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The United States Foreign Policy in Asia

Spread across a landmass of 57 million square miles, the Asian continent is the largest continent of the globe. With 48 countries sheltering 60% of the total world population, it is one of the most geographically and ethnically diverse regions of the world.


This article envisages to talk about the objectives and interests of the United States of America in the Asiatic continent which drive the dynamic foreign policy stature it has had since World War 2.

An illustration on the United States Foreign Policy consisting of Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden

Illustration by Team Geostrata


THE UNITED STATES IN SOUTH ASIA


The United States has for a long time struggled in the South Asian region largely due to its size and complexity, both in ethnic as well as strategic domains. Among other things, the major objective of US policy in South Asia is ‘The pursuit of stability’, which is an admittedly ambitious goal in a region struggling with interstate tensions, including between 2 nuclear armed states, insurgency, cross-border terrorism and other violent conflicts from Islamist militancy to organised crime.


The United States involvement in the region has been slow but steady. Immediately after the Great War, with a preliminary objective to supplant British diplomacy with the American one, it took rising Cold War tensions and the engulfment of China by Communism in 1949 for US relations with India and Pakistan to acquire a more urgent tone.


An unavoidable reason to ensure the on-going US engagement in South Asia is its geography. South Asia sits at the mouth of the Indian Ocean, providing a gateway into China and the West Asian region.

The US-Pakistan relations took off owing to US interest in utilising the country’s military bases and building bilateral/multilateral defence arrangements for West Asia. In 1954, Pakistan signed a Mutual Defence Agreement with the US, and became a member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO).


US relations with India weren’t smooth-running initially, owing to Indian PM Nehru’s advocacy of non-alignment and domination in Indian foreign policy circles. As India pushed for a greater degree of strategic autonomy, it also maintained tender relations with the USSR owing to its closer proximity and convergence of Nehruvian Socialism with that of the Soviet Union.


The US has the oldest diplomatic relations with the Afghans, whose neutrality was supported by the Americans, although they provided a significant aid program as early as the 1950s.

US policy papers from 1960 on Afghanistan concluded that “ vital United States objectives are best served if Afghanistan remains neutral, independent and not over-committed to the Soviet bloc”.


With the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets in 1979, the region became the frontline of the erstwhile Cold War. A narrowly defined focused agenda to counter the Soviet aggression replaced the former American policy of development, democracy, human rights, and counter-proliferation in South Asia.


Following the aforementioned developments, Pakistan became a frontline state and a key ally of the US in curbing Soviet presence which consequently led to the rise of the rebels in Afghanistan also known as the Mujahideen.


SITUATION TODAY:


The region is experiencing largely three geopolitical shifts-


US Withdrawal from Afghanistan: The most impressionable change in the region has been the US military pull out after 20 long years of fighting the Taliban which cost around a couple of Trillion dollars and more than 2000 American lives.


American absence in Afghanistan has led to a depreciating US policy focus which is concerning owing to the increasing risk of destabilisation in the region. America’s widening view presents opportunities for the US to make concrete contributions to regional connectivity projects like transport corridors and energy infrastructure.


Rebalance of Asian Power: India, and with the greater part of South Asia plays a crucial role in Asia rebalance policy. This is because Washington views India as an important counterweight to China.


The current Indian government’s “Act East” policy which suggests a more active and robust policy in the Indo-Pacific than the “Look East” policy followed by the previous administrations is very soothing to Washington as it amplifies the joint desire of the US and India to rebalance the same region and against a common adversary, which is China.


Emergence of terrorist networks: The resurgence of global terror networks in the region gives an impetus to Washington to remain in the region. However, the intensity and webbing of networks is not as strong as it was during the pre 9/11 era but they are a threat to regional security.


To-day, these terror groups are not operational in their individual capacity but depend on their regional affiliates which are located in the West Asian and North Africa region.

Even Though, the US tries to remain relevant in the region by its best efforts of military and monetary assistance to the regional players but is out manoeuvred by rivals such as China who have articulated their development plans for the region in the form of Belt & Road Initiative.


Meanwhile, India is developing its own regional infrastructure and development plans such as the Kaladan project, and the Chabahar port in Southern Iran to connect it to Central Asia by-passing its long-term rivals China and Pakistan.


Although these development projects will achieve the broader aims that Washington had set for the region, its absence from the scene of action can be counterproductive to its efforts in the region.

