Roadblocks to Regional Integration in South Asia


Related image

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra 27 July 2018

While there are numerous non-traditional security threats that plague the South Asian countries like poverty, hunger, unemployment, illiteracy and illegal trafficking in people and drugs and the growing menace of militancy, the nations of the region are still trapped in their traditional concerns for political and territorial issues and are unable to differentiate these issues from the need for cooperation in economic, cultural and technological areas. While bilateral political and territorial disputes deceived any immediate solutions, they left deep negative imprints on the process of regional integration in the long-run. There are instances to the contrary that strengthen the argument that security issues can be kept aside and progress be attained in other areas, for example, there has been a surge in bilateral trade between India and China despite their unresolved territorial claims. So far as the South Asian region is concerned, India has been able to increase the volume of trade with some of its smaller neighbors by declaring significant unilateral concessions which are not farfetched to understand given the size and growth of its economy but recent surge in the economic profile of China in the region points to the fact that neighbors no more wish to see India as their predominant economic partner. India’s disagreements with its neighbors on political and territorial issues have led the latter to see a dilution of India’s influence in the region. South Asia is an Indo-centric region due to India’s disproportionate size, population, military strength and economy and most of the security concerns of small neighbors revolved around India’s perceived role in the region. India, on the other hand, a big country with a large population drawn from diverse ethnic, cultural and linguistic communities sharing commonalities with similar groups in the neighborhood perceived threats to its territorial integrity with adverse political developments in the region. Moreover, India and its neighbors share common geographical borders in the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean. Therefore, any external powers’ involvement in the region is considered a threat to Indian sovereignty and territorial integrity. India undertook concerted efforts at creating New Delhi-designed regional security architecture to address its security concerns by using its asymmetry in military and economic strength which many times invited resentment in the neighborhood. Mutual distrust between India and its neighbors can only be mitigated by more meetings, discussions, consultations on security issues at the bilateral and regional level.

One of the Singapore’s well-known diplomats Kishore Mahbubani in his book The ASEAN Miracle brought out the importance of regular conduct of meetings in the evolution and growth of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). While ASEAN conducts 1000 meetings on all kinds of issues including health, infections, and pandemics, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) provide the platform to regularly consult on and discuss regional security issues involving external powers as dialogue partners. There are visibly no such regional efforts to discuss non-political and non-sensitive economic, technological, cultural, connectivity and health-related issues in the South Asian region. It is noteworthy that while the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) charter prohibited discussions on sensitive bilateral security issues with an objective of making progress in other areas. However, there are so far no significant achievements in these areas to the regional organization’s credit as well. On many occasions, SAARC summits were either postponed or cancelled primarily due to political and security reasons. For instance, there could be no annual SAARC summit meetings between 1999 and 2002 following the Kargil war between India and Pakistan apart from many other such instances.

While Indo-Pak conflict is ascribed as the greatest stumbling block to the regional integration process, the Indian approach towards the process is nonetheless responsible for holding back the region from integrating as it showed a lack of enthusiasm for regional goal setting and formulation of collective strategies which are central to the evolution of regional integration. Over the years, South Asia has only witnessed a spate of regional initiatives in the form of Indian sponsored proposals involving unilateral gestures and concessions from New Delhi. What is missing in the region is a collective endeavor in the form of inputs, feedback, consultations, and discussions before proposals are initiated. It is significant that any regional or sub-regional initiative needs continuous consultations, discussions, and brainstorming. It was the former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who proposed the idea of establishing the South Asian University (SAU) in Dhaka involving New Delhi’s principal contribution to its establishment and operating costs which later witnessed visa-related problems and Pakistan dithering from contributing to its operating costs in time. It is alleged that India, in order to demonstrate its commitment to SAARC following its postponement of 2005 Summit for eight months due to differences with the host Khaleda Zia government of Bangladesh, mooted this idea.

South Asia Satellite also known as GSAT-9 is an Indian gift to the South Asian countries barring Pakistan. The spacecraft developed by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) cost New Delhi around 450 crores of Indian rupees and aimed at facilitating broadcasting and internet services, disaster management, telemedicine, tele-education and weather forecasting in the region. Notwithstanding the noble objectives underlying this effort, this symbolized India’s unilateral gesture rather than the idea emanating from collective discussions and endeavor. Similarly, during the 18th SAARC Summit held in Kathmandu in November 2015, India under Modi’s leadership came up with proposals for three agreements on the road, rail and power with an objective to push regional trade and connectivity ahead. While these connectivity proposals did not find any breakthroughs except the lone face-saving success being the signing of the Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation, most of the unilateral gestures from New Delhi were viewed with skepticism by the South Asian leaders. The only successful outcome was possible due to palpable interest in and persistent persuasion by most of the SAARC members mobilizing consensus on the proposal.

