The suggestions made by two former Foreign Secretaries, Shyam Saran and Shiv Shankar Menon, that India should initiate a discussion on a collective security arrangement between the major powers whose bulk of energy and trade flows through the Indian Ocean, is laudable. Mr. Menon made the suggestion while speaking on “Maritime Imperatives of Indian Foreign Policy” at an event organised by the National Maritime Foundation. This security architecture evidently includes the land-based economies of the BRIC countries, Brazil, Russia, India, and China, as well. According to a 2003 Goldman-Sachs report, “BRIC countries would emerge as dominant economies by 2050; India and China would dominate world markets in services and manufacturing, while Brazil and Russia would dominate in the supply of raw materials.”
It was not without significance that Mr. Menon and National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan accompanied Manmohan Singh on his first visit abroad as second-term Prime Minister to attend the BRIC conference at the Russian Urals city of Yekaterinburg on the Europe-Asia border. In today’s globalised world, trade and commerce cannot be isolated from national security, which in turn can be strengthened by national as well as inter-state land-based transport infrastructure.
Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo who visited Tibet last month wrote in a recent article that Tibet is part of a much larger Asian drama that is “changing from being a barrier to a region linking China and India together.” He added: “Economically, there was much to be gained by improving road and rail links between Tibet and South Asia. Indeed, the Chinese have suggested that Lhasa and Calcutta [Kolkata] be linked by rail.” Mr. Yeo explained that “the rapid growth of China-India trade in the past 10 years and the emergence of China as India’s biggest trading partner marked just ’the beginning’ of new economic linkages between the two Asian neighbours.” Common economic interests are driving the two countries into closer political cooperation, both bilaterally and internationally, and how they “relate to each other in the coming decades will affect everyone,” Mr. Yeo wrote.
Ineffective murder weapon
In his speech at the National Maritime Foundation, Mr. Menon stated that though China was conducting extensive port development activity in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan and actively supplying weapons to these countries, there are no Chinese bases in the Indian Ocean despite talk of the “string of pearls” which, he said, “was a pretty ineffective murder weapon.”
In the context of the collective security architecture in which the inevitability of an India-China conflict is excluded, South Asia must strengthen its economic clout by jointly standing up vis-a-vis the Chinese inroads. Pakistan has already approved an Indian proposal to launch a South Asian train service linking India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. A number of road links are also expected to incrementally increase commerce and trade among the SAARC countries.
South Asia is lagging far behind China’s traditionally entrenched trade and commerce supremacy in South-East Asia. Many Chinese businessmen operate as local nationals, too. The economic scene is somewhat similar to what prevailed in post-Second World War Europe when leaders such as Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet dared to stand up to the American economic might. The formation in 1951 of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) by six countries, and the launching of Europe’s single currency euro in 1999, resulted in a number of cooperative bodies set up by the countries of the European Union. In 1957 they signed the Treaty of Rome, creating the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). Ten years later, the European Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament were created. The 1992 Treaty of Maastricht promoted new forms of cooperation between member-states in the areas of defence, justice and home affairs, and in 1995 the Schengen Convention introduced free movement for individuals and commodities. Not surprisingly, the EU family has already grown to 27 members.
A common currency
As with European economic and regional cooperation, SAARC will benefit from the centripetal force created by a common currency (called ‘Sasia’ in my book, The Sasia Story: UNESCO, 2005). It will, like the euro, become the anchor of economic stability and accelerate trade and commerce between the SAARC countries. As with the European Coal and Steel Community, it will create areas of congruence such as a ‘peace pipeline’ that will carry natural gas from Iran and Turkmenistan across Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Indian subcontinent. Hence, land-based trade and security of SAARC is as important a component of collective security arrangement for the Indian Ocean architecture that the two former Foreign Secretaries have rightly proposed.
(Madanjeet Singh is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and the Founder of the South Asia Foundation.)