South Asia : Is a Cooperative Security Edifice Possible?
Updated: May 9
In today’s increasingly troubled world the concept of security, as traditionally understood down the ages, has undergone a vast paradigm shift in its interpretation and nuances. Security now embraces both the commonly understood traditional challenges to a nation and equally, non-traditional challenges, which with the passage of time are getting as lethal and horrendous as traditional threats to a nation’s sovereignty, physical and economic well-being.
Apart from economic and military power of the adversaries, security challenges also emanate from weapons of mass destruction(WMDs), climate change, water sharing conflicts, energy and food security, cyber attacks, drug and human trafficking, piracy, threats from radical ideologies, money laundering, pandemics and, importantly, the decades long spectre of cross border terrorism and other forms of asymmetric warfare.
There is hardly a region across the globe which is at peace with itself and around. Our own expanse, namely the South Asian geo-political landscape, is characterized by growing political instability and a lack of the desired levels of cooperation among the nations which constitute this land-mass. That virtually all these nations shook off the foreign yoke nearly at the same time and, importantly, share a common civilizational heritage but still have not been able to foster close cooperative links with each other is indeed unfortunate.
Unquestionably, the concept of security today embraces the impact of happenings and events--- both the good and bad--- on not only one’s neighbours but across the world. The current raging pandemic, COVID 19, which has afflicted the world causing over 5 lakh cases with nearly 50000 fatalities and shows no signs of abating drives home the point of how events in one part of the world intrinsically affects many other nations. It is only a common cooperative endeavour which can help contain such global tragedies or adverse happenings in the neighbourhood.
South Asia comprises the nations south of the high Himalayas and the Hindu Kush. According to a United Nations classification, this expanse comprises the nations of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In addition, the vast Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is also a part of this strategic space. Some configurations include Myanmar also as part of South Asia. Iran not having joined the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) which was established as an economic cooperation organization in 1985, though significantly impacting the region, is not being discussed in this article. Overall, South Asia has a population of 1.8 billion people with a combined GDP of about US $ 3.47 trillion of which a major chunk, about $ 2.72 trillion is that of India.
Equally in location, size, resources, economic and military power, India enjoys a strategic centrality. India has borders with all South Asian nations (less Iran) and dominates the IOR. This South Asian land mass abuts the rising and overly assertive power China’s non-Han periphery. That China has reached the warm waters of the Indian Ocean via the Xinjiang-Gwadar Economic Corridor makes it a more than reckonable instrument of power play in South Asia. China has been investing billions of dollars on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to meet its energy security, get over its Malacca Dilemma and accomplish its “ Two Ocean Strategy.”
For India, on its eastern flank, the nations of Nepal and Bhutan could be considered as strategic buffers that border the strategically sensitive Siliguri Corridor whereas Bangladesh and Myanmar form economically strategic bridges between peninsular India and the nations of South East Asia. On its west, India is geographically disadvantaged as a consistently anti-India Pakistan holds sway over India’s land access to Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Gulf region by preventing India using the land routes through Pakistan to these important areas. India having fought wars with Pakistan and China has unresolved boundary disputes with both nations, who individually and collusively, remain anti-India in their strategic and economic formulations. Even in economic cooperation and inter nation trade and connectivity between the SAARC nations, which would have greatly benefitted the entire region, Pakistan’s overly obsessive anti-India stance has ensured that SAARC, even in the area of economic cooperation, has remained a damp squib.
Concept of Cooperative Security
South Asia is easily one of the most impoverished regions of the world. Its nations, unfortunately, spend large amounts of their scarce resources on defence and security. Hunger, poverty, lack of medical care and basic education and in other indices of human existence, South Asia is a trifle better then sub Saharan Africa which remains at the bottom of the human development ladder. If nations of South Asia could manage their political differences, this region may then see the desired levels in economic resurgence. But there are serious problems which plague South Asia and do not lend themselves to easy or early resolution as current trends indicate. Some of the major differences between nations in South Asia and other likely reasons contributing to divergence in their views are enumerated below :
India, as the largest and most powerful nation in the region is seen, rather unfairly, by some smaller nations as a regional hegemon. It is a fact that bigger countries generally have problematic relations with smaller neighbours because the disparity in size, power and resources creates insecurity among smaller neighbours. Though reciprocity is the principle in diplomacy, yet smaller nations demand far more from the larger nation without being sensitive to the latter’s interests !
The Af-Pak region is universally acknowledged as the epicentre of international terrorism. Pakistan, as the citadel of terror, persists in continuing with its policy of employing terrorism as an extension of state policy especially as regards India and Afghanistan. Hapless Afghanistan, even since the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom by the US in late 2001 to rid it of Al Qaeda terrorists, continues to suffer from grave political instability thanks to Pakistan supported Afghan Taliban and other warlords in Afghanistan. With the current deadlock in the peace agreement signed on 29 Feb 2020 between the US and Taliban not moving forward, fratricidal violence a near daily occurrence in Kabul, Afghanistan appears to be in the throes of a likely civil war in future in case the US decides on a hasty exit. Political stability in Afghanistan is paramount in building security in the region. Regrettably, even the global fundamentalist terror organization, ISIS, has firmed up its roots in Afghanistan which will further muddy the socio-political landscape of violence-afflicted Afghanistan.
