divergence between US and India on global and regional issues dates back to the middle-Nehru-era when India refused to join the United States in security alliance against Communism. However, Indo-US relations were at the peak during the Kennedy era. The victory of John F. Kennedy as the President of the United States in 1960 shifted the focus of US interest and concern in South Asia back to India.

In real terms, Indo-US relations suffered a setback on three main occasions. Fristly, due to the American military assistance to Pakistan in the 1950’s, secondly during the 1971 East Pakistan Crisis and, thirdly, after the 1981 Pak-US package deal. Even during these periods, Washington didn’t openly side with Pakistan, neither it adopted hostile posture towards India.

However, Indo-US relations rapidly progressed during the Carter era. It revived the Kennedy policy of placing India first in the list of US priorities in South Asia. In fact, Nixon was the first US President to accept publicly New Delhi’s status as the dominating power in South Asia, whereas, Carter was first to indicate publicly using the American resources and influence to sustain and extend the Indian predominance over South Asia. Such views are not acceptable to Pakistan.

Apart from these differences, the areas of Indo-US security divergence are manifested in four interrelated problems. First it lies in the nature of the ‘core’ security relationship in the region between India and Pakistan. Secondly, there exist sharp differences in the approaches of two sides in resolving international security issues. If the United States follows the ‘Balance of power’ approach, India wrongfully claims that it prefers a commitment to ‘non-alignment’ and ‘peaceful-coexistance.’ Thirdly, various threats to security in South Asia and the Amiercan security approach lead to what may be termed as the diverging American perceptional behaviour regarding security problems in the region. Fourthly, the US policy followed on these patterns creates serious problems for India as the “American balance of power” approach is in conflict with the Indian ‘non-alignment’ policy. The Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, however, has widened the perceptional gap between US and India. The divergent perceptions between India and the United States over the Soviet motives in Afghanistan have led to different interpretations. The United States maintains that Afghan crisis has an international repercussions and that it requires an international solution, involving some kind of multilateral pressure on the Soviet Union to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. India policy-makers, on the other hand, argue that a ‘confrontational’ approach will not get the Soviets out of Afghanistan and may delay their withdrawal. In other words the Indians have given a tacit approval of Russian presence in Afghanistan. Besides this, US sophisticated arms supply to Pakistan and its naval deployment in the Indian Ocean have been opposed by the Indian Government as threats to their designs of hegemony in South Asia. Official Indian circles hold the view that the US security role in South Asia in predominantly towards Pakistan and consider as interference in the affairs of South Asia. The interesting thing to note is that India conveniently ignores the Russian factor in South Asia.


On what merits Pakistan aligned itself with the US sponsored SEATO and CENTO is still a debatable issue. Mohammad Ali Bogra, Pakistan’s Prime Minister from 1953 to 1955, made no secret of the fact that he allied his nation with Washington primarily because “we apprehended a threat to our security from India.” The question as to why Pakistan was chosen as the security partner of the United States is however understood keeping in view the context of American strategic objectives in the South Asian Region. In the first decade after the end of Second World War, US policy in Asia was pre-occupied with the containment of what was termed as the Soviet threat alongwith the Chinese expansionist ambitions in South and South East Asia. In both South West Asia and South East Asia, the US had vital interests to protect, and for that Washington chose Pakistan to cooperate with its containment policy, However, later when it was felt that the cost of alliance was higher than its benefits, Pakistan minimized its participation in CENTO and SEATO. The US failure to assist Pakistan during the 1965 and the 1971 Indo-Pakistan wars, its inability to pressurize India to solve the Kashmir issue, priority to India over Pakistan, criticism against Pakistan’s peaceful nuclear programme, became the leading diverging factors in the Pak-US resolutions.


According to the US foreign policy analysts, the security problems in the South Asia are perceived to fall under two main categories: threats emanating from extra-regional factor because of Soviet and Chinese involvement in the region and intra-regional factors, or core threats especially those pertaining to India and Pakistan. For United States, South Asia could be divided into ‘core’, ‘peripheral’ and ‘intrusive’ members. The core members are India and Pakistan, while the peripheral members are Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Afghanistan, and intrusive members are Soviet Union and China. The US security policy towards South Asia was initially formulated in the perspective of monolithic Communist alliance framework were made. Pakistan responded positively and joined the 1954 SEATO and 1955 Baghdad pact (later CENTO defence pact), whereas, India rejected the American alliance offer which was perceived by Nehru as against the interests of India. This shows how wide was the security perceptional gap between India and the United States. The American strategy on the other hand had been to guarantee or maintain the general US policy regarding the security problems at both levels US has often linked the question of South Asian security with the broader framework of Asian balance, security of Gulf oil, and its global strategic needs. Its perception of threat to South Asian security is also characterized by intra-regional naval developments in the Indian Ocean. Whereas, extra-regional threat perceived by the US is the “communist meance’, i.e., threat of possible Soviet penetration Southward of Afghanistan, thus jeopardizing American interests and influence in South Asia and Persian Gulf region.

The US security perception in South Asia is also based on its concern over the stability of the region. As a status quo oriented power, United States is willing to support ‘different types of Governments and Regimes’ around the world and its not sensitive about the nature of these regimes. According to a report of US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the “US strategic interests in the area today relate primarily to regional stability and the avoidance of any conflict or pressure in South Asia or the adjoining Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf which could attract a large scale involvement or intervention by any outside power.” Nevertheless, economic and political stability has always been a matter of great concern to the United States in South Asia over events which could destabilize the regional security framework hostile to the US influence and interest.

