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Cooperative Security in South Asia: A Mirage?

Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy is the Director General of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile [+]
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  • October 23, 2019

    Over the last few years, the concept of security has widened exponentially to include both traditional and non-traditional security threats such as economic and military competition, weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), climate change, piracy, radical ideology, cyber-attacks, drug and human trafficking, and energy and food security. The spectre of terrorism, especially cross-border terrorism, continues to challenge peace and prosperity.

    Today, security is indivisible. Events in one region of the world have an impact, both positive and negative, on other regions. This highlights the necessity of combining strengths to forge new compacts that can appropriately deal with the emerging challenges.

    India believes in the ancient Sanskrit saying “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, which means that the entire world is one family. India’s family in South Asia comprise its several neighbours. Together, South Asia has a population of 1.8 billion people with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of about US$ 3.47 trillion, of which a very large part, about $2.72 trillion, is that of India. For family harmony, it is important that every member abide by certain common values and codes of behaviour.

    Concept of Cooperative Security

    As a concept, cooperative security implies that countries have, or seek, a degree of convergence with regard to threat perceptions, and challenges and opportunities with a conviction that it is advantageous to their security, stability and prosperity. This implies a degree of conceptual clarity which is increasingly difficult in a rapidly changing world. In an unpredictable era in which change is the only constant, power, both military and economic, stands fractured and asymmetry in absolute power quotient is increasingly bridged through exploitation of cyberspace, proliferation of WMDs, and misuse of Internet of Things (IoT) and social media platforms. This is true of state and non-state actors alike. Hedging and multi-alignment are the order of the day.

    Cooperative security may logically begin with neighbours and the region but often transcends locational limitations. Cooperative security can be predicated on shared values, ideologies, religion or economic interests along multiple axes. The Cold War and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) implied cooperative security based on ideology. However, new constructs are emerging in the wake of the dramatic geo-strategic changes in recent times. Germany has called for an integrated European Union (EU) military that would complement NATO. The uncertainty in the trans-Atlantic partnership suggests a greater shift towards reliance on shared geography and a common economic destiny as seen in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the EU’s nascent outreach to it.

    Similarly, the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) headquartered in Riyadh seeks to address a global challenge but is narrowly based on a common faith. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) and others such as the EU and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) are variously glued together by geography, history and shifting regional security paradigms. Many of these structures are overlapping and multi-layered. From alliance partnerships to client-state partnerships, the menu is vast and varied.

    Significantly, developmental finance, much needed by many in the developing world, including in South Asia, has the potential to create economic dependence, erode sovereignty and weaken regional consensus on collective security. More often than not, it comes today steeped in strategic motives and with strings attached.

    Cooperative Security in South Asia

    South Asia has a common history and celebrates its great cultural and linguistic overlap. South Asian nations came into their own at about the same time with the lifting of the colonial shadow. However, the South Asian experience in building cooperative security architecture has been mixed.

    It can be argued that cooperative security in any region is like a chain which is as strong as its weakest link. The South Asian family, unfortunately, has its own black sheep. The weakest link in the chain continues to be Pakistan, which views security as a zero-sum game, and uses terrorism as an instrument of state policy against its neighbours. The consequences of such a policy pursued in one country in South Asia, aimed at systematically nurturing radical jihadi groups, has been felt in other South Asian countries as well – from Afghanistan to India and from Bangladesh to Sri Lanka.

    South Asia can truly prosper only when it is free from the scourge of terrorism. The greatest challenge before South Asia is the fight against illiteracy and poverty, climate change and natural disasters, and food and energy security issues. These are indivisible and transcend borders. Cooperation on these issues will ensure the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

    One of the measures to improve regional security is to strengthen connectivity linkages. A better connectivity can help nations overcome their political differences by conceiving their borders as bridges and not as barriers. However, the efforts of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to build a regional consensus have been undermined by one state’s obstructionist policies. The SAARC motor vehicle agreement which would have allowed region-wide movement of vehicles and promoted trade, commerce and people-to-people contacts was, unfortunately, vetoed by one country.