Since 1947, relations between India and Pakistan have been consistently marked by unending hostility, four wars and continuing Pak attempts at cross-border terrorism especially in J&K and even other parts of the Indian hinterland. Barring between 2003-2007, India-Pak ties have been underscored by Pakistan’s unnecessary xenophobia against India. Even in matters of trade and commerce, Pakistan has refused to give India a MFN status and denied road access to Indian goods to reach Afghanistan/Iran and Central Asia. Currently, relations between the two nations, both of whom were born jointly from the womb of Mother India, are at their lowest ebb. Pakistan’s deep state, for their own selfish ends, are likely to ensure that their nation’s hostility vis-à-vis India remains a constant factor in Pakistan’s policy.
India’s eastern neighbor, Bangladesh is also prone to Islamic activism, both externally and internally. China too is sparing no efforts to enlarge its areas of influence in Bangladesh at India’s expense. However, the current regime of Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina maintains cordial and fraternal relations with India. It will be in the larger interests of South Asia and both India and Bangladesh that this relationship is nurtured with care and India, in particular, displays adequate generosity in its economic ties with a friendly Bangladesh. The presence and activities of a large number of Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh should, however, be carefully watched by the Indian establishment. Internal policies of both the nations impact each other owing to similarity in populations and could become a major reason for differences if not handled with sensitivity by both nations.
Though India and tiny Sri Lanka enjoy reasonably cordial relations with each other, China, using its deep pockets has made major inroads in Sri Lanka with heavy investments in the Hambantota sea-port, industry and even political financing. The large presence of ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka who maintain some links with Tamil Nadu in neighbouring India does cause some unrest in the minds of Sinhalese dominated Sri Lanka. India thus has to assuage, off and on, any misplaced apprehensions of Sri Lanka and with economic cooperation ensure that this tiny island does not succumb to the wiles of an overly assertive China’s strategy for the Indian Ocean.
The only Hindu nation of the world, Nepal, with whom India has ancient civilisational links, kinship among both the peoples, has since the last decade or so, virtually fallen into the Chinese trap. Maoists, under Chinese influence, now rule the roost in the erstwhile Hindu kingdom and, off and on, Nepal displays a propensity to display its annoyance of what it, wrongly perceives, as India’s big-brother attitude towards it. Nepal , unfortunately, forgets the simple fact that in the last 70 years or so, India has been its largest donor, employs nearly a lakh of Nepalis in its Army and para-military forces. In addition, the open border between India and Nepal results in millions of poor Nepalese finding employment in India.
The Muslim majority tiny island nation, Maldives, maintains cordial relations with all other members of the SAARC. Owing to its pivotal location in the Indian Ocean, China has been making inroads into it to wean it in its area of influence.
The existing border disputes between India-Pakistan and India-China continue to fester. China, despite having in its adverse possession 38000 sq kms of Indian territory in the Aksai Chin region in the north-west, further lays claim on India’s Arunachal Pradesh province calling it “Southern Tibet”. At many places, in the Ladakh sector, both nations have their own interpretation of the Line of Actual Control leading to tension at times.
Despite a favourable 1960 onwards Indus Waters Treaty, Pakistan remains unsatisfied with the bulk of waters it gets and has constantly launched a disinformation campaign to malign India despite India’s largesse towards it. Meanwhile China’s building of dams across the Brahmaputra River in its territory will diminish the flow of these waters into India and Bangladesh.
The above discussed prognosis clearly brings out the major geo-strategic differences which remain unresolved in the affairs of nations of South Asia. SAARC, which was conceived to develop economic integration and better road connectivity among its nations has not really taken off owing to intransigence of Pakistan. From the past few years China, which has Observer Status in the SAARC has been making determined efforts to become a full fledged member of this organization when, in reality, it is not geographically a part of South Asia ! However, Myanmar, rightly so, has also applied for full membership of the SAARC .
From the overall geo-political scenario as obtaining currently in South Asia, it will be evident that much as a common security framework is required among its nations , there are far too many major divergences among member-nations of the SAARC. Effective measures to curb cross border terrorism and confront pandemics like the rapidly spreading coronavirus, COVID 19, these days which has monumentally afflicted the entire globe, are best combated by cooperative and synergetic endeavour.
In the long run, to address the multifarious human development problems of their impoverished peoples, it is incumbent on all South Asian nations to try and resolve their geo-political differences by a mutual give and take approach. If that may be difficult for the time being, putting these problems in cold storage for some time may be the answer. Better economic linkages, improved road connectivity, sharing of information on drug and human trafficking and above all, putting an end to cross border terrorism and inciting of minorities in each other’s countries, will go a long way in infusion of a cooperative paradigm in this region. Till that is not achieved a cooperative Security Framework for South Asia will remain a mirage.
(A distinguished soldier and one of India’s leading military thinkers, Gen Davar retired as Deputy Chief of the Integrated Defence Staff after raising India’s Defence Intelligence Agency)