Strategic possibilities in South Asia 29 April 2014
South Asia’s strategic future is impossible to know. Based on what has transpired, however, and reflecting on current situations, the following appears likely: 1) India-Pakistan relations will remain poor to abysmal; 2) China-India relations will remain challenging, but will continue to improve slowly over time; 3) despite the South Asian Association for Regional Association (SAARC) being formed in 1985, which grouping Afghanistan joined in 2007, the nations of South Asia will have little sense of being part of a region; 4) India will continue to dominate this ‘region’ because of its sheer size, increasing economic power and growing international stature; and, 5) the other nations of South Asia will continue to strive to develop but may struggle.
What if some, or all, of these situations were to change? Given the right set of circumstances, India and Pakistan could normalise their relationship virtually overnight. This could then lead to all of sorts of positive developments. For example, Indians and Pakistanis could readily visit one another and their respective tourist attractions; trade could flourish; each nation could downsize their militaries, paramilitaries and nuclear capabilities and put the consequent savings into national development. The challenge is getting the right circumstances. The primary factor is having politically-strong statesmen concurrently in both nations who can deliver better India-Pakistan relations to desirous citizens. Such leadership has always been difficult to achieve or produce—nor have Indian and Pakistani voters demanded it. This situation is unlikely to change soon. Increasingly, coalition governments are governing India, with the prime minister politically being only ‘first amongst equals’. In Pakistan, the military has a veto over all significant politico-strategic decisions, including any that might lessen its power or influence—as improved India-Pakistan relations almost certainly would do. Certainly, both nations have not yet concurrently had leaders who could resolve their major issues. A lot of luck and synchronicity, not to mention overcoming some significant historical baggage and mistrust, are needed for such a leadership ‘bonanza’ to occur.
A more likely scenario is a further improvement in, even a strengthening of, China-India relations. Imagine if these behemoths developed a strategic partnership and closeness, after which they essentially divided Asia between them, with China overseeing North-East Asia and the South China Sea, with India supervising South Asia and the Indian Ocean, and with both ‘monitoring’ the rest of Asia. This idea is not far-fetched, particularly given pre-9/11 talk of China, India and Russia aligning against the United States, which then almost desperately was seeking an enemy to plan operations against. Think of the sudden and seemingly unthinkable US-China rapprochement in the 1970s and the Soviet Union’s demise in the 1990s. Furthermore, while Pakistan is currently a convenient ally for China, particularly in relation to India, China is concerned about Pakistan’s instability and economic problems and Pakistani support for Muslim Uighur ‘terrorists’ in Xinjiang. India offers China many more opportunities and advantages economically and strategically. Both are wary of an assertive, encircling United States and its allies; both understand that stability and cooperation are preferable to confrontation; both have similar energy and resources requirements, and economic opportunities in Central Asia, South-East Asia, etc. For a China-India partnership to occur, both nations would have to overcome the mutual suspicion that partly results from their unresolved border and territorial issues. Western nations doing something rash or untoward—as sometimes occurs when they take the moral high ground—may ‘encourage’ both nations to embrace. South Asians themselves might embolden such an arrangement from which they almost certainly would benefit, if only because a cooperative China-India relationship could provide an economic engine for national and regional growth.
Possibilities 3, 4 and 5 are intertwined. India is unable or unwilling to lead the disparate and inherently disunified South Asia region. India’s reluctance possibly comes from its longstanding desire to be non-aligned or to decline membership of military pacts like the former Middle East-based Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). Equally, India cannot lead South Asia because other nations fear or mistrust it. This mistrust is a major factor impacting SAARC and South Asian regionalism. But just imagine if South Asia did become a unified region like the European Union. This would create a community—and an economy or market—of over 1.6 billion people. It would necessarily dilute some of the bitter post-British legacies (all South Asian nations have a historical connection with the British) and divisions and the perceived need for armaments and large militaries and paramilitaries to defend sometimes contested territory and some of these legacies. Visitors to South Asia could land in, say, Karachi, Kathmandu or Colombo and receive Customs clearance and Immigration permission to visit any other SAARC nation/s, after which they, and trade, could travel via a unified transport system overland through South Asia to South-East Asia via Myanmar, or to China via Pakistan, Nepal or India, or to Europe via Afghanistan or Iran, as happened re this latter route before the Iranian revolution and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Similarly, India’s remote seven north-eastern states, and Nepal and Bhutan could access sea ports via transport corridors across Bangladesh, while Afghanistan and Pakistan might use Pakistani and Indian transport links to access Indian ports. In return, India and other nations could access Central Asia via both nations. Borders would be less relevant and joint fishing, sea and water projects would be achievable. The possibilities are endless—and phenomenal. Meanwhile, lacking such cooperation and integration, South Asia’s nations continue to fall far short of their individual and collective potentials. They strive to develop, but struggle.
One day, South Asians may wake up and say to their leaders and governments: “Enough is enough. We need to overcome the antipathies and hindrances that have held us back as nations and as a region. Do the needful you politicians—immediately.” Since the British ended their Indian Empire some 65 years ago, much needs to be achieved. Thinking and acting differently would help. So too would some serious pondering of future possibilities and opportunities.
29 April 2014