If the Prime Ministers of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal learned to think as a region, and commit themselves to a single defence and security structure, the outcome could be enduring peace and growth, Mirza Sadaqat Huda writes.
If South Asia’s policymakers want increased regional integration, they could learn from the examples of others. In particular they could do a lot worse than look at the recent crisis management and peace-building efforts of two extra-regional statesmen.
The first of these was the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s response to the heinous terror attacks in Belgium. Renzi told reporters “You need to go all the way this time Europe. We need to invest in a single defence and security structure”.
Can you imagine the Prime Ministers of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Nepal having a similar response to the January 2016 terrorist attack at the Pathankot Air Force Base? To be fair, the context is very different – European integration has evolved over hundreds of years and interdependency has only been pursued actively as a policy objective following the devastation of two World Wars.
But there are other key differences. Unlike South Asia, European countries have not accused each other of sponsoring terrorism against their neighbours, arguably the primary issue that is preventing intelligence cooperation between New Delhi and Islamabad. While India and Pakistan’s cooperation on the investigation of the Pathankot attack deserves much credit, and despite the progress in bi-lateral cooperation and the Pakistan Army’s advances in destroying terrorists in the North-West of the country, significant concerns remain about the influence of the Inter-Services Intelligence on non-state actors in Afghanistan and India.
Much could be gained from a declaration at the highest political level of the need for a common defence policy against terrorism, given the current level of intelligence cooperation between India and Pakistan, and the successful history of counter-terrorism cooperation between Bangladesh and India. Despite the difficulties, the impact of statesmanship in this regard cannot be underestimated, as the political commitment to a joint response to terrorism will undermine the organisations that aid and abet terror.
One may argue that such declarations have been a defining feature of the failure of regional cooperation, such as with the ratification of the SAARC Regional Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism in 1988 and the establishment of the SAARC Terrorist Offences Monitoring Desk in 1995 not getting results against countering terrorism. However, the failures of the past should not undermine the current sense of optimism towards regionalism. Narendra Modi’s prioritisation of regional cooperation has resulted in follow-up activities towards the energy and connectivity agreements that were signed at the SAARC Summit in October 2014. Hydroelectric projects, rail and road networks are being planned between India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh.
However, while the leaders are investing in collaborative projects, those who gain from conflicts are sabotaging diplomatic overtures. Terrorism is one of the key impediments to regional cooperation and when such attacks occur, South Asian leaders often exacerbate tensions by directing bellicose rhetoric at neighbouring states. The region’s politicians will do well to take a page out of Renzi’s response to the Berlin attacks.
The second politician whose actions are worthy of emulation is Barack Obama, who arrived in Cuba recently in an effort to rejuvenate ties with the Latin American nation. In a televised address to the Cuban people, the US President put more than 50 years of ideological conflict to rest by declaring that he had come to “to bury the last remnants of the Cold War”.
Narendra Modi’s unscheduled visit to Islamabad in December 2015 to visit Nawaz Sharif also comes to mind. Modi reached out to Pakistan, as part of an ambitious tour of South Asia, all in a bid to galvanize regional cooperation and implement his administration’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.
Although such visits by the Heads of States are important, what South Asia needs from Modi and Sharif is a declaration of an unconditional commitment to peace, forgiveness and a complete turnaround from the past. Political declarations often ring hollow in the face of realpolitik, as illustrated by the unofficial blockade of Nepal’s borders in October 2015 by New Delhi, just months after a successful tour of the Himalayan country by the Indian Prime Minister.
However, the importance of peaceful messages from political leadership at this crucial time for South Asia cannot be underestimated. Never before has the thrust towards regional cooperation been greater. Landmark agreements have been signed between India and Bangladesh and India and Nepal on land boundaries and hydroelectric projects respectively. The missing link in the puzzle is the existence of an inviolable state of peace between India and Pakistan, two of the largest economies in the region.
A declaration by the Indian or Pakistani leadership rejecting the use of violence and committing to non-interference won’t resonate with all stakeholders in the conflict, some of whom are beyond the control of state apparatuses. Nonetheless, such a declaration can convince the wider South Asian citizenry of the commitment by India and Pakistan to distance themselves from years of conflict, for the sake of the future generations of their countries, as well as that of the region.