Experts Reflect on 10 Years of South Asia

In the decade since South Asian Voices’ inception, the subcontinent has witnessed major domestic and international events impacting stability in the region. The end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the rise of China, and intensifying climate events have shaped the international context surrounding South Asia. Prime Minister Modi’s reign of India since 2014, Pakistan’s continued political turmoil, domestic political upheaval in Sri Lanka and Nepal, and diverging economic and geopolitical alignments have pushed countries in the region to position themselves distinctly differently from ten years ago. As South Asian Voices marks its 10-year anniversary, scholars weigh in on the factors that have shaped South Asia over the past decade and the impacts on stability and instability in the region.

Is Southern Asia more or less stable than it was ten years ago?

Manpreet Sethi, Distinguished Fellow, Center for Air Power Studies, New Delhi

“Seen from the nuclear prism, Southern Asia can perhaps best be described as a bit of both. It is more stable in some ways and less so in others. There is a greater degree of deterrence stability since all the three countries have developed more credible, robust and secure second-strike capabilities. This has negated the possibility of any of them being able to undertake a disarming or decapitating strike against the other. The chances of deliberate, pre-meditated use of nuclear weapons, therefore, are reduced due to the reality of mutual vulnerability.

However, the region is more prone to crisis and arms race instability owing to, at least, three new developments that increase chances of inadvertent or accidental escalation to the nuclear level. The first one arises from adoption of risky strategies, ostensibly for enhancing deterrence. So, deployment of tactical nuclear weapons by Pakistan and commingling of conventional-nuclear delivery systems by China make for crisis-escalating nuclear postures. More recently, India too has shown a greater appetite for taking risks. All three countries, therefore, are leaning towards strategies that heighten the possibility of slipping down a slippery slope. Secondly, the actors of both adversarial dyads in the region are not talking to each other. Given the lows in their political relationships, there is a tendency to assume the worst of the other’s capabilities and intentions, with no platform to seek or offer clarifications. This raises chances of arms race instability. Thirdly, technological advances are introducing the region to new capabilities, in the nuclear and non-nuclear domains, that could disrupt traditional ways of practicing nuclear deterrence. This increases risk of both kinds of instabilities.

Seen from the nuclear prism, Southern Asia can perhaps best be described as a bit of both. It is more stable in some ways and less so in others.

Peeping into the future, the region stands at that fork in the road from where it could go towards both — greater stability or instability. The nuclear capability build-up until now in all three countries has been at a relaxed pace. But the recent change of track by China on warhead numbers and assertive behavior can suck others too into a vortex. Hardened nationalist positions at the domestic level coupled with a global atmosphere of nuclear permissiveness and a growing currency of ideas of limited nuclear war with use of tactical nuclear weapons can stir up a heady cocktail of instability. Fortunately, though, this gloomy scenario is not yet a given. Trends could change if political relationships alter at the global or regional levels. In fact, all nuclear armed states could do with some nuclear re-learning of basics of nuclear deterrence at this juncture.”

Muhammad Faisal, Graduate Research Scholar, University of Technology, Sydney

“Southern Asia is definitely ‘less stable’ than it was ten years ago. An accelerating great-power competition has sharpened regional trends in Southern Asia. As India-U.S. deepened strategic and defense partnership, Pakistan and China broadened their traditional defense and diplomatic cooperation to economic development and maritime collaboration. Besides, India-China competition within the region also sharpened during the past decade, testing the regional countries.

Meanwhile, revival of competing claims in long-standing territorial disputes involving three major countries have led to the onset of new political and military tensions involving two dyads, Pakistan-India and India-China. August, 2019 developments of India unilaterally altering the geographical status-quo and demographical contours of Kashmir and India-China boundary disputes fundamentally made Southern Asia more unstable. Although Pakistan and India renewed ceasefire understanding in February 2021, the bilateral relationship remains at a standstill. Meanwhile, India-China ties continue to experience turbulence in the aftermath of direct military confrontation in Galwan Valley. The trajectory of India-China tensions could impact regional stability more than Pakistan-India crises in the coming years.”

What role do smaller South Asian states play in security dynamics in South Asia? How has this role changed over the past decade?

Avasna Pandey, Program Manager, Center for Investigative Journalism, Nepal

“As the concept of security evolves, expanding beyond its traditional military focus, it presents an opportunity for smaller South Asian nations to establish themselves as significant regional players. Take Nepal, for instance; it has the potential to assume a prominent role in the field of climate security. In an era where climate change acts as a catalyst for various threats, endangering critical infrastructure and overall livelihoods, Nepal can develop its expertise in climate security. By doing so, it can lead the way in raising awareness about this aspect of security and formulating policies that inspire best practices for other South Asian countries. While traditional security threats persist, such as border disputes and the associated nationalist sentiments, smaller South Asian countries should remain vigilant about tactics employed by larger states to divert attention away from their potential leadership in other security domains.”

