South Asia’s arms race, an obstacle to fence-mending



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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) and the Sri Lankan chief minister of the northern province C. V. Vigneswaran (centre L) arrive for a ceremony to hand over Indian-funded houses to Tamils displaced or made destitute by fighting in Jaffna, some 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Colombo on March 14, 2015. Narendra Modi landed in Jaffna on March 14, becoming the first Indian prime minister to visit Sri Lanka’s war-ravaged northern Tamil heartland. AFP


It needs to be seen by the major states of South Asia that SAARC progress could be boosted greatly as a result of arms spending by them being drastically reduced. It is to the degree to which the material progress of this region is advanced that SAARC collective empowerment could be achieved in considerable measure. This would enable SAARC to be less dependent on extra-regional powers for the fulfillment of their economic and defence needs.


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasized the vital importance of the ‘ease of doing business’ among India and her neighbours during his recent tour of Sri Lanka and a couple of other smaller Indian Ocean states and none could quarrel with the soundness of this viewpoint. Close economic cooperation among the countries of South Asia is a key to a degree of shared prosperity among the SAARC Eight and one could only urge the relevant countries to drink deep of this wisdom and act on it.


The Indian Prime Minister was emphatic that one of his aims is to facilitate the process of Sri Lanka gaining access to India’s growing markets and there is no doubt that Modi would be extending the same cooperation to the rest of India’s neighbours. There are vast business opportunities for the rest of South Asia in particular in India and the collective wellbeing of this region would be served to an extent if these economic opportunities are made use of fully by the countries concerned in a spirit of cooperation.


The number of substantial openings for material advancement for her neighbours currently going a begging in India, could be gauged from IMF chief Christine Legarde’s comment that India is the current ‘bright Spot’ in the world economy. India’s economy is set to grow by more than seven percent and her inflation rate is at present less than five percent. To all outward appearances, then, the ‘Modi Magic’ seems to be working.


T o be sure, there are problems in bilateral economic and political ties waiting to be ironed out between India and her neighbours. Given the vast asymmetries in a number of spheres between India and the rest of the SAARC countries, this should only be expected, but the countries of this region would only be working against their common interests by continuing to dwell on these differences. Modi has paved the way to stepped-up dialogue among the SAARC fraternity and these opportunities must be seized and put to constructive use by the countries concerned.


India’s neighbours would not be serving the cause of SAARC collective wellbeing by placing cynical constructs on these developments. Certainly, the perceived heightened economic and military presence of China in this region, is and will continue to be a compelling factor behind India’s fence-mending exercises with her neighbours. It could not be otherwise; major powers by their very character seek to spread and consolidate their influence inside and outside the regions in which they happen to be located. These tendencies are intrinsic to the nature of big powers and a Realpolitik perspective is unavoidable in analyzing their behaviour.


However, inasmuch as India needs to be sensitive to her neighbours’ concerns, the latter must be appreciative of India’s essential requirements in particularly the security sphere. It is the neglect of this norm of inter-state conduct that eventually leads to tensions between India and her neighbours. Accordingly, there is no escaping the need for inter-state dialogue among the SAARC Eight because it is such a process that leads to mutual understanding and cordiality among them. SAARC is meant to promote dialogue of this kind and if this has not been happening substantially since 1985, SAARC has none but itself to blame. That is, the potential of SAARC has been remaining untapped. But it is not too late to initiate the institutional mechanisms that could help to put things right.


Meanwhile, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has made some disclosures which should have the SAARC Eight thinking. China, SIPRI reports, has upstaged Germany and France to be the world’s number three arms exporter after the US and Russia. It also reveals that the multi-billion dollar world arms trade grew by 16 percent during the period, 2010 to 2014, over the previous five years. Equally interesting is the disclosure that three Asian countries accounted for more than two-thirds of Chinese arms exports. They are, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Pakistan accounts for some 41 percent of these exports, the biggest buyer.


Read alongside the fact that India continues to be the world’s number one arms importer, these disclosures should strike the observer as most thought-provoking. Clearly, India and Pakistan are being driven by their continuing security worries to overspend on arms, mainly at the cost of human welfare. If these countries could get down to steadily normalizing their relations, the compulsion to arm themselves excessively could be considerably diminished. Increasing inter-state cordiality would reduce mutual threat perceptions, which in turn could lead to greatly pruned-down defence budgets in India and Pakistan.


Accordingly, the Indian Prime Minister is doing right by mending fences with some of India’s smaller neighbours but he would be serving the cause of regional peace considerably by seeking to also engage Pakistan in a process of steady and stepped-up normalization. The latter could lead to reduced tensions between India and Pakistan, which could in turn lead to a substantial reduction in arms spending by them. Hopefully, as a result, more money would be spent by these states on the welfare of their populations. Needless to say, both countries concerned need to take to this task very seriously.


It needs to be seen by the major states of South Asia that SAARC progress could be boosted greatly as a result of arms spending by them being drastically reduced. It is to the degree to which the material progress of this region is advanced that SAARC collective empowerment could be achieved in considerable measure. This would enable SAARC to be less dependent on extra-regional powers for the fulfillment of their economic and defence needs.


It need hardly be said that external intervention in the affairs of South Asia over the decades led to this region suffering grievous and endemic harm, in a number of ways. On the other hand, growing mutual dependence among the SAARC Eight for the fulfillment of their essential needs could lead to greater regional cordiality and stability. It is up to the international community to see South Asia in this light and to work cooperatively with it for the establishment of regional empowerment.


 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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