When we speak of South Asia, we refer to the part of Asia below the Himalayas and encapsulated between the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Rakhine Mountains on the border between Myanmar and India, a mountainous range of dense jungle difficult to traverse. Over 1.7 billion people, or almost a quarter of the world’s entire population, live in South Asia’s seven countries: India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, with India accounting for roughly 70 percent of the region’s total population.

South Asia can be divided into three main parts. The ring of mountains that stretch from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal encircle the region and also contain South Asia’s main peripheral states. Afghanistan is a mountainous country that is removed from the Indian subcontinent but borders on Pakistan. Because Afghanistan is landlocked and relies on Pakistan for access to the outside world, and because there are cross-border Pashtun populations where tribes, clans and families live on both sides of the border, Afghanistan can potentially be an extremely destabilizing force for Pakistan and therefore should be considered part of South Asia more than any other region. The northern Pakistani highlands are also included in this region. To the east of the mountain arc, Nepal and Bhutan are landlocked countries with relatively small populations that abut the Himalayas. The second part of South Asia is the Indian Peninsula, bordered by the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal. It has many notable river systems, such as the Godarvi and Narmanda that support large population centers. It also contains the island city of Mumbai, India’s largest city. The Maldives and Sri Lanka are small island nations in the Indian Ocean south of the Indian Peninsula.

indian-subcontinent

The heartland of South Asia is the Indo-Gangetic Plain, a large and fertile region based around the Indus and Ganges river systems, as well as the Bramaputra in Bangladesh and eastern India. Though technically two distinct river systems, the Gangers River Basin and the Indus Valley are fewer than 200 miles apart, and the space between is relatively easy to navigate. The plain encompasses major population centers stretching from eastern Pakistan, continuing through northern India, all the way to the Ganges River Delta in Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. Over 900 million people live on the Indo-Gangetic Plain. It is one of the most fertile regions in the entire world, but also one of the most poverty-stricken and densely populated. Indeed, according to the World Bank, South Asia accounts for a third of the entire world’s poor. Despite India’s high economic growth rates and the fact that poverty rates in South Asia have been halved in the last 15 years, the region is second only to sub-Saharan Africa in terms of the number of people living in extreme poverty. In 2011, 77.6 percent of Bangladeshis and 58 percent of Indians lived on less than $3.10 a day according to World Bank statistics.

south-asia-pop-density

Balance of Power in the Region

The center of gravity of South Asia is the balance of power between Pakistan and India, and has been since both countries gained their independence in 1947. India and Pakistan have fought four wars. Both possess nuclear weapons and the borderland between India, Pakistan and China – Kashmir – is of strategic importance to both Islamabad and New Delhi. Maintaining the Indo-Pakistani balance of power is also a strategic goal for the United States, as is ensuring the safety of trade routes linking the resources and raw materials of Africa and the Middle East to Asia via the Pacific Ocean.

southasia-india-power-conflict

Besides the Indo-Pakistani balance of power, there are two South Asian issues that must be monitored. Afghanistan is crucial to the overall dynamic of South Asia because of its complex almost familial relationship with Pakistan and because of the numerous passes in the Pakistani northern highlands that link the two countries. Developments in Afghanistan that can weaken Pakistan have the potential to tip the balance of power in India’s direction. The second and less-important issue is China-India relations. Though India and China have skirmished a few times in the 20th century, the presence of the Himalayas precludes the movement both of large numbers of troops and trade via the two countries. Even so, it is important to keep an eye on both Nepal and Tibet. The Chinese often try to involve themselves in Nepal because a regime friendly to the Chinese could make them think about projecting real power into the Indian subcontinent and the prospects for conflict become much more tangible. Tibet is India’s version of Nepal – a region on the other side of the Himalayas that, if it could wield meaningful control, it could use this to threaten Beijing.

The Region’s Most Powerful Country

India is by far the region’s most powerful country, both in terms of military might and economic resources and potential. More important for understanding the region than India’s size are its constraints. The Indian subcontinent is essentially an island to itself – bounded on all sides either by ocean or by impassable terrain. India, therefore, is not a country that historically projects power outside of its own region.

Historically, India has struggled to assert itself within the subcontinent because of its complex internal divisions. A lack of internal geographic barriers and the presence of multiple fertile river systems led to the development of many distinct peoples in India, and it is perhaps more useful to think of India less as the world’s largest democracy and more as an unwieldy confederation of semi-autonomous states and republics bound together by a certain degree of loyalty to Indian nationalism and central governance. India maintains a large military in part due to its internal divisions.

