An Integrated Approach to the Himalayas: Report of the Working Group on the Himalayan Region


On October 31, Hudson Institute’s South and Central Asia Program welcomed Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island for keynote remarks at the launch of a new report, An Integrated Approach to the Himalayas. The report, the product of a working group of seven eminent U.S.-based experts on Asia, lays out a plan for the U.S. to pursue an integrated approach with friendly states and peoples in the Himalayas to address strategic and population security issues, regional connectivity, water usage and climate change, and cultural preservation, including the protection of women and minorities.

A discussion followed Sen. Whitehouse’s remarks, featuring the co-chairs of the working group: Jeff Smith of The Heritage Foundation, Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center, Aparna Pande of the Hudson Institute and Eric Brown of Hudson Institute. The conversation was moderated by Amb. Husain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at Hudson Institute.

In his keynote speech, Senator Whitehouse talked about the environmental, economic and geopolitical consequences of glacial retreat on the Tibetan plateau, the most intense in the Himalayas. Poor responses to climate shifts will create shortages of resources such as land and water. This in turn will lead to negative secondary impact such as sickness, hunger, joblessness and conflict. As a result, it will cause reputational harm to America, capitalism and democracy for having failed to address the carbon emission problem in a timely manner. The yearly snow and glacier melts feeds rivers throughout Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal. More melting due to climate change will intensify heavy rains during monsoon seasons and will lead to devastating floods. The 2010 floods in Pakistan killed 1700 people, caused food shortages for 4 million people and resulted in $4000 billion loss in property damages. If the glaciers in the western Himalayas continue to disappear, the runoff that supplies Pakistan’s rivers could drop by 40 to 50%. India is planning to build dams in the Chenab river in volatile Kashmir through which the river flows downstream to Pakistan. Pakistan fears that India is using the Chenab flow to put pressure on Islamabad, especially in times of heighten conflict. Senator Whitehouse believes that carbon pollution is driving global climate change. Therefore, he introduced carbon fees through the introduction of American opportunity Carbon Free Act.

Jeff Smith of The Heritage Foundation stated that India’s relationships with many of its neighbors have improved, particularly with Bangladesh as both the countries have resolved their maritime and territorial disputes. According to . Smith, India’s relationships with its two neighbors, China and Pakistan have deteriorated. Chinese incursions in Ladakh, its control of the Gwadar port in Pakistan, military base in Djibouti, and the recent Doklam standoff have created avenues for friction and competition between China and India.  Smith further stated that he is “highly critical of Pakistan’s role in supporting insurgencies, terrorist groups operating within Pakistan targeting India, Afghanistan and United States.” He does not see Pakistan taking a fundamentally different approach towards terrorists within its borders. However, he does see the US government taking a different approach as witnessed from the recent statements by Secretary of State, Tillerson and Secretary of Defense, Mattis. Their statements show greater willingness from the U.S. to use a transactional approach to convey to Pakistan that if there are not results, there will be costs to pay.

Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center started with a broad overview of the report and how it highlighted shared challenges among South Asia and the need for the U.S. to play a greater role in the region. By using water to understand how non-security issues can impact security, Kugelman explained several facets of water stress and its implications. South Asia is a region where there are multiple instances of nations’ sharing water, but not getting along. Kugelman commented that “upper riparian’s may be more inclined to take certain actions that would be able to bottle up water and prevent it from flowing downstream.” When water stress intensifies, “lower riparian’s may be more inclined to retaliate with harsher measures, including violence, to hit back.” In addition to possibly triggering state conflict, water stress can lead to an increased threat of militant insurgencies. Kugelman stressed that “water can become a weapon in regional geopolitics,” highlighting how last year India threatened to unilaterally leave the Indus Waters Treaty when relations deteriorated. As climate-induced issues such as migrating populations, increased urban tension, and the loss of land to drought or flood all rise in intensity and existence, Kugelman asserted that the U.S. should play a more involved role in the Himalaya region to help prevent major security threats.