THE UNITED STATES IN CENTRAL ASIA


The US foreign policy in Central Asia after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 was largely driven by 3 major objectives:


  1. Reduction of the Soviet weapons of mass destruction inherited by the post-Soviet republics.

  2. Upholding the territorial integrity of the newly independent Soviet Republics.

  3. Ensuring an economic dependence of the region from the energy sphere of Russia given the Russian monopoly over pipelines and transit routes for Central Asian Oil and Gas.


The USA followed on a long-term effort to support the creation and sustenance of democratic governance, free-market economies, and regional economic integration. Nevertheless, the Americans’ perspective on and engagement in the region experienced a drastic change in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11.


Although there was continued interest in pursuing the economic and political reform objective, but military and security considerations became an urgent priority to the US. Central Asia changed from an area of interest to one that encompassed a much greater priority in American strategy where the region acted as an adjunct to Afghan stabilisation efforts instead of becoming a priority itself.


Currently, in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Americans will need to prioritise and define their relations and diplomatic ties with the region at a time when Russia stands distracted on its South Western front.


Especially at a time when China has a larger shadow cast on the region through Xi Jinping’s ambitious BRI in the form of foreign investment, development works, and trade relations, which have outperformed Central Asian Republics’ trade with Russia.


Although the USA has led and materialised a number of bold visions for its engagement in the region, it lacks close economic, political and societal bonds with the region. It is for these reasons that the USA must put its involvement in the region on a long-term, sustainable basis, and strike a balance between its interests and available resources.


Furthermore, the Americans lack the geographical advantage enjoyed by China and Russia in the region in addition to the weight of their interests in Central Asia.

Considering these realities, the USA must adopt a genre of offshore balancing, using its political, economic, and security toolkit to actively act as a partner to the region and to make an effort to offset the geopolitical weight of the region’s immediate neighbours.


THE UNITES STATES IN WEST ASIA


The US political and strategic presence in West Asia did not intensify until the end of World War 2. At the time, only trade and strategic military supplies were carried out with the West Asian nations.


In the aftermath of WW2, a new balance of power emerged in international politics. The US and the USSR supplanted the previous two main European powers namely Britain and France which faced significant economic difficulties and were no longer capable of playing their roles in the region as they did in the pre-war era which ultimately led to the Truman Doctrine in 1947.


While the USSR was determined to secure its southern borders along the Caucasus mountains, the US was firm to counter any Soviet move that might undermine Britain’s or the US’s interests in the region.

KEY US INTERESTS IN THE REGION:


Strategic Access to Oil in the Region: The second industrial revolution was fuelled by oil making it a valuable resource for development and progress. It is also important to keep the West Asian oil flowing in the international markets to keep its prices in check.


Upholding Israeli Sovereignty: Another US interest is to maintain security and protection of the state of Israel in the generally unstable region. Supporting Israel keeps the US interests safe in the region as it acts as a reliable ally to the Americans in West Asia.


Maintaining the US Military Infrastructure: The US has most of its Military infrastructure in the Oil rich Arab nations along important trade routes and choke points which are used to influence the trade and policy in the region. Most of the infrastructure dates back to the Cold War and more recently the Islamic radicalism in the region.


Providing Security to Friendly Regimes: The Dictionary of Government and Politics defines client-state as a “country which depends on another country for such things as defence, trade, etc.” (Collin, 1998, p. 50).


During the Cold War, the region was divided between the two camps which acted as protectorates to countries in West Asia where many accords and agreements such as CENTO and SEATO were signed for greater cooperation in defence capabilities.


This relationship has provided the US with more of the supplies it needed in the region in addition to diplomatic and military support from the client-states.

Keeping a check on Islamic Groups and Terror activities: Another vital interest of the US in the region is to keep the terror activities under check. Back in 1979, when the USSR invaded Afghanistan, the US had supported the Mujaheddin. But this strategy of the US backfired and post 9/11, the Americans waged a ‘War on Terrorism’. Since then, the Americans are conducting covert operations and air strikes on terror groups in the region.


The US Foreign Policy in the region has been a variable one accompanied by short-term and long-term goals. The aforementioned interests of the US in the region underscore an important guide to understand the policy decisions the US makes subject to the West Asian region.

 

DIGVIJAY SINGH

TEAM GEOSTRATA

info@thegeostrata.com

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