Cultural and ethnic differences are not the only ones India faces. Over 170 million Muslims live in India and relations between the majority Hindu population and Muslims can become fraught after jihadist attacks, like those that occurred in Mumbai in 2008. The concern over the rise of Hindu nationalism in the wake of the 2014 victory of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in large part due to the fear that its policies will stoke religious conflict between Muslims and Hindus. Smaller pockets of Sikhs, Christians, Jains and Buddhists also live in India. India also faces an ongoing Naxalite-Maoist insurgency in the east and smaller-scale separatist movements, the most notable of which is in Kashmir, and occasionally undergoes spasms of violence and conflict. India’s internal divisions are a large part of the reason India was ruled, for much of its recent history, by outside powers – whether foreign Muslim rulers in medieval times or the British starting in the 19th century.

One of the most important challenges facing India today is the emerging conflict between the Gandhian-Nehruvian vision of India as a center-left secular republic and a significant right-wing movement coalesced around Modi, under whose leadership the ruling BJP is moving to the right. This has the potential to not just undermine the communal situation largely with regards to the Muslim minority but also to divide the Hindu majority, which could further undermine economic growth and promote insecurity.

south-asia-pop-density

This same internal fractiousness also holds the Indian economy back from realizing the potential it displays on paper. The World Bank has set economic growth for India at 7.5 percent in 2015-2016, surpassing China. In addition, Modi has taken steps to make India more business friendly and also to improve transparency during his first year in office. Be that as it may, it will take a great deal more than a year of policy and growth to fix the structurally problematic parts of the Indian economy. First of all, each of India’s states sets its own regulations, and some of these inhibit economic development. Second of all, India has inherited many structurally problematic issues from its past.

From 1947-1990, India was both socialist and wary of the outside world as a result of its experience with colonial exploitation. India was afraid that the U.S. would attempt to behave as Great Britain had before it as the world’s predominant maritime power and, therefore, moved closer to the Soviet Union and also closed its economy off from the world. When India opened up its economy to the world and began to move away from a centrally planned economy, the relationships between politicians, bureaucrat and businessmen did not simply disappear. Cronyism and corruption are endemic to the Indian economy. A World Economic Forum report from 2014 pointed out that despite some improvements, the overall business environment in India is plagued by protectionism, the influence of monopolies and the existence of subsidies and administrative barriers in registering and operating business. The World Bank’s growth estimates for India are dependent on an acceleration in the rate of investment in India, a difficult thing to imagine when looking honestly at India today. India is the pre-dominant power in South Asia, but its power is not deep enough to extend beyond the geography that contains it.

Indo-Pakistani Balance of Power

Two global conflicts have had profound impacts on South Asia and continue to shape its geopolitical dynamic today. The first was the Cold War and the second was 9/11.

Both India and Pakistan declared independence from Great Britain in 1947. India was suspicious of American intentions because from India’s perspective the Americans were too similar to their previous colonial masters. In the Soviet Union, India found a relationship where it could get economic and military support without giving up any of its independence – the geography of the Indian subcontinent offered no overland route for the Soviets to use to control India and, unlike the Americans, the Soviets did not possess a navy that could dominate the Indian Ocean.

Despite its naval superiority, in the 1950s and early 1960s, it was not so clear to the U.S. that it had the upper hand overall. A strong Indo-Soviet relationship could have meant that the Soviets would have access to naval bases in India, or that the Soviets would help the Indians build their own navy. Both Indonesia and Egypt were moving closer to the Soviets as well. When the U.S. originally sent advisors to Vietnam in 1955, it was as much about U.S. credibility to its allies as it was about the threat that a pro-Chinese Sukarno in Indonesia posed to transit from the Indian to Pacific Oceans. In East Asia, the U.S. developed relationships on the periphery to combat the communists with countries like South Korea, Japan and the Philippines. In South Asia, the U.S. solution was to back Pakistan.

U.S. support of Pakistan not only created a thorn in India’s side – one that forced India to focus on its army and air force as opposed to building a naval force for the Indian Ocean – but it also helped to establish U.S. credibility in the Muslim world, with the Arab states almost as a bloc associating themselves with the Soviet camp. The Soviets also developed a keen interest in Afghanistan for the role it could play in disrupting Pakistan. For its part, Pakistan could not have asked for a better relationship than with the U.S. India’s only true opponent in South Asia is Pakistan, but ultimately India is the stronger power. Without U.S. support, Pakistan would have had a difficult time resisting India.

China also began to be suspicious of Soviet motives in India. This led to one of history’s great ironies: that Maoist China and the liberal democratic U.S. would both proffer support to a military dictatorship in Pakistan, while the Soviet Union backed the democratic India. Chinese interest in the India-Pakistan relationship also meant that Kashmir – which borders both Pakistan and China – became a matter of existential importance for both sides. It is not by accident that India and Pakistan have fought their wars over this contested territory.

