Friday, May 22, 2015

Kick-starting Regional Cooperation in South Asia – the Way Forward

Amb Tariq Karim, 
Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The South Asian region has been plagued by festering intra-regional disputes since its independence from colonial rule. The peoples of this region have been unable to progress towards self-fulfillment and self-realization of their latent potentials, held hostage as they have been for the past nearly seven decades to a legacy of sustained and seemingly irreconcilable mistrust and deep-seated suspicions. These malaises have been progressively exacerbated by a politics of division eschewing mutual accommodation and joint cooperation. The approach to resolving these problems so far has been largely confined within the parameters of conflict-mitigation only. In the meantime, with the increasing fall out from the adverse consequences of man-made and natural disasters, even the modest progress that some of them have been able to so painstakingly achieve to date is in grave peril of being lost or reversed. A new approach, embracing innovative thinking and bold action, is needed to galvanize the peoples to engaging in mutually beneficial cooperation with each other.

South Asia is home to a quarter of the world’s entire population, with approximately a third of the world’s entire Muslim population residing in this region. It has the world’s largest (and steadily growing) middle-class, but roughly half the entire population of this region continue to languish abjectly below the poverty line. The region was described famously by President Clinton in 2000 as “the most dangerous place on earth”; it hosts two-nuclear armed powers not yet signatories to the NPT, who have fought three wars since their Partition and independence over six and half decades ago, and continue to be engaged in arms and missile-development races. The region has acquired notoriety from having several insurgency movements, including large numbers of Islamist militants. Nevertheless, there is no gainsaying the fact that the states of the South Asian region are all practitioners of democracy; it is home to the world’s largest democracy (India), while the remaining countries are all struggling democracies at various stages of transition.

Emulating the European model – comparing apples vs. oranges?

The peoples of this region, perhaps enthused by the example of former enemies in Europe having come together after two World Wars in the last century to embark on European economic cooperation, did come together and decide in 1985 to launch their own version of regional cooperation by forming the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). A question often asked at most events on regional cooperation or integration in South Asia is: “why hasn’t the South Asian region been able to successfully emulate the European model of cooperation and integration?” To be able to fathom this, one needs to take a comparative perspective of the South Asian and European geopolitical landscapes, and also indulge in an exercise in social psychology, scrutinizing more closely the place where politics intersects with economics

A cursory look at the South Asian map reveals quite clearly that India’s shadow looms overwhelmingly large in the perception of practically all its immediate neighbours, who also, for the most part historically, have tended to harbour, and even overtly display, manifestations of a deeply entrenched legacy of mutual suspicion and mistrust. The near proximity of China and Iran (and USSR/Russia, once removed from Afghanistan/Central Asia) also no doubt tends to factor into the regional actors’ view of themselves. Many in South Asia, most notably so from the smaller countries, attribute the failures of South Asian efforts at integration to India’s huge size dwarfing all others. I question this somewhat naïve and overly simplistic explanation. Take a look at the European landscape. How does the EU geopolitical landscape differ from the South Asian landscape? The post WW-II Treaty of Paris signed by France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands on 18 April, 1951 established the European Coal and Steel Community. This was followed by the Treaty of Rome signed on 25th March, 1957 by the same six countries officially founding on January 1, 1958 the European Economic Community. However, what is important to note here is that the prime movers behind the originating and finalization of these two treaties were two former World War-II enemies, Germany and France. This seemingly modest, but bold, beginning signified recognition that even former enemies who had been rival colonial mega-powers needed now new sources of energy to refuel the next industrial revolution that was needed to rebuild their devastated countries by war; it also started the process of larger European integration that ultimately resulted in what we know as the European Union of today, comprising 28 states. If one were to take the original six-state configuration, the combined land mass of these two members also loomed much the larger in the perception of the other four member signatories.

While it is also true that these European countries shared similar intellectual and cultural heritage of the larger European configuration that may have facilitated the move towards ultimate unification, it should not be forgotten that South Asian countries also shared very largely similar, if not same, intellectual, cultural and historical legacies (at least until the 1930’s, perhaps even until 1947) that should have impelled them also, post WW-II, to move towards integration in similar manner. The ironic differences are in-built here pointing to why these two regions, post WW-II launched into such widely divergent trajectories. Launching the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in December 1985, inspired as it was by the European model, by the seven post-colonial independent nation-states of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, with hindsight was perhaps an overly romanticized aspiration on the part of these states. Why?

Centripetal vs. centrifugal forces

We must not lose sight of the inescapable fact that the European continent (particularly Western Europe) with its peoples, who had been at war with each other for centuries and then were ravaged so devastatingly by two successive mega wars, namely World War-I and World War-II taking place within the short span of forty years in the first half of the twentieth century, had spawned centripetal forces governing the post-war political dynamics that directed them towards gradual, but steadily enlarging process of integration. In sharp contrast, South Asia had centrifugal forces governing it post WW-II. Whereas in Europe, after several centuries of contestations and bloody war, most peoples and leaders, bloodied, bled white and exhausted at the end of World War-II, together threw up their hands, shouted “never again” and reached out to each other, in the Indian sub-Continent, despite millennia of having co-existed together, largely peacefully, (one could even assert as an undeclared “union”), after merely a couple of centuries of colonial rule the peoples and leaders of different communities populating South Asia transformed into becoming each other’s sworn and even mortal enemies. In South Asia, particularly partitioned Indian sub-continent, the new logic of state formation was deliberately used by the leaders in the newly reconfigured states to deepen the divide and widen the chasm between their respective states and peoples. While the progressively expanding European integration also progressively reduced or outright demolished barriers to freely trading, communicating with and travelling across borders, the South Asian leaders single-mindedly embarked on severing connectivity with each other, whether in the realm of trade and commerce or people-to-people connectivity.

In Europe, efforts at unification had pre-existed first through conquest by Napoleon and Hitler; but schemes for voluntary grouping of the European states on terms of equality date back to only after the First World War (era of European Cosmopolitanism). Notable landmarks in this centripetal process were calls by Count Coudenhove-Kalergi of Austria, who in 1923 had envisioned a United States of Europe, and the efforts and writings of Aristide Briand, French Foreign Minister and his German counterpart Gustave Streseman in 1929 echoing similar aspirations. Those efforts failed, largely in the face of rising jingoistic nationalism and the growing imperialist tide that gripped Europe following the Treaty of Versailles after World War-I. However, following the unprecedented devastation from two World Wars, in which Europe was the main theatre, there was an overwhelming realization in divided Europe of its own great weakness and vulnerability, heightened by the emergence of the two new hegemons (political, military & economic), namely the USA & USSR. The European move towards integration was propelled by conviction born out of suffering, and the aspiration for European cooperation was as much a rationale for self-preservation as a means for improving collective quality of life.

It must also be noted here that the graduation to European integration was not taken by its peoples in one great leap forward. It was a gradual, but steadily enlarging process, building block by block. Following upon the lead given by the inner six, namely Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, & the Netherlands through the forming of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951, there followed seven more states opting to join (the outer seven). A mushrooming growth of numerous regional organizations or groupings, initially unconnected with each other, took place: the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD); the Western European Union (WEU); the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC or EURATOM) in 1957; and the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957. Significantly, in this steadily enlarging process, pragmatism trumped nationalist jingoism. The original six ceded part of their national sovereignty in order to form a cohesive, indissoluble & politically willed regional body with sovereign powers of its own that was independent of the comprising states and could adopt acts that had the force of national laws. This pooling of national sovereignty became known as “integration”. Notably, the initiative came from several of the larger and economically stronger powers in Europe. Initially, UK and Nordic countries, Austria and Portugal had vehemently opposed this partial ceding of national sovereignty, and had formed a counter body called EFTA, but they increasingly realized that they risked isolation and losing benefits accruing from participation in a larger, more integrated grouping with each other cooperating. What also made this initial thawing by mutually suspicious forces possible was the commendable and visionary big power modesty and readiness to bury the hatchet that was displayed by the Franco-German reconciliation which became the cornerstone of the new European order, and enlarged the reconciliation process across Europe. It set up a coherent and integrated economic framework within which border checks and other barriers were minimized if not entirely removed, and allowed free movement for persons, goods, services and capital. The results were not long in coming: Higher living standards, impressive economic expansion, and generation of vast opportunities for employment ensued. By 1986, this integrative process embraced 12 members and adopted “The Single European Act”, dismantling all internal borders and establishing the single market. By 1992, a further enlarged configuration of 15 members signed Maastricht Treaty on formation of the European Union. The Treaty of Maastricht is a remarkable example of how signatory States in the post-modern era voluntarily decided to gradually dismantle the ultimate symbols of their respective national sovereignties, pool resources for a greater cause, and announce boldly the assertion of a European Identity, comprising a single political union with ultimate Union citizenship. They also envisaged introduction of common foreign and security policies, to be followed by common defence policies as well. The process was not always marked by unanimity, but this did not derail the process. All members agreed that each and every member need not participate in equal measure and the same time in all activities, but could determine its own pace and time in deciding when to participate in any particular measure being undertaken jointly by others. Thus, when the European monetary union (EMU) was formed on January 1, 1999, only eleven of the 15 members joined in the launch of the EMU (birth of the Euro), set to challenge the supremacy of the US dollar).

In sharp contrast with the genesis of the EU as described above, the South Asian integration process has been bedevilled from the start by the perception by others of India dwarfing all, in terms of sheer size, and political, economic and even military gravitas. The partition of colonial India into post-colonially independent India and Pakistan set each viscerally against the other in almost all spheres of inter-state interactions. Even after the formation of the SAARC as a body to revive and promote regional cooperation, this sheer disproportion in the scale of the economies, between India and the rest inhibited any significant growth of trade and commerce within the region. One cannot ignore that while in 1985, intra-regional trade in South Asia was almost negligible, accounting for only 3% of the region's global trade, a quarter century later, today it has grown by an abysmal 2 percentage points to 5% of its total global trade. Despite valiant, but excruciatingly painful and slow, efforts at first cobbling together a South Asian Preferential Trade Arrangement (SAPTA) that was supposed to lead to the South Asian Free Trade Arrangement (SAFTA), no remarkable progress to date is evident of change in a sharply dug-in mind-set imprisoned seemingly in a time warp until very recent times. A important sign of change manifested palpably only very recently and points to the new Indian leadership finally taking a strategic, holistic and long-term view in their own self-interest.

So what should South Asia do now? While it is tempting to provocatively assert that if the only way for South Asia to replicate the European model of regional integration would be by replicating the preconditions that existed in Europe prior to their launching the process, that is by South Asia becoming the main theatre in a World War-III, obviously that is not only a foolhardy, but also an irrefutably irrational and immoral exhortation. At the same time, continuing to pursue the integration agenda using the SAARC process has been a chimera to date, apart from being inordinately glacial in moving forward, and dogged by multiple land-mines that have surfaced along the path we traverse. Now, more than ever before, the South Asian peoples need to exponentially amplify their energies and meaningfully enlarge their individual and collective efforts towards attaining at least economic integration. With rapidly enlarging populations, and vastly reduced connectivity that had historically linked them before they were severed, the region is marked by growing militant unrest among marginalized and peripheralized peoples and communities. This perception has served to spawn numerous radical and militant anti-state movements. There is also an increasingly disturbing enlargement of radical faith-based agenda and threats by non-state actors. Some of these groups have wowed to even overthrow the state and take control of the state and its nuclear weapons. Nuclear war could be accidental with horrendous environmental consequences, and devastatingly adverse regional and global security implications. There are increasing manifestations of progressive environmental and ecological degradation already underway. In such a scenario, there is now a desperate need to change mind-sets as well as change strategy. It is imperative now that leadership across the board, and across borders, should view the larger picture strategically, abjuring and fighting against obscurantism. The rhetoric of jingoistic nationalism has to be replaced now by the language of reconciliation and mutually beneficial pooling of nationalism. If we wish to replicate the EU process without replicating the preconditions of that process, we must remember that in the EU (as also in the ASEAN, that other region grouping which also has done very well since its inception), progress was achieved through putting in place smaller building blocks. SA too needs to adopt this approach. We need to first disaggregate the whole into smaller sub-regional segments, and then gradually the disaggregated segments, through an organic but voluntary process, will recombine into the re-aggregated whole.

Block-by- block and dual track approach

Conceptually, the entire greater SAARC region can be viewed as comprising three sub-regions. The one in its eastern flank comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, the contiguously located North Eastern States of India and West Bengal, and Nepal (BBIN)1;a middle zone comprising of Southern India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives (ISM); and a western sub-region comprising, West & Northwest India, Pakistan and Afghanistan (IPA). What is of immediate interest to one sub-region may not necessarily be of interest to the other sub-regions. However, if the cooperative process in one is sufficiently significant, it may attract the attention of the other. Over a period of time the other sub-regions will, in all probability, want to join in and link up with each other, thus reforming the larger aggregate in a more dynamic way. Sub-regional cooperation thereby opens up the fast track pathway. At the same time, on the slow track – the entire region could continue at its more measured pace, with its multiple hiccups and occasional derailment, until a satisfactory resolution between the two large powers is arrived at. The sub-regional process need not be at the expense of existing SAPTA/SAFTA & other regional arrangements now in place or attempted to be put in place – in fact this could be the more practical and pragmatic pathway to larger regional integration.

