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Updated: September 23, 2010 16:03 IST

A region of strife and promise

A. Madhavan
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Regional cooperation is an age-old means for countries to seek improved security and economic prospects. South Asian countries have been hesitant to adopt it as a desideratum of foreign policy, due to ingrained differences among the nation-states of the subcontinent, particularly the recurrent conflict syndrome afflicting India and Pakistan. Countries in South-East Asia, Europe and the Americas have successfully banded together. Viewed in this context, the disappointing performance of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is a reproach to its eight members.

But, lately, this region is gaining more attention globally, partly because of the rapid expansion of the Indian economy since 1991 and partly because Pakistan has become a base for terrorist forays eastward and westward. The challenge of statesmanship for South Asian countries is to overcome the negative factors and build on the positive.

The two books under review contain monographs on the South Asian region. State and Foreign Policy in South Asia comes from Heidelberg University in the series devoted to the study of “comparative politics”. One problem with such seminar papers on contemporary developments is that they tend to become dated, except for rare seminal contributions. The internet serves as a far superior medium for tracking changes in international relations. For instance, the paper on “the new dynamics of Indian foreign policy and its ambiguities,” by Subrata Mitra and Jivanta Schottli, discusses India's “ambivalent” anti-terrorism drive, but is not updated to cover the Pakistani-planned terror attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 (“26/11”).

The papers examining the relevance of theoretical models of international relations to South Asian conflicts and concerns will interest scholars rather than policymakers, who must react to wayward contingencies and vectors of pressure. Partha Ghosh's essay on Kashmir, Yang Lu's on the India-China border dispute, and Ejaz Hussain's on Pakistan's foreign policy are noteworthy.

India's responsibility

The other volume edited by S.D. Muni and born out of deliberations at a seminar at the Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore, is more recent in its coverage and should help both academics and professionals concerned with foreign affairs. Formed in 1985 with seven members — Bangladesh (which mooted the idea), Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — SAARC took Afghanistan into its fold in 2007. As one with the largest and most diversified economy in the group, India bears the onus of helping the smaller neighbours and setting the right tone for constructive regionalism. But Pakistan's anti-India focus has consistently stymied SAARC in realising its potential. Muni observes that there has been “a new wave democracy and impressive economic growth” in the region in the last five years, but without India and Pakistan cooperating earnestly, SAARC will have to remain aspirational rather than become functionally effective.

India has shed its wariness of SAARC as a forum for the others to gang up against it. It is confidently exploring the common gains to be garnered from trustful consultation, not only bilaterally as before, but sub-regionally and regionally. SAARC reaches out to other countries for joint action in fields such as energy-sourcing, where Myanmar is a good prospect. Thailand and Myanmar are part of the multi-sectoral group called BIMSTEC along with India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka from South Asia. SAARC has a poor record in promoting intra-regional trade.

There is ample scope to boost it through preferential trade and free trade agreements, whittling down entrenched protectionism. The paper by Amitendu Palit and M. Shahidul Islam examines some examples of ASEAN sub-regionalism. Kripa Sridharan presents a comprehensive analysis of Asian regionalism and SAARC, highlighting the divergent demands of sovereignty and integration that complicate regional development.

National perspectives

Apart from the substantial essays on cooperation in energy security, environment, food, poverty reduction and counter-terrorism, the five specially commissioned papers giving national perspectives — India (Sanjaya Baru); Pakistan (Rasul Baksh Rais); Nepal (Lok Raj Baral); plus two Observer-countries, the United States and China — merit notice, particularly the one by Hu Shesheng, who belongs to a Chinese think-tank.

India has to mitigate its neighbours' mistrust by generously giving them more economic space and facility to participate in common agendas. The populist anti-Indian appeals in Nepal and Bangladesh have to be countered by acts of sincere goodwill rather than criticism. SAARC needs to concentrate on achievable projects, avoiding grandiose and impractical resolutions.

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