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, Senior Fellow and Executive Director, South Asia Foresight Network (SAFN) at The Millennium Project

“Smaller island littorals, such as Sri Lanka in South Asia, play a more significant role in security dynamics in the region. India has realized it cannot possibly balance China’s growing influence on its own, nor can it afford to have the United States leave the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), given China’s significant presence in the island littorals. New Delhi requires the island nations much more than in the past to balance Indian Ocean security collectively. Sri Lanka is pivotal in this equation due to its geostrategic position at the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCS).

The role of Sri Lanka has changed over the past when assessing the maritime security challenges and the growing Chinese influence in the island and the region. Sri Lanka’s engagement with its close neighbor, India, on security challenges is an area that requires more attention. By allowing Chinese Spy Ship and military/Research vessels to dock in Sri Lankan ports, an apparent security sensitivity on India is ignored by Sri Lanka. India, China, and the United States are entangled in a great power competition in the region, and it’s crucial how Sri Lanka maneuver its foreign policy in the years to come.”

Lailufar Yasmin, Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka

“Smaller South Asian countries have gradually evolved. These countries have taken short-term, medium-term and long-term policies, often looking into their access to resources internally and how best these could be harnessed. These countries have gradually acquired agenda-setting power, especially for issues directly linked to their national interest. Geographic proximity to China has armed these countries with an extra weapon to deal with the overarching unmatched capability of India in the region. Gradually, the smaller countries no longer had to live under India’s shadow and were able to portray their individual strengths. Bangladesh, in particular, provides an interesting example because of its unfettered access to the Bay of Bengal. Now Bangladesh stands as a gateway to South Asia’s land-linked countries like Nepal, Bhutan, and Northeast India. As the Bay of Bengal’s northern area lacks an adequate number of deep-sea ports, Bangladesh’s Matarbari would provide much-needed connectivity opportunities for the eastern South Asian region.”

What role does the United States play in stability in Southern Asia and has this role changed over the past decade?

Michael Kugelman, Director, South Asia Institute, Wilson Center

“For many decades, Washington has identified stability as its main interest in South Asia. The way it has pursued that interest over the last decade has evolved considerably. In 2013, the U.S. strategic view of the region was framed through a small number of narrowly defined silos. One was Afghanistan and its war there, and another was an India-Pakistan rivalry that Washington did not want to see spiral out of control.

I’d argue that over more recent years, and especially since the U.S. exit from Afghanistan, Washington has taken a wider geographic approach to South Asia, mainly because of deepening U.S. competition with China.

I’d argue that over more recent years, and especially since the U.S. exit from Afghanistan, Washington has taken a wider geographic approach to South Asia, mainly because of deepening U.S. competition with China. Pakistan and its inherent volatility is still a concern for the United States, but the broader focus is now on strengthening ties with South Asian states (aside from Afghanistan) to prevent them from becoming entirely dependent on Chinese economic support. Washington also now views India as its biggest strategic bet in South Asia to help counter China more broadly. This has entailed deeper U.S. military ties with India, which may serve U.S. strategic goals but may also pose challenges for stability in the region, given the incentive this gives Pakistan to seek more military support from China.”

How has US security strategy toward the Indian Ocean evolved over the past decade? 

Nilanthi Samaranayake, Adjunct Fellow, East-West Center in Washington; Visiting Expert, US Institute of Peace 

“While the Indian Ocean is rarely treated in U.S. strategy and policy as a holistic region, we can detect a shift from west to east over the past decade in U.S. security priorities. Roughly a decade ago, U.S. security interests were focused on what was informally called the “business end” of the Indian Ocean. This area witnessed combat-support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden, and the Iran deterrence mission, among others. Yet over the course of the decade, U.S. security strategy toward the Indian Ocean has shifted eastward as a result of intensified threat perceptions of China, the deepening of defense relations with India, the resurrection of the Quad, and the region’s linking to the Pacific under an Indo-Pacific strategic framework. The renamed U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has conducted greater security engagement with partners in South Asia and the Bay of Bengal through port visits, exercises, logistics, and the transfer of sea platforms, among other activities. Despite this change in geographic focus, U.S. security strategy in the Indian Ocean has consistently sought over the past decade to uphold the free flow of commerce and maintain military basing and access in support of U.S. global interests.”

Over the past ten years, what shifts have you seen in the political relationship between India and Pakistan?

Christopher Clary, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Albany

“In the last decade, the biggest events “in” the India-Pakistan relationship both happened external to that relationship. Namely, the worsening of Sino-Indian enmity, especially after 2020, has caused India to deprioritize Pakistan further in its grand strategy. Elsewhere, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, placed resource pressure on Pakistan (since it portended a likely indefinite decrease in US aid to Pakistan) as well as created an elevated threat environment since the new Taliban regime in Kabul has shown itself either unable or unwilling to contain the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan. While neither Pakistan nor India have demonstrated a sustained interest in real rapprochement, both have had to place India-Pakistan competition on the backburner as other geostrategic challenges take priority.”

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Image 1: India-Pakistan Flags via Wikimedia Commons

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