Russia’s war in Ukraine has provided the United States with further incentive to apply a wider geographic lens to South Asia, writes FP’s  MichaelKugelman

Is Biden Building a Broader South Asia Policy?

A planned visit by Nepal’s prime minister to Washington reflects expanding engagement in the region.

Michael Kugelman, the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. June 2, 2022

The highlights this week: The Biden administration may be widening U.S. engagement in South Asia, new data shows that India-China trade remains robust despite tensions, and former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan vows to continue his anti-government march.

U.S. Expands Engagement With South Asia

The Kathmandu Post and other local outlets have reported that Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is expected to visit Washington sometime next month. The trip would be the first by a sitting Nepali prime minister since 2002, and it would come just weeks after a flurry of visits to Kathmandu by senior U.S. officials.

The reported visit also follows more than a year of increasing high-level engagement between the United States and other countries in South Asia, especially Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the Maldives. This marks a shift for Washington, which in recent decades has expended most of its diplomatic capital in the region on India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

It’s too early to assume a formal White House policy shift; the Biden administration hasn’t even announced a new South Asia strategy. Some of the increased U.S. attention relates to one-off events, such as milestone diplomatic anniversaries. However, growing Chinese influence, which now extends across South Asia, gives Washington more strategic motivations to engage more broadly with the region.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of official ties between Washington and Dhaka—the official reason for the April meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Bangladeshi counterpart, A.K. Abdul Momen. U.S.-Nepal relations have their 75th anniversary this year, and recent diplomacy has focused on an infrastructure grant from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which Nepal’s parliament ratified in February after much delay.

Once these moments have passed, Washington’s relations with Dhaka and Kathmandu may lose some momentum. But U.S. competition with China offers long-lasting rationale for more engagement. As I wrote last week, Beijing’s growing naval power has increased its presence in the Indian Ocean region, alongside its deepening infrastructure development footprint in South Asia. The Biden administration wanted Nepal to ratify the MCC grant in part because it sees the package as a means of countering China’s infrastructure aid.

Indications that the United States sees South Asia as a new battleground for this strategic competition began under former U.S. President Donald Trump, when Indo-Pacific policy documents first underscored the importance of strengthening cooperation with a broad range of South Asian states. During its final weeks, the Trump administration announced plans to open a U.S. Embassy in Male, the capital of the Maldives, seeking to parry Chinese influence there.

The Biden administration seems to have similar goals. Last year, Colin Kahl, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, spoke with Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid about “advancing shared interests in the Indo-Pacific”—diplomatic code for countering China. The U.S. State Department described U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland’s March visit to Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka with similar language.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has also provided the United States with further incentive to apply a wider geographic lens to South Asia. Countries in the region—and not just India—have a history of friendship with Russia. Moscow has long made investments in South Asia and welcomed its students and tourists. Half the South Asian countries abstained from the first United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion. Facing global isolation, Moscow may also seek deeper engagement in South Asia—something Washington will want to preempt.

In some ways, the United States building a broader South Asia policy around the goal of countering China and Russia could backfire. Most South Asian states seek to balance their relations with Washington, Beijing, and Moscow; they don’t want to get dragged into great-power competition, as the conflict in Ukraine has shown.

However, there is another urgent reason for more U.S. engagement in South Asia: the climate crisis. Orienting a South Asia strategy around climate change mitigation would tap into a top Biden administration priority and address a top regional need, without arousing anxieties that often accompany U.S. moves driven by great-power competition.

What We’re Following

India-China trade remains strong. New data from India’s commerce ministry shows the United States was India’s top trade partner during fiscal year 2021-2022, which ended on March 31. But what stands out is that India’s trade volume with its rival China was not far behind. India’s trade with the United States was $119 billion, and it was $115 billion with China. This isn’t that surprising: In 2021, bilateral trade between New Delhi and Beijing surpassed $100 billion for the first time.

All this comes during a low point for India-China relations, following a deadly border clash in 2020. After the crisis, New Delhi sought to curb its commercial relations with Beijing, including by banning dozens of Chinese apps. But the latest trade data highlights how long-standing trade patterns between the two countries die hard.

Controversy in Pakistan over Israel visit. Israeli President Isaac Herzog set off a political firestorm in Pakistan with comments about the “amazing experience” of hosting “Pakistani leaders” in Israel for a discussion on interfaith issues. The statement at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, actually referred to a trip by a group of private citizens that included some Pakistanis, which was sponsored by an Israeli and a U.S. Muslim nongovernmental organization.

However, the furious response in Pakistan was swift. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan accused Pakistan’s current government of sponsoring the trip to pave the way for eventually recognizing the Israeli state—an allegation officials rejected. Journalist Ahmed Quraishi, who was on the trip, was fired from his job at the state broadcaster.

The reaction reflects the sensitivities in Pakistan about Israel. Over the years, Pakistani officials have quietly explored engagement with Israel, but Islamabad’s position has remained consistent: no formal recognition until the Palestinian issue is resolved. Yet the Abraham Accords, which resulted in Israeli normalization agreements with several Muslim-majority states, have put pressure on Pakistan to reconsider.

Imran Khan vows to resume march. Meanwhile, Khan—now Pakistan’s opposition leader—has said that at a political rally on Saturday, he will announce a date for a new anti-government march as he demands early elections. Khan had originally said his decision would come after the Supreme Court rules on a petition filed on behalf of his party, which seeks the court’s assurance that peaceful protest is a constitutional right. On Thursday, the court declined to issue a decision, referring to an earlier ruling that called on the government to leave protesters alone.

When Khan and his supporters marched on Islamabad last week, the government responded with tear gas and arrests. While Khan hopes the Supreme Court’s views could deter the government from using violence again, the administration is talking tough. On Tuesday, Pakistani Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah issued a warning: “[A]s soon as the long March is announced ‘let them come and I’ll see how they cross barriers this time,’” he tweeted.

Under the Radar

People gather around the hearse van during the funeral procession of late Bollywood singer Krishnakumar Kunnath in Mumbai on June 2.SUJIT JAISWAL/AFP via Getty Images

India lost two iconic musicians this week. On Sunday, rapper Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu, 28—better known as Sidhu Moose Wala—was shot and killed while traveling in Punjab. Some local media report that Sidhu Moose Wala may be a casualty of rival gang wars in Punjab, although authorities deny his own involvement. Opposition politicians in Punjab have lambasted the state government for the killing because Sidhu Moose Wala’s security detail was recently reduced as part of a policy to rein in so-called VIP culture in the state.

Then, on Tuesday, famous Bollywood singer Krishnakumar Kunnath—better known as KK— died at 53 after performing in Kolkata. Testimonials poured in from many Indians, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Local officials said the likely cause of death was cardiac arrest, but the circumstances of KK’s death are also controversial. Some local reports said the air conditioning wasn’t working at the concert venue. Police are also investigating reports that KK was injured before he died.

The deaths come just a few months after the February passing of Lata Mangeshkar, a legendary Bollywood singer, at the age of 92 from pneumonia and COVID-19.

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman