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Great Seal logo Karl F. Inderfurth, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs
Remarks, Howard University, Washington, DC February 2, 2000
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America and South Asia in the New Century


May I begin by saying what an honor it is for me to deliver the Twenty-Third Annual Merze Tate Lecture in Diplomatic History at Howard University. Dr. Tate's contribution to Howard, to her academic field, her country and the international community are well known, and will long be remembered. This lecture series is a fitting tribute to her memory, and an honor for those of us who have been asked to be participants.

I am also honored to be here to correct an obvious oversight. I am told that in the twenty-two years that Howard has organized these lectures, no one has discussed American policy toward the South Asian Subcontinent. I feel confident Dr. Tate would not have liked that. As many of you know, while she taught at Howard for thirty years, she was also a Fulbright Professor in India.

But the fact that this is the first lecture on South Asia in all this time is not terribly surprising. Undersecretary of State Tom Pickering is quoted as saying that, for too long, "South Asia has been on the backside of the U.S. diplomatic globe." Of course this is true geographically, but it is has also been true in terms of our policy priorities. That, I am pleased to report, is changing -- as evident in the White House announcement just yesterday that President Clinton will travel to South Asia, specifically to India and Bangladesh, next month, the first Presidential travel to the region in over two decades.

So, your university and this lecture series are not alone in having overlooked the Subcontinent for a while. And that does offer me at least one advantage today: Clearly I will not be contradicted by anything that has been said here on this subject before me! At the same time, however, I am laboring under an enormous disadvantage today. I am following two of the State Department's brightest stars in appearing before you. The first, of course, is the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who spoke here last April. The second, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice, was here in November. I am privileged to call them both colleagues and friends, though I fear I may not be able to equal their eloquence and insight. But I will try.

South Asia: In the News

Let me begin by asking you to think for a moment about that part of the world called South Asia: What comes to mind? Unfortunately, while South Asia has been much in the news lately, a lot of that news has not been good. Let me cite four examples.

  • First, over the New Year period, when much of the world was braced for the possibility of terrorist incidents, there was only one: the Indian Airlines plane hijacked with around 170 people on board, apparently by Kashmiri militants. After one passenger was brutally murdered, and after a week-long terrible ordeal in the air and on the ground, the other passengers were freed in exchange for the release of prisoners held in India. Since then there have been charges and counter-charges between India and Pakistan over who was responsible for this terrorist incident, again in raising tensions between two countries that have fought three major wars during their half-century of independence.

  • A second report: just days before the Indian Airlines hijacking, there was an assassination attempt against the President of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumaratunga. She was at the final campaign rally before this island nation's election on December 21, and a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber, a young woman, literally blew herself up on the spot, causing numerous casualties but fortunately not killing the President. This was but the latest incident in a tragic ethnic conflict that has lasted for over 16 years, and cost an estimated 60.000 lives.

  • A third report: two months before that, on October 12, another event in South Asia captured the world's attention. The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, was removed from office by the chief of Pakistan's army, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Unfortunately, this was but the latest interruption in Pakistan's troubled effort to build a strong and sustained democracy. An elected prime minister has never served out his or her full term in office; indeed, the military has been in charge for fully half of Pakistan's 52 years.

  • Finally, while I could mention other reports -- including the continuing presence in Afghanistan of Usama Bin Laden's terrorist network -- let me conclude with one that literally shook the world in May of 1998. I had barely begun my morning staff meeting in the South Asia Bureau at the State Department, when my assistant rushed in to say CNN was reporting that India had just announced it had conducted a series of nuclear tests. Two weeks later -- despite President Clinton's appeals to the Pakistani prime minister and the dispatch of a high-level delegation to Islamabad (myself included) -- Pakistan followed suit with its own nuclear explosions. The specter of a nuclear arms race in South Asia, and, God forbid, of their actual use in conflict was now with us.
I imagine that during the question and answer period you may want to express your views about these reports and the issues they raise, or to ask about mine. And yet, without downplaying their importance, I would like to focus the rest of my remarks on what is right about South Asia. I would like to give you a sense of why this region will be increasingly important to us in the 21st century; why President Clinton and Secretary Albright decided at the beginning of this term in office -- before the South Asian nuclear tests -- that the U.S. would adopt a policy of greater engagement with the countries of South Asia; and why the President will be traveling there next month.

South Asia 101

Since this is a highly respected university, and all of you, I've been reliably told, are highly motivated students, let me begin with a brief overview of the region. Call it South Asia 101. The region encompasses only eight countries, but each has its own special fascination. India, of course, has captured the imagination of Americans from the days of our earliest contacts. In the 19th century Mark Twain visited India and called it "the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty ... of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants ... country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues ... mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition." Our fascination with India remains strong today. However, at the dawn of the 21st century, we no longer view it as a land of elephants and maharajas. India is now seen for what it truly is: an emerging economic powerhouse and world power, a dynamic nation forged from amazing diversity, and a successful democracy with over a billion people.

Pakistan, once part of British India but separated 52 years ago, has become a country with its own vision. That vision, as I was told by its new Foreign Minister when I was there last week, is of a "progressive, modem, democratic, Islamic state." This is a vision we can support, and Pakistan's potential as an example of progressive Islamic democracy is one reason for its importance to us today. But there are other reasons as well. Pakistan is important because it is a link -- both economic and political -- between the Indian Ocean and Central Asia, because it has significant human and economic resources, and because it has historically been a friend of the United States. For all these reasons, we intend to stay engaged with Pakistan despite the current difficulties it is facing.

As for the other countries of South Asia, I have time today only to hint at the fascinating contrasts and the significant opportunities and challenges they present.

  • There is Bangladesh, a land of well over one hundred million that is justly famed throughout the world for pioneering models -- such as the Grameen Bank of Mohammed Yunis -- of how people, especially women, can pull themselves out of poverty through microcredits for small enterprise.

  • There is Afghanistan, a land often described as the object of some "Great Game" played by outside powers - but one whose proud people have time and time again showed the world that they will not long be ruled by others.

  • There are the island nations of Sri Lanka and of the Maldives, whose tropical beauty and resources lie today at the mercy of other forces: the civil strife I noted before in Sri Lanka, and the environmental fragility of the Maldives -- whose highest point is a mere eight feet above sea level, and therefore threatened by global warming and climate change.

  • And, finally, there are the awe-inspiring Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan, each moving in different ways to combine ancient and unique traditions with new openings to the world beyond their borders.
So much for South Asia 101, or why this region is so interesting to us. The question now is, what are U.S. interests in South Asia? Why should we seek greater engagement there? The answer is simple: Our growing interests and engagement reflect new realities in the region. The U.S. has an expanding agenda in South Asia, and I would like to focus for the next few moments on four key items on this agenda: Democracy, Economic Reform, Social Development, and Integration into the Global Mainstream.

Democracy in South Asia

First, Democracy: I noted before that India is the world's largest democracy, and I can add that it is a very intense, dynamic, and in almost every respect a successful one. This should make the U.S. and India, as Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee noted about a year ago, "natural allies"; and indeed it is quite unnatural that our two countries have for too long seemed at odds on many international issues. In large part that was an unfortunate legacy of the Cold War. With that behind us, we can more easily move on, as President Clinton has urged, to a deeper and more positive relationship supported by the democratic values and practices we share. There are lessons we can learn from each other about implementing and improving our democratic legacy in our two hugely diverse and multicultural societies. And we can celebrate the fact that, even if we disagree on some things, history strongly suggests that democracies simply do not become adversaries of each other. Instead, they are almost certain, not merely to work out any disagreements, but also to work together once agreement is achieved.

That is good news, to be sure, but the even better news is that India is not the only democracy in South Asia. Bangladesh is another major example, even as it goes through growing pains in this respect. As such, it is a beacon of hope for other countries in the Muslim world. Also stubbornly democratic, if that is the right expression, is Sri Lanka, despite all its tragic ethnic conflict. And Nepal this year celebrates its first full decade of democracy. We have an interest in supporting a democratic future for all these countries, and not only for sentimental reasons. For these democracies offer not just the best hope for their own peoples, but also serve as examples for others that are confronting similar challenges.

In this connection, Pakistan's military coup last October, which I mentioned earlier, is a regrettable setback for South Asia as a whole -- but one that we hope will prove temporary. We do not approve the general's method of taking control, and we are talking very frankly to him and to his newly appointed officials about their plans to restore civilian democratic rule to this key country. Our goal, which Gen. Musharraf says he shares, is to see Pakistan put back on the democratic path in the shortest possible time frame. To the extent that we see evidence that this process is in motion, it will be in our own interest to see how we can most appropriately and effectively encourage it.

Economic Development in South Asia

Economic Development is the second area of great promise I would like to note today. One of the best kept secrets of the 1990's, except for those with the foresight to pay attention, was the emergence of the Indian economy from the socialism of its past into a free market -- or at least a much freer one. This has unleashed Indian talents and energies, yielding sustained growth rates of over 6% every year, the creation of software and other selected high-tech industries to rival any in the world, and the emergence of what is arguably the largest middle-class population on the planet. A few years ago, Microsoft's Bill Gates paid a visit to India. He knew something then that a lot of us are learning today. India will be a major player in the new world of information technology. Just a few weeks ago, you probably heard your fill about the Y2K problem. Well, one reason it turned out not be a problem was that Indian software engineers were so directly engaged in the international effort to solve it.

This is obviously good news for India, but it is also good news for us. The U.S. is already India's top trade and investment partner; our bilateral trade more than doubled during the 1990's. And yet, until a couple of years ago, we traded more with Singapore's three million people than with India's one billion plus. Clearly, the economic potential of better U.S. ties with India is enormous. And just a few months ago, India took major steps realize more of that potential by opening up its insurance and telecommunications sectors to foreign investors. This is all part of an ongoing "second wave" of major Indian economic reforms, one that the American government and the American private sector are united in supporting enthusiastically. Is India doing this for our benefit? No -- for its own sake, but both countries will come out ahead.

As with democracy, India is the largest but not the only country in the region undergoing this kind of positive economic transformation. Bangladesh, for example, is another case in point. This country while still poor; is taking steps to move into the global economy. With the right policies in place, it could make a quantum leap forward by developing vast energy reserves, particularly in natural gas. Regional cooperation in this area would provide Bangladesh with a huge market for this valuable natural resource, just across the border in India. Nepal, too, is looking at the new economic policies and projects needed to take advantage of its abundant energy resources -- in this case hydropower cascading down its majestic mountains. This will raise Nepal's own standard of living while linking it productively with its neighbors.

Social Development in South Asia

Social Development is the next agenda item I would like to discuss. It is naturally related to economic development, but has its own dynamic. Economic growth is not always equitable or socially constructive. It will be crucial, in the long run, that the benefits of economic growth extend to all segments of South Asian society. For similar reasons, and also because we share with the countries of the region an adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is just as crucial that literacy, education, public health, and respect for women's rights and minority rights be extended to all. In this respect, South Asian countries -- with the notable and tragic exception of Afghanistan -- have made some significant strides, even if by their own accounts they still have a long way to go. Sri Lanka is a fascinating case in point. This nation, which is still in the grip of civil conflict, has somehow managed to sustain a literacy rate of over 90%. Moreover, its infant mortality and life expectancy rates are among the best in the world.

Another area of unexpected success, in this case across most of South Asia, concerns women's advancement. It is noteworthy that even though ancient forms of discrimination and oppression still persist in many places, four of the five countries in the region -- India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh -- have elected women to the highest political office in the land. In Bangladesh right now, not only is the Prime Minister a woman, but so too is the leader of the main opposition party.

South Asian Integration into the Global Mainstream

Finally -- and I promise to be brief on this last point -- integration into the global mainstream is a fourth area of considerable promise for South Asia. The last few years have witnessed a much higher level of involvement by the nations of this region in international organizations. Examples can be found everywhere in the alphabet soup of international acronyms. Most South Asian states are now active and constructive members of the WTO, or World Trade Organization. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are working harder to curb abusive child labor through the ILO, or International Labor Organization. All three countries are also working hard to reduce heroin trafficking by working with the UNDCP, or UN Drug Control Program. Nepal has stepped up its engagement with other specialized UN agencies, including UNDP, the UN Development Program, and UNHCR, the UN High Commission for Refugees.

Sri Lanka has hosted successful conferences on globalization in conjunction with the WEF, the World Economic Forum, which just the other day wrapped up its annual summit meeting in Davos. India now belongs to ARF, the Asian Regional Forum, which links it to ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations. And, as if to complete the global circle, India is also interested in affiliating with APEC, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group -- to which we also belong. Remember, we have a Pacific coast, too!

South Asia: Realizing Its Potential

Now that I have thoroughly scrambled your mind with these acronyms, let me bring my remarks to a close. In all four of these promising areas -- democracy, economic and social development, and global integration -- the full potential of our growing engagement with South Asia can be realized only if that region addresses some of the tough issues I mentioned at the very start of my remarks including: proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and regional and social conflict. Those are the subjects that grab the headlines today. But my hope is that there will soon come a time when such issues no longer dominate our thinking about South Asia. I hope we will become deeply engaged on an agenda of economic growth, science and technology cooperation, cultural and educational exchange, joint efforts to combat infectious diseases, and many other areas. This is an ambitious but attainable agenda. I truly believe that in this new century South Asia, by virtue of its growing political and economic dynamism as much as its sheer size, will play an increasingly important role on the world stage. I am also hopeful that some of you in this audience -- now that you've been exposed to South Asia 101- and to the Merze Tate lectures in Diplomatic History -- will consider a career in international relations. There really is a fascinating world out there, one that will matter more and more to all of us in years to come -- and South Asia, I am convinced, will be a significant part of that. I look forward to your questions about it.

Thank you very much.

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