India wanted to be seen more like a benign neighbor by making unilateral gestures and concessions than a leader of regional integration leading very often to a perception of big brother in the neighborhood notwithstanding its efforts. Contrary to the experience in the Southeast Asian region where Indonesia – the largest country took major initiative towards regional integration, it is worth remembering that a smaller country Bangladesh took the first initiative towards regional cooperation in South Asia and its former President of Bangladesh Ziaur Rahman made the first concrete proposal for establishing a framework for regional cooperation. On the other side, India was seen more like a reluctant participant in the initial years of SAARC due to its apprehension that the motives of smaller powers to form a group might be to challenge India’s predominance in the region.

The difference between rhetoric and reality from the perspective of regional integration in South Asia is clear so far as intraregional trade is concerned. The SAARC members agreed to sign an agreement and launched South Asian Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA) in 1995 as a stepping stone to South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA). A Committee of Experts was set up as per the decision was taken during the Tenth SAARC Summit in 1998 to draft the agreement on SAFTA which was eventually signed by the SAARC members on 6 January 2004 during the Twelfth SAARC Summit in Islamabad. Notwithstanding, these token positive gestures and visible efforts towards developing consensus and signing free trading arrangements, no headway could be made at the level of practice in raising the level of intra-regional trade which remained as low as 5% of the total trade of SAARC members. Even though SAFTA agreement was signed in 2004, IMF database projected intra-regional trade was pegged at as low as 4.78 % of total trade in 2006 showing lack of enthusiasm for intra-regional trade from the beginning.

As SAARC ceased to be a regional platform to foster regional trade and connectivity being a victim to Indo-Pak standoff, India led efforts at launching sub-regional initiatives such as Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) in 1997 comprising members such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, BCIM initiative in 1999 to establish an economic corridor between Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar and BBIN initiative in 1997 between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal with the objectives of forging cooperation on connectivity of power, transport and infrastructure.

These sub-regional initiatives witnessed lack of leadership, resources, and institutionalization. For instance, BCIM remained a Track II initiative for India till 2013, and it took 17 years for BIMSTEC to establish a permanent secretariat in Dhaka in 2014. BBIN initiative which was activated following India’s failure under Modi’s leadership to push through the Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) in the SAARC Summit held in Kathmandu proved to be a fledgling initiative with Bhutan’s withdrawal from the agreement. Failure of all these initiatives after so many years of their coming into existence point to the fact that it is not the Indo-Pak conflict alone which acted against the drive for regional integration. It has become quite palpable that the scope for India-led sub-regional cooperation squeezed further with China launching its ambitious ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) project.

The Gujral Doctrine did not lead to a Paradigmatic Shift in India’s Approach towards Its Neighbors

The Gujral doctrine in 1996 enunciated by the former External Minister of India who eventually became Prime Minister, marked a shift in India’s approach towards its neighbors by anchoring the principles of non-reciprocity and non-interference in the neighborhood and thereby removed the major handicaps on the way of regional cooperation. In conformity with these principles, India stopped intervening in neighboring states’ foreign policy decisions that were formerly considered crucial to India’s security. For instance, India did not contest Sri Lanka’s arms purchase from Pakistan. India revisited the unequal bilateral treaties with Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh after a gap of long years, and attempts were made to revise them. India played an instrumental role in forging free trade arrangements with Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. Sincere steps were taken from the Indian side to minimize trade deficit and get over the problem unfavorable balance of trade that the small South Asian countries were encountering against India. India was seen offering unilateral concessions in the shape of duty-free market access to goods from the least developed countries of South Asia in the 14th SAARC Summit, 2007. Efforts were undertaken by India to sort out river water disputes with neighbors. Humanitarian missions were dispatched soon after natural disasters or humanitarian crisis affected any of its South Asian neighbors. For example, India quickly responded to humanitarian disasters in Tsunami affected the Maldives and Sri Lanka in 2006; earthquake-affected Pakistan in 2005 and Nepal in 2015 and provided relief assistance to Rohingya refugees to mitigate the humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh 2017. However, the nature of the assistance that India extended to its neighbors was bilateral and was driven more by India’s concerns related to Chinese growing investment and influence in the region rather than showing efforts at consultations, discussions, and collaboration to build regional efforts to manage these crises in the long-run. In response to Chinese economic sway in the region, India has also substantially increased the amount of aid and extended lines of credit to its small neighbors like Nepal and Bhutan.

