Saturday, 3 June, 2023

South Asia’s Geopolitical Traction

Chandra D. Bhatta

South Asia, as a region, has seen many ups and down. Most of the ‘states’ of the region are entangled both in inter and intra state conflicts. The inter-state conflicts have existed for long and carry some sort of historical baggage coming mainly from the process of the state formation. Some of the today’s political problems in the region are also part of this state formation process. The situation of South Asia, therefore, is complicated to the extent that despite having ‘shared history’ only few are willing to appreciate and accept the story of their historical reality. 

In contrast, some of the states have moved towards diametrically opposite direction. In addition to the problems brought about by the state formation process, the region also has been a flash point of great power rivalry and conflicts in the past. There are high chances that such rivalry would prevail even in the days to come. Many reasons could have been cited as to why South Asia has become such a 'flash point'. The most important factor, among others, could be the ‘strategic location’ of the region followed by other factors such as ‘demographic dividend’ which is needed to expand market liberalism but also to dump 'ideas and ideologies' (political liberalism) in order to maintain status quo in the world politics. 

Make no mistake, the region also is the centre to have an access to both China and Central Asia (mainly Russia) whose role in the world politics in the days to come would be phenomenal. It is also the place where one of the oldest and living ‘civilisation’ – Hindu/Sanatan - is located. The region also has some of the states who have re-emerged economically and politically powerful in recent times. There are other factors, yet these ones are more significant as they can exert more impact in the world politics in the days ahead. Similarly, the 'region' itself have substantial capacity and potential to impose its own 'hegemony' in the world politics in the upcoming days in various forms. The world politics, indeed, has always been divided into two poles: east and west. No other region in the world has this benefit - neither in the past nor in the present, nor even in the future. 

Whether one agrees or not the world politics for the last 2,000 years have revolved around these two poles. Even the Great Britain got its legitimacy of Imperial Power not from another region, but from (South) Asia only. Same goes for the later year superpowers USA and the then USSR. Therefore, strategy of the established power would be to have 'controlled stability' the region in whatever way they can. For now, irrespective of the intentions and perceptions are, the crux of the matter is such that there are lesser chances of ‘cooperation’ and higher chances of ‘conflict’ in the region under the extant set up. 

While visiting the region in 1999, former US President Bill Clinton termed South Asia as one of the most dangerous places on earth. If we also go by the press, South Asia, often, has been portrayed as the 'critical region' in the world. What makes the region so 'critical' might be important to ponder upon. The answer to its criticality, inter alia, hinges upon 'inter and intra state conflicts' that we pointed out in the beginning in addition to other reasons. In the course of such conflicts, some of the countries mainly two archrival: India and Pakistan have even went on becoming ‘nuclear power’ which certainly gives leeway to make such sensitive claims. 

India and Pakistan have been witnessing 'intermittent conflicts' of both types: ‘armed’ and ‘civilian’ for nearly seventy plus years now. These conflicts have erupted right after their formation as the 'nation-states' in the modern sense of the term. Because the state formation process was such painful that its scars are not going to be healed so easily as we expect. In fact, South Asia, whose present is haunted by the past, compared to other regions, became more conflict prone with this division. For centuries, most of the current South Asian states were either colonised or protectorate of the colonial power(s). 

Departure of the colonial power from the region was celebrated but, to our dismay, those powers have also left lasting impact on the body politics of the region. The regional states were divided both vertically and horizontally on various lines ‘religious, ethnic and territorial’ and the factors related to division sowed the seed of the latent conflicts in the region. Therefore, commenting on the events at the face value or citing 'democracy and freedom' as an indicator without understanding the nitty-gritty of the pain the region went through is of no use. It is this pain which has brought the region to the situation where it is now. 

The end of the Cold War has brought momentous changes in the world politics. The most notable ones, among others, yet again were occurred in South Asia. Prior to 1945, as we said earlier, the situation in the region was different. Some of the today’s states were not even born then. If we look back, from 1945 until 1990 region was embroiled in the Cold War politics staged by the Super powers. During this time, Afghanistan witnessed the proxy war fought mainly by the Mujaheedens fighters. After the collapse of the USSR (now Russia) and triumph of the so-called liberal world order, South Asia fell into the deeper gorge. The Mujaheeden who were fighting in Afghanistan on behalf of Americans against the Soviet Union became ‘free-rider’ in the region. The region now saw the proliferation of ‘non-state actors’ who had no clear locus standi yet challenges the very raison d’être of the nation-states. As harsh it may sound, but some of the states truly became their victims. It is them who later came together and attacked the symbol of Western liberal order in 9/11 in 2001.

Recent development in the region – Kashmir crisis - intense conflict between India and Pakistan, arrival of China in the region and strong presence of the US will have profound impact in the regional order. The power struggle manifested in various forms both by the state and non-state actors is not only dangerous for the stability and peace but would cost heavily on the internal political stability of some of the individual states. 

What role SAARC can play to minimise the conflict? It is beyond the scope and capacity of the SAARC. In contrast, SAARC may disappear from the vicinity if the conflict continues. The symptoms of its extinction are already visible. Principally, regional organisations might have a role to play but in practice they can do little because it’s the ‘sovereign' states who are actors in the international politics. The idea of shared sovereignty or Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is not going to find its place in today's world at a time when ‘nationalism', once again, is in the driving seat. If 'nationalism' and 'state identity' were not the issues, perhaps Brexit would not have happened. 

The race for ‘regionalism’ has taken the back gear. We are not in 1980s and 1990s when debate on regionalism was at its zenith. Under these circumstances, the role of the regional organisation including that of SARRC has simply disappeared. Nepal as a Chair of the SAARC is pushing for meeting of the SARRC Foreign Minister in New York which certainly is a welcome step but given the intensity of the conflict between India and Pakistan – chances of such meeting providing any tangible results would be very slim.

(Bhatta writes on Political Economy of Democracy and Development)