Aparna Pande of the Hudson Institute focused on trade and connectivity in the Himalayan region, saying that weaker states with contested sovereignty have used regional actors to achieve economic and physical integration. The region suffers from various border disputes, and to work around them, most initiatives to create connectivity have geopolitical significance. Pande reasons that “as a result, there is an inherent challenge in trying to disentangle the benign aspect of trade and infrastructure development with that of strategic concern and the broader contest for influence.” She uses China’s One Belt, One Road initiative as an example, since there is growing concern that China’s influence will negatively impact the opportunities of the people in the region. She argues that the U.S. has played a hands-off approach, but needs to be more hands-on as there is an opportunity to promote American interests, as well as impact standards of finance and trade, environmental issues, anti-corruption, and shift the regional balance of power in favor of U.S. friends and allies.

Hudson fellow Eric Brown discussed the geopolitical significance and security implications that lead to this report.  Brown mentioned the importance of the Himalayas as “geopolitics and population security are deeply connected,” the Himalayas used to repel intrusions from those who wanted to own its strategic position, but “history has changed, the people of the Himalayas are very much caught up in the contest for power that has been ongoing between different states”. China is pressing unfounded territorial claims against maritime nations in East and South China Sea, and territorial claims across the Himalayas. Various Indo-Pacific states have come together with India as they are concerned about their security and sovereignty.  Brown further added that  Secretary Tillerson recently made a remarkable speech looking at U.S.-India relations in a 100-year frame, and is looking at India as its strategic partner for this century. If the goal is for free and open Indo-pacific, then we cannot ignore the concerns of  states whose livelihoods depend on the rivers and geography of the Himalayas. India is hesitant about being involved in maritime Indo-Pacific, as it has territorial security concerns across its Himalayan borders. Since 2008, there has been an increase in Chinese incursion policy. Citing Brahma Chellaney, Brown states that there is an incursion by the Chinese forces into Indian territory every 24 hours.

Ambassador Haqqani stated that an assertive China dominated the report and discussion. He further asked if the people and states of the Himalayas such as Bhutan and Nepal would be able to retain their culture and identity, or is it their fate to get squeezed by the giants around them. This region is dominated by India-China competition and questions concerning the role of  the US in preventing cultural repression. Regarding China, Brown stated that there has been cultural repression of people in Xinjiang and Tibet. Previously, New Delhi didn’t want to develop infrastructure along the Himalayan border as it would have encouraged competition and animosity from Pakistan and China. However, New Delhi’s old strategy failed as China started building infrastructure along its Himalayan border, forcing India to change its strategy.  Pande added that the region has ecological challenges and is not well developed. As China-Pakistan Economic Corridor expands, Chinese laborers and engineers enter and there has been change in ethnic demographic of the region.  Smith stated that initially India was the only country to publicly express criticism against the China’s One Belt One Road Initiative. Recently, Secretary Mattis expressed reservations about China’s One Belt One Road Initiative and subsequently, Australia and Japan have expressed their concerns. US, India, Japan and Australia have been working through bilateral and trilateral discussions to promote alternative infrastructure vision. Michael Kugelman stated that if US looks at CPEC from economic lens, then CPEC hopes to build infrastructure and power plants in Pakistan. But if US looks at CPEC from strategic lens, then it is concerning as China is cementing its presence in this region where US has less presence.

In the Q&A round, a question was asked that how other South Asian countries would view an alternative vision to the China’s One Belt One Road initiative from the India-U.S perspective. Smith stated that initially South Asian countries used China to balance off India and increase their leverage against New Delhi. However, there are consequences to Chinese investment in the region. Sri Lanka borrowed billions of dollars of Chinese loans for commercial projects such as the Hambantota airport which is not reaping economic benefits. The money went to Chinese companies, laborers and banks who built and sponsored the investment. When Sri Lanka had problem repaying the loans and asked for China’s help, China suggested that Sri Lanka either borrow more money or give equity stake to China. China also had some secret provisions in the agreement such as sovereign control of the airspace over parts of the airport. This was unacceptable to Sri Lanka. China has also been illegally funding its favorite Sri Lankan political candidates which has also been under investigation. There is broader belief that One Belt One Road initiative is used to promote China’s strategic interests rather than economic/commercial interests.

Additional Authors: Corey Bolyard, Laura Ruiz-Gaona

This event took place on October 31, 2017 at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. You can watch the event here.