South Asia in 2020: Future Strategic Balances and Alliances. Michael R. Chambers, ed. Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2002.
For all the attention paid to predicting the future, surprisingly little is paid to past predictions. This is a missed opportunity. Assessing past forecasts can yield insights and improve current thinking about the future. South Asia in 2020: Future Strategic Balances and Alliances is a great example of a collection of forecasts worth reviewing. An edited volume published in November 2002, the essays of South Asia in 2020 sought to anticipate how the strategic dynamics of the region would look in 2020. Most of the forecasts look impressively prescient today. Broadly speaking, the authors’ consensus predictions about strategic dynamics have played out as anticipated; Pakistan and China have become closer, and so too have India and the United States. The forecasts that were most inaccurate seem to have stemmed from the propensity of U.S. South Asia experts at the time to hyphenate India and Pakistan. As a result, they failed to to recognize India was on a trajectory to dissociate itself from Pakistan in terms of its economic and military power.
The volume’s essays do a good job laying out the forces that have driven geopolitical dynamics in the region. Aaron Friedberg and Teresita Schaffer assessed U.S.-China and India-China relations, respectively, would become increasingly competitive (although there was not unanimous consensus about either). Sumit Ganguly concluded that, because India and the United States would find themselves increasingly at odds with China, they would move closer to each other despite their historical baggage. (Ganguly was more confident of this than others). Michael Chambers wrote that a closer U.S.-India relationship would cause Pakistan to lean more heavily on China as a partner, and John Garver similarly concluded that China would come to see Pakistan as an increasingly useful strategic partner.
Despite the wisdom of those predictions, there were two widely shared beliefs in South Asia in 2020 that, with hindsight, were clearly mistaken. The first was that India would have to negotiate some kind of peace or arms control agreement with Pakistan to emerge as a serious regional power. The second was that the United States should and would maintain a balancing role between India and Pakistan. Both beliefs can be attributed to the tendency of U.S. South Asia experts at that time to see India and Pakistan as inextricably linked: the India-Pakistan hyphenation. The idea of India-Pakistan was that India and Pakistan were, and would remain, equally important strategic actors whose fates were intertwined.
This concept was deeply ingrained in the minds of most U.S. South Asia experts at the time—one could hardly talk about one country without mentioning the other. If one consciously or unconsciously accepted the concept of India-Pakistan hyphenation, it made sense that the United States should avoid picking sides in the rivalry and India would have to forge some semblance of peace with Pakistan if it wanted to emerge as a serious regional power.
Today, India and Pakistan have been de-hyphenated in the minds of U.S. South Asia experts. Since 2002, India has gone through a period of economic growth that has rendered it far more powerful than Pakistan, and this gap continues to widen. This divergence has debunked the prediction that India would need to reach some kind of détente with Pakistan before it could emerge as a major regional power. It has similarly led the United States to move from a more neutral, or Pakistan-leaning, position in the India-Pakistan rivalry to a position more sympathetic to India. Other reasons the United States has distanced itself from Pakistan include changing U.S. strategic priorities from counter-terrorism and Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 to great power competition with China today, and U.S. frustrations with Pakistani duplicity, a possibility South Asia in 2020 contributor Thomas Simons identified in his chapter.
In retrospect, it is easy to find evidence from 2002 that India was on a path to dissociated itself from Pakistan. Vijay Kelkar’s chapter in South Asia in 2020 on India’s economic future predicted, and perhaps overestimated, the economic progress India has made to date. India is roughly on pace to meet Kelkar’s forecast that India will consume five million barrels of oil a day in 2020. Likewise, South Asia is roughly on pace to fulfill his prediction that it will account for five percent of global GDP in 2020. Kelkar’s work clearly showed that India was on a trajectory to eclipse Pakistan in terms of economic (and hence military) power. But the idea of India-Pakistan hyphenation was deep-rooted and difficult to disabuse—the majority of the South Asia in 2020 authors failed to appreciate this trend and how it would shift strategic dynamics in the region.
A small number of Americans, like Bob Blackwill and Ashley Tellis, deserve credit for recognizing at least as early as 2001 that India was on its way to becoming a more important strategic actor than Pakistan, and therefore the United States should move to de-hyphenate its South Asia policy. Blackwill and Tellis championed the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement as a symbol of this important shift in U.S. South Asia policy.
Two lessons emerge from reviewing South Asia in 2020’s predictions today. The first is that geopolitical concepts have an inertia unto themselves that analysts should be wary of. Unsurprisingly, a generation of experts who come of age thinking about a region through the lens of one geopolitical concept will have difficulty imagining a future where that concept is no longer relevant. This raises the question: what other long-standing but increasingly irrelevant geopolitical concepts are distorting how we think about the future?
The second lesson is that in thinking about the future we may tend to discount the extent to which long-term economic trends can reshape strategic landscapes. This lesson is important as we consider the future of Asian geopolitics today. Relatively well understood is that China’s economic power is growing relative to the United States. According to a 2017 PricewaterhouseCoopers report, China’s GDP was 61% the size of U.S. GDP in 2016 and will increase to 113% of U.S. GDP in 2030. Less well understood is Chinese economic growth relative to other Asian powers. In 2016, Japan’s GDP was 41% the size of China’s, but in 2030 it will only be 21%. Meanwhile, India’s GDP relative to China will grow from 20% in 2016 to 30% in 2030.
This suggests the relative strategic importance of Japan and India in Asia will shift considerably over the next decade and more, with India becoming more important and Japan less important. South Asia in 2020 shows we cannot predict the future perfectly, but if we take the time to assess the right trends and look forward, we might be able to grasp its contours.
Ben Lamont is Programs Manager at the American Academy for Strategic Education. He studied South Asian Studies and Government at Harvard College.
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Header Image: A Lao policeman stands guard at the entrance to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Vientiane on September 7, 2016. (Roslan Rahman/AFP)