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Southeast Asia was a great turnaround story. South Asia could be too.
Al Jazeera English
When pundits reach for an analogy to explain Afghanistan, they invariably turn to the Vietnam War, the last major conflict in Asia which pitted America against an insurgent enemy. In the long view, however, Washington’s South Asia strategy ought to be shaped less by the memory of failure, and more by an under-rated success: the transformation of once conflict-ridden Southeast Asia into an oasis of peace and relative prosperity.
Those skeptical that South Asia can be stable ought to recall how dire Southeast Asia looked a generation ago. In 1965, there were few hopes of peace, let alone prosperity, for the five countries that would form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) two years later.
Indonesia, the region’s putative great power, housed a crumbling economy and a foreign policy based on belligerence toward its neighbors and affinity toward Communist China. With his country stuck near African poverty levels, President Sukarno that year laid claim to the Malaysian parts of Borneo and dispatched paratroopers across the border. Malaysia parted ways with ethnic-Chinese majority Singapore, calling the city state’s viability into question. Sleepy Thailand was in the middle of an extended period of military rule. Ferdinand Marcos took power in the Philippines.
“The pieces of a broader Asean-like strategy have already begun to fall into place in South Asia. The 2006 Indo-U.S. nuclear deal and 2009 Kerry-Lugar aid bill for Pakistan sent a clear signal of long-term U.S. commitment to the region.”–Sadanand Dhume
A quarter-century later, Southeast Asia had pulled more people out of poverty than any other part of the world. Today, to varying degrees, all five original Asean members are democratic. The region’s cities are richer and more cosmopolitan than their South Asian counterparts. The prospect of war among Southeast Asian powers has diminished to the point of disappearance.
What lessons does this amazing transformation hold for South Asia? Consider the parallels between yesterday’s Indonesia and today’s Pakistan. Sukarno’s Indonesia was the region’s problem child: unhappy with its borders, tilted toward an authoritarian power (China), and infested by a totalitarian ideology (communism). Today Islamabad pursues so-called strategic depth in Afghanistan and won’t quite abandon obsolete ambitions in Indian Kashmir. It leans toward “all-weather friend” China even as its economy stagnates and radical Islam eats away at society and the state.
But Washington found a successful approach toward Indonesia, one that can be mirrored for Pakistan. Working with the friendly regime of Suharto, who seized power in 1966, the U.S. helped engineer a remarkable transformation. Jakarta quashed communism and turned its energies toward economic development. The men in charge, a team of U.S.-trained economists, came to be known in development lore as the Berkeley mafia.
Indonesia flowered into one of Asia’s star performers. Per capita income rocketed to the middle-income benchmark of $1,000 in 1993 from $325 in 1970 (in 2005 dollars). Despite the setback of the 1998 Asian financial crisis and a rocky transition to democracy, Indonesia still leads India and Pakistan in both income and human well-being.
Success came at a price: up to half a million killed in anticommunist pogroms, and more than three decades of military rule. But the point is less to emulate Cold War means—Pakistan requires more democracy, not another useless dictator—than not to lose sight of the ends. A Pakistan focused on bettering the lives of its 180 million people rather than meddling across its borders will give South Asia a peace dividend akin to what Southeast Asia enjoyed. It will also allow the U.S. to focus on its long-term challenge in the region: the rise of an authoritarian China with hegemonic ambitions.
A focus on reordering the priorities of the Pakistani state does not mean ignoring Islamabad’s genuine security concerns. Washington ought to encourage the Pakistani army to guard its borders, and it might even consider implicitly guaranteeing their sanctity. (Afghanistan, for one, has never recognized the Durand Line that divides the two countries.) But U.S. aid should be oriented toward professionalizing the army and fostering a market economy integrated with its neighbors and the wider region. In return, Islamabad must forswear its use of terrorism to weaken India and stop expecting independent Afghanistan to act as a vassal.
The pieces of a broader Asean-like strategy have already begun to fall into place in South Asia. The 2006 Indo-U.S. nuclear deal and 2009 Kerry-Lugar aid bill for Pakistan sent a clear signal of long-term U.S. commitment to the region.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are both developing export-oriented economies linked to India. East Asian ally Japan, which helped modernize Southeast Asia a generation earlier through both trade and aid, appears inclined to perform a similar role in India. For a possible South Asian miracle, the only missing piece is whether the U.S. can help Pakistan reinvent itself, as it did with Indonesia.
Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at AEI.
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