Externalising the Enemy

Additionally, we need to do one more thing. We need to stop continuing to be enemies to each other and instead identify a common external enemy (as indeed Europe, and even ASEAN, had done). From the eastern BBIN sub-region perspective, cooperating and collaborating together is of critical importance for its own survival, sustained growth and development. The entire BBIN sub-region comprises one integrated ecological and environmental region that is perhaps the most vulnerable. Environmental & ecological issues are interlinked and cannot be addressed piecemeal, since they transcend political borders and do not respect national redlines. They can only be addressed through cooperative interlocution and concerted action by all stakeholders. Addressing these holistically opens up huge opportunities for sub-regional integrated development. According to one respected theory2 that appears to be re-establishing its relevance, as human population grows, global economic output may also grow exponentially, but renewable resources will decrease sharply. This is consequentially likely to result in depletion of aquifers, rivers and other water resources, with significant climate change and decline of food production and fisheries. Environmental scarcities were already contributing to conflict situations. The continuing scarcities and pressures will increase demands on the capacities of the states and their institutions, rendering adversely affected states fragile and causing them to circle the wagons. States will likely fight more over renewable (water, forestry, agrarian) than non-renewable resources in the future. Intra-state conflicts are likely to expand into inter-state conflicts.

The question then is: could this scenario play out in the South Asian region? Could this be the external enemy that will finally rally South Asians around to each other to address this huge existential threat? In my view, the BBIN sub-region is a disaster waiting to happen. Environmental degradation could trigger larger regional instability and insecurity, with wider implications in this extremely densely crammed region with substantially large populations, widespread poverty and under-development, very frequent natural and environmental disasters, and festering insurgencies and extremist militant movements

Under one scenario, with a 2°C rise in global temperature, net cereal production in South Asian countries is projected to decline by 4 to 10% by the end of this century. In Bangladesh, production of rice may fall by just under ten per cent and wheat by a third by the year 2050. Already, there is now incontrovertible evidence that the Himalayan glaciers are in alarming retreat. Massive deforestation has already taken place as a result of anthropogenic activities. This massive deforestation in turn has also contributed to loss of biodiversity, exacerbating global warming (by reducing areas of carbon sequestration), and increasing soil erosion and in loss of agricultural and habitable lands. Bangladesh is likely to see more frequent and heavier rainfall, more severe flooding and increased land erosion (as well as increased river bed silting, which aggravates flooding). All this may well lead to frequent and longer duration floods, with crop damage/losses. The IPCC report (2007) had identified Bangladesh as being extremely vulnerable to climate change. The rises in global temperatures already vary 3.6°F to 8.1°F above pre-industrial levels. Scientists believe severe monsoons every year caused by global warming, will result in even greater glacier melt in the Himalayas, and as a consequence, ironically, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra (and other Eastern Himalayan rivers) may become seasonal rivers in the near future.

The sub-regional route – The Modalities

Adopting a cooperative approach on a regional/sub-regional basis in BBIN (that could include China at a later, more conducive stage) would include:
  • Joint management of shared commons – waters resources and forestry, from the region of the headwaters to the mouth
  • massive employment of human capital along the entire passage of the river, in concert
  • employment generation multiplier effect on socio-economic matrix that will enhance security and stability
  • Along with training these rivers could be undertaken
  • Expansion of existing irrigation channels (that would also serve as overflow drainage channels during high season floods),
  • Dredging, for sustaining navigability that will result in increase of commerce
  • Creating water conservation reservoirs / pondage
  • Generation of hydro-electricity
  • Restoring navigability and re-opening the rivers to better and more optimized used of river transportation (least environmentally damaging, as compared to rail and road transportation, in that order),
This in turn will open up new service sectors and new (or reviving) upstream and downstream industries. Dying rivers would be revived and the ecology resuscitated. The generation of hydro-electricity would also serve the purpose of rendering surplus hydro-carbon resources for intra-regional use or export abroad, thus contributing to long-term energy security. They would also dramatically reduce the current rate of deforestation (for fuel as well as for illegal logging). Regeneration of forestry and increasing forest coverage would create new, and enhance existing, carbon-sequestration zones. All these could be used as trade-offs, in terms of the existing provisions of the Kyoto Protocol. Soil erosion would be prevented through stopping such deforestation. Training of the rivers would prevent large chunks of the river banks from being washed away from uncontrolled floods. This in turn would save properties of people from the current washing away/destruction by rivers on the rampage during flood season, and progressive siltation of river-beds would be reduced.

