NEW YORK -- The Biden administration should deemphasize the war in Afghanistan and give more attention to South Asia as a whole, particularly India, in a broader Indo-Pacific framework, all with an eye on China, a congressionally funded bipartisan think tank in Washington recommends in a new report.
As America and allies push for a "free and open Indo-Pacific" and to respond to a more assertive Beijing, the United States Institute of Peace has released "China's Influence on Conflict Dynamics in South Asia," a report to serve as "a road map for the next U.S. administration while it advances the Indo portion of that vision."
In opening remarks for the report's virtual launch event, Richard Olson, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, said that for much of the last two decades "U.S. policy toward South Asia has largely been framed by our war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism policy more generally."
"This is shifting for several reasons," he explained, because "we are entering the endgame in Afghanistan" -- and, more importantly, a bipartisan consensus recognizes that "an increasingly assertive China ... often pursues policies contrary to our interests."
The report's advice includes broadening American engagement in South Asia to "fully integrate the region into a free and open Indo-Pacific vision"; deepening ties with democratic India; making the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue consisting of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S., or Quad, "militarily effective"; and fostering "a more modest, right-sized relationship" with an increasingly pro-China Pakistan.
The report also calls for the White House to establish an Indo-Pacific maritime policy coordination directorate at the National Security Council. "It would be a functional directorate responsible for coordinating U.S. policy relating to maritime and littoral issues across bureaucratic, geographic, and functional lines," it explains.
Commissioning a National Intelligence Estimate of Chinese maritime activities in the Indian Ocean and its rimland areas is also on the list of recommendations. The report suggests that the findings be shared with allies and partners where appropriate.
The report sees the Sino-Indian border -- the site of an ongoing military standoff in the Himalayan Ladakh region -- remaining a major flashpoint. New Delhi and Beijing will "become more competitive" and "struggle to cooperate throughout the Indo-Pacific," it says, and China may expand its geopolitical objective to matching or supplanting the U.S. and India as the most capable maritime force in the Indian Ocean region.
Side effects of closer ties between Beijing and Islamabad also come in for criticism. "The China-Pakistan axis is strengthening, which has a detrimental effect on governance and economic reform efforts in Pakistan given the concomitant lack of transparency and accountability" that comes with Chinese-funded development projects, according to the report.
But the report also finds common cause for China, India and Pakistan in Afghanistan, recommending that the trio keep trying to identify steps to help sustain peace and economic growth there after a peace settlement is reached with the Taliban.
The USIP study group that produced the report is co-chaired by Olson and Randall Schriver, former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, and is stocked with South Asia specialists and China watchers.
It lists Beijing's "major strategic priorities" for South Asia as "protecting its western, non-Han territories; managing the Sino-Indian rivalry; and securing China's standing as a peer competitor to the United States." The report notes Beijing's "decadeslong strategic partnership" with Islamabad and a "growing focus" on further projecting the People's Liberation Army's naval power in the Indian Ocean region.
Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, presented his findings by concentrating on China's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative and President Xi Jinping's vision for a stronger nation as drivers of Beijing's policy toward South Asia.
"With the Belt and Road Initiative and a blue-water navy now second only to the U.S. Navy, China's pushing into South Asia and the Indian Ocean with quite a bit of zeal," Cronin said at the launch event. "Xi Jinping aims to put China back on top after a century of repulsing imperial powers."
"For him, on the cusp of a third five-year term at the helm, Xi sees China's great rejuvenation requiring three things: internal security and unity at home, primacy over the periphery, and control over an integrated Eurasian continent and its adjacent maritime transit routes," Cronin continued. "All of these goals intersect South Asia."