A view from Sri Lanka

Unpacking South Asian Regional Security in the 21st Century


By Prof. Gamini Keerawella,

Executive Director, Regional Center for Strategic Studies

Continued from yesterday

(Text of a lecture,‘Threats to Security in the 21st Century: Finding a Global Way Forward, delivered by Prof. Keerawella, at the School of Integrated Social Sciences, University of Lahore, Pakistan May 5-6, 2018)

In new millennia, there is a growing tendency towards regional economic integration. As East Asia Forum noted, as of February 2016, 625 notifications of regional trade agreements had been received by the WTO and 419 were in force. South Asia remains out of this tendency. After the establishment of SAARC, a number of initiatives were taken in the direction of regional economic integration such as signing of the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) agreement in 2004. But in real terms SAFTA proceeds very slowly due to trust deficit, insufficient policy-relevant analytical work on gains of regional integration to make informed policy decisions, limited logistics and regulatory impediments and cross-broader conflicts. Economically South Asia is one of the least integrated regions in the world at present. Intra-regional investment in South Asia is smaller than one percent. Its intra-regional trade accounts only for 5 percent of its total trade whereas intraregional trade in Southeast Asia makes up 25 percent of ASIAN’s total trade. South Asia is a region where the highest interstate barriers exist to trade and it suffers from prohibitive tariffs. If these barriers are removed, intra-regional trade in South Asia could increase from the current $23 billion to $50 billion. According to some survey, at present it is 20% cheaper for India to trade with Brazil than with its neighbor, Pakistan. Economic gains of deeper economic integration in South Asia are not unknown. But, the region still falters in making a breakthrough. It could be explained in terms of political logic unique to South Asia.

It should be pointed out that fundamental to the conflict between India and Pakistan is the contradictory ideologies upon which the two states are based. The ideological rationale of the state of Pakistan has been the homeland for Muslims in the Indian sub-continent while founders of the Indian state asserted multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-linguistic character of the state based on a federal constitution to maintain the unity of India’s diverse social patchwork of collective identities. The idea that Hinduism and Islam formed two separate civilizations, a view that is shared by Hindu nationalists in India as well, sets roadblocks to the growth of regionalism with regional bonding.

The chronic rivalry between India and Pakistan is just one dimension of the pervasive trust deficit in South Asia. Incidents reported from time to time in both sides of the boarder keep the pot boiling at all times. It has now become a socially constructed phenomenon. Lack of trust among states in South Asia can’t be attributed wholly to Indo-Pakistan conflict. The trust-deficit in the region is also an outcome of some architectural realities of South Asian states. The unchangeable and undeniable regional reality in South Asia, the term used by late Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar, is the central and asymmetrical presence of India in various domains. India’s preponderance over all others in South Asia is based on its size, power, resources and development. Further, India’s centrality in South Asia is geo-political. None of the South Asian countries interact with another without touching or crossing Indian land, sea or air space. In addition, India has special ties with each of its neighbors with regards to language, religion, ethnicity, kinship, economic nerves or common historical experience. The states around India fear that India could use some of these ties and cross-border linkages to interfere in the internal affairs of its neighbors. Sir Ivor Jennings vividly captured this love-hate relationship between India and its neighbors in 1951 when he wrote, "India thus appears as a friendly but potentially dangerous neighbor to whom one must be polite but a little distance. It is not because that India and Indians are unpopular, but that the Ceylonese [Sri Lankans], while admiring much that is Indian, and feeling themselves racially akin to Indian have a sensation of living under a mountain which might send down destructive avalanches". This is more relevant today.

The paradoxical impact of the rise of India to a status of global power on regional bonding should also be paid attention. In the last decade India consistently maintained one of the highest GDP growth rates in the world. India was able to take impressive strides in the area of knowledge industry and R & D. India is now ranked fourth in the Global Fire Power (GFP) ranking. Today, India’s military is the third largest and its air force the fourth largest with 1,080 combat aircrafts. Its navy is fifth largest in the world. These developments have compelled India, as an aspirant global power, to extend its strategic perspective beyond South Asia. At the same time, it acerbates the fear of Indian ‘bogey’ among its small neighbors as they feel becoming more and more Lilliput before the Indian Gulliver.

This is only one aspect of the changing scenarios. It must not be forgotten that South Asia became the fastest growing region in the world in 2016 and solidified its lead in 2017 due to solid economic performance by India. Still the South Asian region is home to 40% of world poor. The challenge before India’s neighbors in South Asia is how to leverage their special links with India to become an integral part of South Asian growth engine. Nevertheless, stunned and threatened by economic and scientific advances achieved by the Indian Industrial and commercial establishment, some sections of weak and backward industrial and commercial middle class of South Asian neighbors seek state protection to remain within their own comfortable cocoon. In contrast, general public in these countries experiences cross border dividends generated by the growth of Indian economy and by other advances in scientific and medical research. The economies of other countries also benefit from the renewed Indian economic dynamism. For example, Colombo port has emerged as a major international transshipment hub for Indian goods. In 1915, 42% of India’s transshipment was handled by Sri Lanka.

In order to go forward as a global power, India needs stable and friendly South Asian environment. It is a fact that insecure and discontented neighbors around her in South Asia would not augur well for India, having millstones around her neck. In the changed constellation of power in South Asia, what needs today is a ‘new Gujral Doctrine’ on the part of India to allay the perceived fears of its neighbors. In the long run, it will enhance its soft power in global politics. At the same time, it would give a kick-start to the stalled SAARC process. The small states of South Asia also need to recognize evolving geo-political realities in the region.

All the issues and impediments come to the forefront when regionalism is projected from the state-centered formula. The trust deficit exists mainly among states and not among people in South Asia. It must be noted that there can be two approaches to regionalism. The first is the top-down approach, which aims to foster collaboration between the states in the region. The issues of regional power politics come forward to hamper the process of regionalism when it is pursued through top-down approach. The second is the bottom-up approach, focusing on the people-to-people interaction based on common belonging and shared interests. In bottom up approach, the reference point of regional security, hence the driving force of regionalism is the people in the region that counts on their community of interests cutting across state boundaries. Therefore, the possible way out of the present imbroglio of SAARC is to redefine and re-chart regionalism from bottom-up approach. In such an endeavor, the human security in South Asia becomes a priority in regional security. The two approaches are not alternatives to each other. In an ideal situation, the both could proceed simultaneously. Hence, the South Asian regionalism must be a multilayered process and a political discourse. Who sets the agenda of the discourse is the critical issue here. It is a too serious issue to leave in the hands of demagogue, a common breed in South Asia.



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