The US security policy in South Asia till 1979 was based on the nation that the core problem in the region is to be seen from mutual threats between India and Pakistan. That the region carried no vital economic, political or strategic importance to the United States. The limited intrusive threats to India from China and to Pakistan from the Soviet Union appeared to check on another in pursuing US to play a marginal role in the region. However, the pre-1979 US security perception has been modified with the fall of pro-American regime in Iran and the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan which enhanced the geo-strategic importance of South Asia among the US policy-makers.

A major security difference between India and the United States exists over the Indian concern against Pakistan and China as its chief security threats. Whereas, for Pakistan, the chief sources of threat are India and Afghanistan. In case of Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka too, their security perception is different from the United States. Bangladesh considers India as a main threat to its security and the two countries have multiple disputes such as the encirclement of Bangladesh border with the wire fence, dispute over the distribution of Ganges river water and the obsessive Indian attempts to subdue Bangladesh economically and politically. In case of Nepal and Srilanka, these two countries have a long list of grievances against India extending from its interference in their internal affairs and to put economic and political pressure on them to follow New Delhi’s line. The Tamil question in Sri Lanka is a source of discord between the two neighbours. Generally, South Asian states have a divergent perception towards security, as they don’t have a uniform threat against a single foreign power. For them security threats emanate from intra-regional disputes and foreign intervention. India in the scheme of things appears to be on the one side of fence while other regional nations have similar threat perceptions, i.e., from India itself.

From the US point of view, a comprehensive solution to the complicated security problem in South Asia may be found in a system of coordination based on the American balance of power approach and the Indian advocacy of regional dominance. The American balance of power approach suggests that military balance must exist between conflicting states if their security and independence are to be protected. Whereas, under the Indian approach, the conflict between small states shouldn’t be affected by a Super-power or with its military aid and interference in these states. The problem with the Indian concept of ‘peaceful coexistence’ is that though it ensures the security of small states against foreign threats, it however seeks to pose an internal threat to these states.

If the balance of power is to be established it could be done by making a loose balance and also without upsetting it by Superpower’s interference. It seems that the Indian version of balance of power being incompatible with that of American is aimed to formulate a regional system in which her own predominance could be ensured. Nevertheless, South Asian security cannot be guaranteed if attempts are made by either a foreign or a regional power to dominate the small states of South Asia through force or coercion.

A prominent aspect of South Asian security is the attempt of Super powers to exploit the ‘threat perception’ of regional states in their favour. They try to exaggerate or misrepresent the nature of regional security through their propaganda channels-economic, political and military means of conercion or through their supported elements. By doing this, the Big and Super powers are able to find markets for their exportable weapons, thus making these states military dependent on them.

The US responses to the South Asian security problem varies from extensive involvement especially during the period of alliances to the passive withdrawal due to the inter-regional conflict (for example during the 1965 and the 1971 Indo-Pakistan wars) which restrained Washington to meet its security commitments, military supplies and economic programme. A consistent US policy in South Asian region would have effectively maintained balance between Pakistan and United States relations in the first instance and U.S. India on the other. Due to the geographical distance (covering thousands of miles from its mainland) it is difficult for the United States to demonstrate that there are substantial Amiercan interests which will be safeguarded in terms that are acceptable to the regional states.

Therefore, divergence in the South Asian security issues between US and India ranges from New Delhi’s concern over the American shipments to Pakistan, and its naval deployment in the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, US perceives India indulging itself in unreasonable controversies and indulging in double standards in the conduct of its foreign policy. It includes India’s claim as a non-aligned nation, despite signing the Indo-Soviet treaty of Friendship in August 1971, her use of force in order to resolve the Goa and Bangladesh issues which advocating ‘Peaceful Coexistence’. Whereas, according to the Indian policy-makers, United States is economically arrogant, militarily aggressive and lacks foreign policy consistency. For example, American conduct of world affairs includes the perpetuation of Cold War in the name of freedom while supporting various fascist’ states throughout the world; provocation of arms race in order to protect its own interest and the encouragement of violence in the civil war of Korea and Vietnam.

Some Indian leaders believe that they acquire more support from the Soviet Union than the United States due to three main reasons: Firstly, key members of the Indian governing elite saw the US as a status quo imperialist power, trying to prevent India from playing its role in the regional affairs. Secondly, as India’s relations with China deteriorated, Soviet relations with China became worse. This situation forced India to perceive that the Soviet Union’s conflict with China will make it an ideal balancer to deter possible future Chinese action against India which might turn out as badly for India as the 1962 Sino-India war. Therefore, Kautilya’s apothegm ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ became a genuine advice to Chandragupta’s successors twenty-two centuries later. Thirdly, US in the 1950’s was developing a strong alliance relationship and India feared that an alliance with Washington would deprive it of the ability to look at such an issue ‘on its merits.’

The critics, i.e., pro-India Policy supporters are of the view that the US strategic ties with Pakistan and the arms supply to Islamabad will force the Indian Government to lean more towards the Soviets in the 1980’s. The visit of the Soviet Defence Minister, Marshall Dmitry Ustinov to New Delhi in March 1984 is interpreted as a clear signal that the Indian policy-makers are still apprehensive, reasonably or unreasonably about the supply of sophisticated weapons to Pakistan. Another view held is that regardless of US-Pakistan connection, the Indians are anyhow going to pursue pro-Soviet policy and at the same time blackmaking the Americans a policy syndrome which runs in the Nehru family. Will Pakistan be in a position to safeguard its security with the US supplied weapons is a question often asked from various quarters? Pakistan-United States relations have changed considerably with the advent of 1980s, but much depends upon the persistence of those factors which created attraction for the United States in favour of Pakistan. Will the US maintain the existing state of its relations with Pakistan if the Afghan crisis is solved, or there is some understanding between the two Superpowers? Status quo in the US domestic system might sustain Washington’s special relationship with Pakistan, whereas, a change in the US Administration could raise speculations regarding the continuation of US commitment towards Pakistan’s security.