While the Trump administration formulates its policy toward South and Central Asia as well as the Pacific Rim, greater attention must be paid to the strategically central Himalayan Region. The Himalayas stand at the heart of the crucial geopolitical situation emerging between Asia’s rising powers. The U.S. needs to understand the critical importance of the Himalayan region to Asian security and prosperity, and how destabilizing factors in the region can adversely affect U.S. interests. Furthermore, the U.S. must pursue an integrated approach along with friendly states and peoples to help address the myriad strategic and population security issues that the area now faces.
The trans-Himalayan region extends some 1,500 miles and traverses India, Bhutan, China, Nepal, and Pakistan. Longstanding border disputes and strategic rivalries in the area mean that new connectivity schemes – both infrastructural and economic – are laden with geopolitical significance and security implications. The area is also host to a wide variety of non-state violent extremist and separatist movements with a diverse array of political, economic, and religious motivations and ambitions. Some operate as self-contained domestic insurgencies, while others have transnational characteristics, operating across borders and/or receiving support from external parties. In either case, these groups present a real threat to the security of the region and to key U.S. partners, and the issues they cause must be rectified to establish regional stability.
The Himalayas are often called Asia’s “Water Tower,” as ten major rivers – the Amu Darya, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Salween, Tarim, Yangtze, and Yellow – have their sources in Himalayan glaciers and snowfields. Some 210 million people live in this mountain range and more than 2 billion across Greater Asia draw their water supplies from its river systems. Yet, rising demands caused by population growth and urbanization, environmental degradation, and unsustainable consumption practices have placed unprecedented strains on these crucial freshwater resources and threatened to impair economic development, undermine food security, compromise public health, and potentially upset regional stability.
The Himalayan region is also home to a variety of ethno-linguistic groups with diverse cultures and religions. The persistence of territorial disputes prevents many of these isolated communities from fully utilizing indigenous resources and engaging with a rapidly globalizing world. Furthermore, cultural diversity and minority and female rights have been gravely imperiled by various radical movements that have been gaining traction in the region. This exacerbates the threats that emanate from extremism, illicit trade, and economic disparities, and increase volatility in the area.
The United States has largely remained uninvolved in both the cooperative and competitive aspects of recent trans-Himalayan connectivity schemes. The U.S. could benefit from taking on a more active role in influencing the emerging strategic and economic geography of the region, and developing a common agenda on these issues with friendly states and populations. Four areas that must be addressed to bring stability to the Himalayas are (1) security; (2) regional connectivity; (3) water usage and climate change, and; (4) cultural preservation, including the protection of women and minorities. Policy recommendations for the Trump administration regarding these topics include (1) pursuing closer ties with India to help balance an assertive China, reduce Indo-Chinese tensions and demonstrate to Pakistan the severe consequences for supporting extremism; (2) engaging in a more hands-on approach regarding trans-Himalayan connectivity to support development that serves the people of the region; (3) sharing information and helping build infrastructure to foster cooperation in distributing water resources, as well as providing aid to combat extreme weather events, and; (4) empowering local civil society groups and supporting grassroots solutions to combat inequality, intolerance, and extremism. In the end, international diplomacy, conservation, and community-driven development can help mitigate the drivers of insecurity and deliver mutual benefits to all of the countries engaged in the Himalayas.