India while going by the thrust of the doctrine shed its past policies aimed at excluding external actors’ interference in South Asia and accepted involvement of external actors like Norway and the UN and the US role in the peace process in Sri Lanka and Nepal respectively in principle, its use of unofficial channels to monitor peace processes there pointed to its continued vigilance arising out of suspicions that political developments in the neighborhood might turn against its vital interests. The meeting between the then Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and his Indian counterpart Atal Bihari Vajpayee in April 2001 clarified that Norway would not work against India’s interests in the region. Indian influence was visible in its insistence that members to be involved in the peace process in Sri Lanka did not involve any great powers and would comprise only observers from Nordic countries. In the peace process of Nepal, when the UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) was attempting to deepen its role, it invited strong resentment from India, and it may be one of the reasons of its withdrawal from Nepal later. On the other side, Indian politicians from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) were seen unofficially engaged in brokering peace in Nepal. India’s hesitation to allow larger space to external powers in the region is quite visible in its objection not only to full Chinese membership in SAARC; it has shown its unwillingness to involve China as a dialogue partner within the regional organization as well. It is worth mentioning that China has been invigorating its efforts towards greater involvement in SAARC since it became an observer in 2007 and the South Asian countries including Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have expressed their willingness to induct China from an ‘observer’ status to full membership.

Contrary to the spirit of the Gujral doctrine, there is a growing perception in the neighborhood that the issue of migration from the smaller South Asian countries into India has not been handled by the latter as per the expectations of its neighbors. India’s response to this has been sporadic attempts at regulating bilateral trade and fencing the border with barbed wires which have very often affected India’s image. India’s political interference in Nepal first by throwing its weight behind Monarchy and then switching over support to democratic forces and then its alleged role in undermining the communist parties has contributed to a distorted image of New Delhi in Kathmandu. Resorting to the economic blockade as a pressure tactic against Nepal has not contributed to a benign image of India in 1989-90 rather New Delhi has been implicated and criticized in the recent past for its alleged unofficial role in forcing an economic blockade in favor of Madhesi population as way to exert influence on the constitutional developments in Kathmandu. India has also failed to take cognizance of the Nepalese expectation to assist in the repartition of Bhutanese refugees rather several requests from Kathmandu have been cold-shouldered by New Delhi.

India followed the standard practice of engaging with specific political groups in the neighborhood which it believed would work in favor of India’s interests. India viewed Awami League Party of Bangladesh as favorable to its interests, saw its interests fulfilled with the rise of democratic forces in Nepal and perceived Maithripala Sirisena the incumbent President of Sri Lanka as pro-India. India’s reluctance to engage with divergent political groups in the neighborhood not only brought more rigidity to bilateral relations, but it also acted as a major roadblock in the way towards regional integration. Resetting relations with Nepal emerged as a challenge for India with Maoist parties forming a government there. Notwithstanding its pro-India gestures, Sirisena government of Sri Lanka has not hesitated to lease out land to China for 99 years for the development of Hambantota port. Similarly, Abdulla Yameen, President of the Maldives has not shown any change in behavior according to India’s wish despite the cancellation of India’s Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the country on the ground of deteriorating political conditions there.

Different political and religious leaders of India have not been able to mince their language which might hurt sentiments of people in the neighborhood. There was an apparent lack of understanding in New Delhi that religious and cultural rhetoric could easily be capitalized by dissident groups in neighbouring countries to raise an anti-Indian image. For example, Aparna Pande in an article for Outlook magazine referred to such callous and irresponsible remarks which included terminologies such as – at least a quarter of Bangladesh’s population “swear by the Jamiat-e-Islami” and “are very anti-Indian.” The views which were said in an off-the-record meeting got inadvertently posted in the Prime Ministers’ Office (PMO) website lasting for 30 hours before they were deleted and the External Affairs Minister of India had to plan to visit Bangladesh to lower tensions quickly. Similarly, there were irresponsible remarks on illegal immigrants from neighboring countries which has caused to raise eyebrows in the neighborhood. Use of cultural rhetoric like Hindutva and Akhanda Bharat among others could play straight into the hands of opposing forces in the neighborhood. It is pertinent to understand that smaller South Asian states are continuously making efforts at defining their identity as different from an Indian identity because they were once part of Indian civilization. There is every possibility that attempts to create a different identity might turn into desires for anti-Indian identity if India fails to share trust with its neighbors. The only way for India to bring its neighbors into confidence is to engage them in more consultations, discussions, and debates and allow them to give their inputs and feedback on bilateral and regional issues.