Does 'South Asia' Exist?
Like many other regular readers of Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, I was surprised by the announcement that it is to be rebranded as the South Asia Channel. But while my friend Ziad Haider received a quantum of solace from ‘AfPak' losing its conceptual toehold in Washington, I had instinctive misgivings about the adoption of ‘South Asia.' What exactly does that phrase connote today? Is the term in any way useful? Or is it so poorly defined -- culturally, politically, geographically, and bureaucratically -- as to make it problematic in its own way? In fact, beyond one rather ineffectual international organization and a handful of sporting events, does ‘South Asia' even exist?
South Asia -- as any sort of single entity -- was not really worthy of Washington's attention until the 1990s. India and Pakistan did feature in American strategic calculations beginning with their independence in 1947, but usually in the context of U.S. policy toward China or the Soviet Union, which often determined American responses to the region's political developments. All of that changed when India, and then Pakistan, conducted nuclear tests in 1998. The handful of South Asianists from academia and the diplomatic world -- and there weren't many Americans who could lay claim to that label -- were suddenly in high demand by the U.S. government and think tanks to address a narrow set of American priorities: nuclear proliferation, India-Pakistan tensions, and the Kashmir dispute.
Dhruva Jaishankar is a fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, where he manages the India Trilateral Forum, a twice-yearly strategic dialogue between India, the US, and Europe.