    Afghanistan, devastated by conflict, needs help. It requires the support of its neighbours to spur economic growth. Yet, India and Afghanistan have been denied overland transit by a common neighbour. It is not without reason that the intra-South Asian trade remains one of the lowest in the world.

    India’s Commitment to Cooperative Security

    As the world’s second-most populous country with 1.25 billion people, India attaches great importance to strengthening cooperative security. India’s initiatives over the last five years to build regional cooperation and security are anchored in its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. From inviting the heads of all SAARC states to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in 2014 to India’s initiative to launch a South Asia Satellite to improve communication and disaster response, India remains committed to its neighbourhood. India has always been the first off the block to provide relief in the wake of tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

    Prime Minister Modi has emphasised the importance of shared prosperity with our neighbours through his clarion call of “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas”, the essence of which roughly translates as “Collective Effort, Inclusive Growth and Mutual Trust”.

    India remains optimistic about the future of South Asia at a time when it has emerged as one of the fastest-growing large economies in the world. India is the proverbial rising tide that can lift all boats in the region.

    India is keen to strengthen other regional groupings and partnerships such as the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) that includes Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan. India is also committed to greater connectivity and cooperation with the ASEAN region through its ‘Act East’ policy. India has also expanded its cooperation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in the extended neighbourhood.

    These underlying principles have translated into India building excellent ties in its neighbourhood. India has a special friendship with Bhutan. Bangladesh is a key pillar of India’s regional engagement. An open border with Nepal demonstrates mutual trust and confidence. Security cooperation with Myanmar has increased in recent years. India is cooperating closely with both the Maldives and Sri Lanka to promote maritime security. As one of the biggest regional donors to Afghanistan’s reconstruction efforts, India has overcome hurdles and established an air and a maritime corridor with Afghanistan to strengthen bilateral ties. Notably, India trains the largest number of Afghan army officers, over a hundred annually, and gives thousands of scholarships to the Afghan youth for studying and pursuing vocational training in India.

    Similarly, the shared maritime interests in the extended neighbourhood remain anchored in developing a blue economy, particularly in the context of what Prime Minister Modi calls ‘SAGAR’ (Security And Growth for All in the Region), and in ensuring unimpeded commerce, protection of key sea lanes of communication, and freedom of navigation and over-flight. India believes that competition need not result in conflict, nor differences amount to disputes.

    The one exception to this cooperative process in South Asia remains Pakistan. India has made clear that there can be no dialogue unless Pakistan halts its obsession with the use of terrorism against India and other countries in the region and brings the perpetrators of the Mumbai and other terrorist attacks who freely roam in Pakistan to book.

    The Shimla Agreement commits both sides to discuss all issues through a bilateral dialogue, but Pakistan continues to breach its commitment with growing frequency.

    In conclusion, it can be argued that South Asia ‘minus one’ has achieved some measure of progress in strengthening regional cooperation, as observed by India’s Foreign Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar at the World Economic Forum's 33rd edition of the India Economic Summit held in New Delhi on October 04, 2019.1 Nevertheless, a lot more can be done. It is also hoped that the ‘minus one’ country will change its mindset, eschew terrorism and come around one day for the good of all in South Asia. Hopefully, Pakistan will one day support the growing developmental impulses in South Asia instead of irresponsibly brandishing the threat of nuclear weapons.

    The roadmap for regional security, given by Prime Minister Modi at the SCO Summit in 2018, remains relevant.2 Better known by its acronym ‘SECURE’, its every letter is full of meaning.

    • S stands for Security of our citizens,
    • E stands for Economic development for all,
    • C stands for Connecting the region,
    • U stands for Uniting our people,
    • R stands for Respect for Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity, and,
    • E stands for Environmental protection.

    This year marks the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, a great apostle of peace and votary of truth and non-violence. It would be a fitting tribute to him if countries can, one day, abjure the use of violence and force in favour of dialogue and cooperation in order to fully realise their destinies.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

    * Adapted from a speech delivered by the author in the Plenary at the Minsk Dialogue Forum, Belarus, on October 08, 2019.