Poverty reduction

Most importantly, joint management of shared commons (waters resources, forestry) will also break the poverty trap by:
  • Creating massive employment of human resources
  • Training and taming rivers
  • Expansion of existing irrigation channels
  • Creating water conservation reservoirs
  • Generating hydroelectric power
  • Preventing land loss that leads to more people being forcibly pushed into the poverty trap
  • Restoring forestry
  • Reviving and opening up the rivers to better and more optimized used of river transportation
  • Linking/extending infrastructure for communicating and trade
  • Reviving and expanding Carbon sequestration zones
  • Synergize linkages between activities by adopting a holistic approach
The BBIN sub-region is estimated to have natural gas reserves of 190 billion cbm, coal reserves of over 900 million tons, hydro-electric generation capacity of at least 75,000 MW (Nepal has 43,000 MW, Bhutan over 23,000 MW, and India overall of over 150,000 MW), oil reserves of at least 513 million tons, limestone reserves of over 4.3 billion tons, and a forest cover of over 25% of the sub-region. Harnessing and proper management and utilization of these resources would serve to dramatically transform the sub-region, and drastically eliminate the causes of internal strife. Being able to harness and harvest all these resources in a sustainable manner will not only enhance overall security and stability of the region through development and economically benefiting people, but additional beneficial spin-offs would also follow:
  • The incentives of trade, whether intra-state, inter-state or border trade, would increase dramatically;
  • Ancillary supportive infra-structure would be developed simultaneously – creating more (and continuous) employment;
  • More people-to-people contacts would be spurred, promoting better understanding and spiralling demand for “more of the same”.
Political will and attitudes (mind sets) of key importance

In Europe, the economics may well have driven the region to strive for political cooperation, but I would posit that the initial decision to embark on integration was very much a manifestation of the collective political will to reconfigure the nature of relations. In South Asia the reality is that economics has been, and continues to remain, very much hostage to the political dynamics. The economic engine of any regional or sub-regional economic integration in South Asia will not run without its political spark plugs firing in unison (aligning the politics). Even if the ignition turns the engine and its cylinders fire in concert, the car will not go very far without fuel in the tank. This fuel in the tank is availability of cheap, cleaner /renewable energy, which continues to remain fallow and untapped for so long because of the “iron curtain” syndrome still dominating mind-sets and separating communities and peoples. Shattering that mind-set is all so important now. It is heartening to note that this seems to be happening in the BBIN sub-region at least. Unthinkable six or seven years ago, power grids are slowly being linked, between India and Bhutan, between India and Bangladesh, and between India and Nepal. I daresay that this is the equivalent of four member countries of South Asian region attempting to replicate, almost six decades later, what six countries of Europe embarked on when they established the ECSC and Euratom. Senior officials of the four countries, who were given the political mandate by their respective political leadership, have met together and pronounced agreement to enlarge collaborative efforts in energy cooperation, and operationalising multi-modal connectivity, by road, rail, riverine and coastal shipping to boost trading with each other and revving the engines of economic growth and development. They have signalled that others in the region could decide when to join if they perceived benefits accruing to their peoples from such collaboration.

The strategic implications for security, stability and sustainable development of such sub-regional economic integration would be enormous, as has been explained above. By being able to mainstream marginalized communities or peoples, the casus belli for burgeoning anti-state movements would be removed, as well as the non-availability of malevolent non-state actors stepping in to subvert the state. An economically integrated BBIN sub-region would transform into a powerful engine of growth for the countries of this region. It could open up connectivity with China and East Asia (thus reviving the old silk route). Greater connectivity, as conventional wisdom advises us, transforms into more trade and economic interlocution and expands the space for greater people-to-people contacts that foster better understanding and overall promote peace and collaborative development. Of critical importance would be another beneficial spin-off: greater cooperation in tackling the phenomenon of global warming and climate change would avert a potentially calamitous disaster (or a series of them) from happening, and result in a renewal of the endangered world. The success of one sub-region in any one or more of these endeavours would act as a powerful and exemplary model for other South Asian sub-regions to follow, and emulate. This is an exciting scenario for a win-win situation for all that we would create not just for ourselves, but for the larger common good.

End Notes:
  1. In 1997, the SAARC summit agreed to the concept of sub-regionalism within the overall ambit of SAARC. The author had played a role in the insertion of sub-regionalism in the national agenda which then was placed before the SAARC leaders. Unfortunately, while the concept was accepted and the South Asian Growth Quadrangle was formed with a Council of Foreign Ministers tasked to oversee its activities in several identified sectors, increasing intra-state political differences kept this initiative hostage and tethered from moving.
  2. Thomas Homer-Dixon’s “Environmental Scarcity and human conflicts”(2000)

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