South Asia was not at the top of anyone’s agenda initially, as the campaign season mostly focused on domestic issues. When foreign policy did enter the discourse, it mostly focused on events in the Middle East or security and trade issues in the Asia-Pacific. As The Diplomat noted last month, though China was rarely mentioned directly in the third Republican debate, at least “the ubiquity of China implicitly pervaded messaging on tackling federal debt, U.S. global economic competitiveness, climate change, job creation, and bringing manufacturing capabilities back to the United States.” And now, after Paris and San Bernardino, the debate has shifted toward security issues and Islam, its foreign policy aspects are dominated by the chaos in the Middle East and the threat of the Islamic State (IS).
So far, South Asia has barely garnered a mention in the debates or on the campaign trail. Afghanistan—because it hosts American troops—gets the most mentions out of all the South Asian countries. But the candidates, both Republican and Democrat, do not get into the specifics of any strategy that would stabilize the country in the long run, including the problem of Pakistan’s alleged support for the Taliban. However, at the very least, the majority of the candidates agreed with President Obama’s plan to keep troops in Afghanistan after he leaves office in 2017, because, as Bernie Sanders pointed out in October, “Clearly, we do not want to see the Taliban gain more power, and I think we need a certain nucleus of American troops present in Afghanistan.”
Hillary Clinton agreed with Obama’s decision. Marco Rubio also agreed with Obama, though he qualified this by calling for 10,000 U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan when Obama leaves office, instead of the planned 5,500. Ted Cruz supported some involvement in Afghanistan, if necessary supporting counter-terrorism operations – though he did not go as far as nation-building. Finally, Donald Trump agreed that the United States needed to keep soldiers in Afghanistan, though he initially questioned whether the United States should have invaded the country in the first place.
The candidates have said far less on India and Pakistan and almost nothing on the smaller countries of South Asia, though several economic, human rights, and immigration policies advocated by the candidates could impact relations with South Asia. For example, the fact that Tashfeen Malik, one of the San Bernardino attackers entered the United States from Pakistan on a fiancé visa, is now a point of controversy in debates on immigration, especially from Muslim countries.
On Pakistan and India themselves, considering their global importance and nuclear weapons, surprisingly little has been said, although sometimes India is mentioned in the same breath as China as being an economic competitor to the United States. In the latest Democratic debate in November, India and Pakistan were both not mentioned. In the Democratic debate in October, Pakistan was not mentioned at all and India mentioned only three times in the context of a list with other countries that the United States needed to work with on climate change.
In the November Republican debate, Pakistan was mentioned twice and India once, again both in the context of lists bracketing them with other countries in order to highlight specific issues (terrorism and “taking advantage of the United States”). And in the December Republican debate, Pakistan was again mentioned zero times while India was mentioned once, favorably by Ted Cruz, who stated that “there are millions of peaceful Muslims across the world, in countries like India.” Perhaps he saw something of import in India’s model of multiculturalism.
Slightly more substantively, on the campaign trail, Donald Trump pointed out that Pakistan was “probably the most dangerous” country in the world on a talk show in September. Trump went on to say that “India is the check to Pakistan…you have to get India involved…they have their own nukes and have a very powerful army. They seem to be the real check…I think we have to deal very closely with India to deal with [Pakistan].” Several other candidates seem to feel somewhat warmly toward India, such as Marco Rubio. Hillary Clinton is widely seen as being pro-India and tough on Pakistan, because of long-standing personal and professional ties to the former. She is also alleged to have close ties with many wealthy Indian donors.
While American policy toward South Asia remains in the background of this election cycle so far, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India do pop up from time to time, and it is impossible to see how anyone can be president of the United States without some sort of strategy for this vital region. Nonetheless, in an election cycle dominated by other concerns in the security and domestic realms, it is unlikely that South Asian issues will be given much import on the campaign trail or future debates unless something unexpected and drastic occurs.
By Akhilesh Pillalamarri for The Diplomat