Sept. 11, 2001 fundamentally challenged the Pakistani-U.S. relationship and, therefore, threatened to undermine the India-Pakistan balance of power, the defining South Asian strategic relationship. Pakistan borders Afghanistan – Pakistani ethnic groups, like the Pashtun, live on both sides of the border and are an integral part of the Taliban. After al-Qaida attacked the U.S. in 2001, Pakistan was faced with an impossible situation. On the one hand, the U.S., its most important ally, required Pakistan to support its war against al Qaeda and the Taliban. But Pakistan had in its own territory an Islamist movement that was anti-American and, furthermore, its intelligence services had been closely linked with Afghan Islamists, at times even with U.S. support as in the 1980s when the U.S. backed the mujahedeen in their battle against the Soviet Union. For a time, India and the U.S. found themselves with shared interests. There was a very real chance that the Indo-Pakistani balance of power was in jeopardy.

The Current Situation

The U.S., however, has recently changed its strategy and stepped back. Washington has realized that it simply cannot exert its will to make Afghanistan into a liberal democracy, no matter how much treasure and military force it throws at the issue. It also has realized the tremendous amount of pressure that its war in Afghanistan has placed upon Pakistan. The U.S. is returning to the strategy it pursued in the Cold War: allowing the natural balance of power that existed within the region to return, while supporting the weaker power in the India-Pakistan relationship.

U.S. President Barack Obama has committed to keeping a 5,500 contingent of U.S. troops in Afghanistan at the end of his term. The U.S. is doing this because it is engaged in a holding action designed to offer support to the government in Kabul and the territories it controls against the Taliban. It is not a force capable of meaningful military operations against the Taliban, but it is also a warning that should the Taliban attempt to take the capital, the U.S. will not tolerate it.

Afghanistan is settling into an emerging factional reality as the U.S. withdraws most of its troops from the country and has repaired its relationship with Pakistan. Rather than Afghanistan being united, it is returning to its factional roots, and the U.S. is once again depending on Pakistan to help manage Afghanistan in such a way that the shifting confederation ruling most of the country does not devolve into Taliban control as it did in the 1990s.

Pakistan for its part continues to have a complicated relationship with the Taliban. Pakistan was loath to take the Taliban on post-9/11, but a de facto jihadist insurgency in Pakistan from 2006-2014, in large part targeted at the Pakistan army, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies, forced a change in Pakistan’s thinking. In the last year, Pakistan has succeeded in expelling many Taliban fighters and sympathizers from its own territory, pushing them back into Afghanistan and in effect destabilizing the Afghan situation. Pakistan does not want to control Afghanistan, and it does not trust the Taliban, but it also cannot tolerate too much chaos on its Western border. Though Pakistan has enjoyed relative political stability and slow but steady economic growth in the last year, such developments are still in a fragile, early stage and the situation in Afghanistan can destabilize the situation in Pakistan. As a result, in some ways Pakistan is actually more worried about its western flank with Afghanistan right now than with its historic rivalry with India – a situation that India has an interest in seeing continue.

The fact of the matter is that the U.S. and Pakistan still need each other. The U.S. needs Pakistan to help prevent al-Qaida from metastasizing all over Afghanistan again – and Pakistan got a taste of what it felt like for India and the U.S. to have converging interests and is not eager to experience it again. The U.S. has no quarrel to pick with India, but it also has no interest in India becoming so powerful that it can dominate the entire subcontinent with ease.

The only other potential wildcard threatening the Indo-Pakistan balance of power is the role of China, but this has also not seen any fundamental change. China exists on the periphery of the subcontinent as little more than a gadfly. China claims to be investing $46 billion in an economic corridor project between Pakistan and China because it searches for every advantage over India it can get. But China cannot project enough military force into Pakistan to protect it, nor does it have a navy powerful enough to defend Pakistan’s coast. To the east, Nepal remains a potential point of conflict between New Delhi and Beijing. India is currently in a spat with Nepal over Kathmandu’s new constitution and over its alleged marginalization of Nepali Hindus, and is maintaining a blockade over the small Himalayan country. While there have been no indications of Chinese involvement as yet, Beijing reportedly agreed to supply Nepal with gasoline for the first time ever in October 2015. This situation bears watching but is not yet close to enabling serious conflict between the two powers.

For the most part then the same dynamics that defined South Asia after 1947 are very much still in place. South Asia has seen tremendous economic growth, but remains one of the poorest and most populous regions in the world. India is the pre-eminent power, but after a few years of volatility the Indo-Pakistani balance of power holds and the U.S. has recommitted to ensuring that Pakistan is strong enough to serve as a meaningful counterbalance to India in the region.