Political disputes, conflicts and violence either within individual states, or between or among neighbouring SAARC states hamper economic cooperation in the region, says former Foreign Secretary Nihal Rodrigo in a research paper he submitted at the International conference on “Towards An Asian Century: Future Of Economic Cooperation in SAARC Countries.” The conference was organised by [...]

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Replacing conflict with peace in South Asia


Political disputes, conflicts and violence either within individual states, or between or among neighbouring SAARC states hamper economic cooperation in the region, says former Foreign Secretary Nihal Rodrigo in a research paper he submitted at the International conference on “Towards An Asian Century: Future Of Economic Cooperation in SAARC Countries.” The conference was organised by the Islamabad Policy Research Institute and held in Islamabad.

Titled ‘Replacing conflict with peace in South Asia,’ Ambassador Rodrigo’s research paper analyses the viability of SAARC and the role of China in the region.

Mr. Rodrigo was also Secretary General of SAARC, Ambassador to China, Ambassador to the United Nations, and Honorary Adviser to Sri Lanka’s President.

We publish below the first part of an edited version of the research paper:

Sri Lanka has replaced a violent conflict with productive peace in the island, ending decades during which its people have had to suffer the separatist mono-ethnic terrorism of the so-called “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” (LTTE). The terrorist organisation has on its record, the assassination of a Sri Lanka President, an Indian Prime Minister, a Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar ( himself an independent, brilliant member of the Tamil community the security of which the LTTE claimed to be protecting), as well as tens of thousands of civilians, including religious figures and politicians. Many issues do, however, remain to be settled in Sri Lanka at the human and developmental levels to sustain continued peace. Human rights groups, however, continue to place undue emphasis on the “final stages” of the conflict with the LTTE, but remain soft and even silent on Government attention paid to humanitarian aspects such as providing civilians essential food and medical care in areas then under LTTE control.

Nevertheless, the Joint Statement issued by the Secretary General of the United Nations and the Government of Sri Lanka, at the end of May 2009 following his visit to the country and tours over conflict areas, provided a relatively balanced first hand assessment of the situation. The Statement indicated, inter alia, that Sri Lanka had “entered a new Post-Conflict beginning” in which the Government and people would be dealing with “the immediate and long term challenges relating to the issues of relief, rehabilitation, resettlement and reconciliation”. The economic aspects of rehabilitation have been heightened and India, as Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour, has also been engaged in contributing to the process. The present Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, Y.K. Sinha has indicated that over 13,000 housing units in the former conflict areas would be completed with Indian assistance by the end of 2013. The UN Security Council also issued a consensual press statement through its Chairman which acknowledged “the legitimate right of the Government of Sri Lanka” to combat terrorism. The statement demanded in the concluding stages of the conflict ( for which period, Sri Lanka is still being blamed by various groups and TV channels wanting viewers), that it was the LTTE that needed to “lay down its arms and allow tens of thousands of civilians mostly innocent Tamils (as their human shields) in the conflict zone to leave”. The LTTE forced tens of thousands of civilians, including women and children into the conflict zones to serve as its human shields.

Domestic issues affecting S. Asian cooperation in the emerging Asian century

The Commonwealth Summit took place in Sri Lanka from November 15 to 17, adopting a consensual Declaration. Preparatory encounters involving the youth, civil society and the corporate sector contributed to its substance. Five of the countries among the eight members of SAARC (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka) are members of the Commonwealth. India, Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour, has been a major factor in assisting the process of economic re-development in the conflict-affected areas. However, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh regretted his inability to lead the Indian delegation to the Commonwealth Summit Conference. Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid headed the delegation. The Prime Minister’s non-participation was due entirely to certain internal ethno-centric conflicts within India’s own complex domestic political framework. These factors are being widely projected as having an influence on India’s own democratic national elections. The votes of Tamil Nadu state are being considered as essential for the Congress Party to return to power in the national elections.

Virtually all the SAARC countries are now committed to democratic forms of Government and election processes. None of the SAARC countries is monolithic in its ethnic, religious or social composition. This has its impact, internally on governance, on bilateral relations, on conflicts with neighbours, as well as in respect of relations with other member states of SAARC. Indeed, when the last SAARC Summit took place in Addu Atoll in the Republic of Maldives in November 2011, a Maldivian media handout on the myriad social and other aspects of the South Asian region were projected as reaching “across one hundred languages, across ten major religions, across one-fifth of the world population, across the lowest lying islands to the highest mountains”. The last two references were respectively to Addu Atoll in the Southern Hemisphere and Mount Everest in Nepal in the Himalayas.

File photo: Chinese engineers at work during the construction of the Hambantota port, which has been described by the Booz-Hamilton-Allen security think tank in the United States as a part of China’s string of pearls in South Asia

Election processes, within the individual South Asian countries, are adversely affected by such myriad factors. Equally, they have a tendency to creep into bilateral relations and indeed adversely impact on South Asian regional cooperation as well. If and when they degenerate into disputes, conflicts or violence, either within individual states, or between/among neighbouring SAARC states, economic cooperation would be hampered in the region. This is despite its major potential and its rising expectations to contribute to, and benefit by, the emerging Asian Century.

Apart from contemporary aspects of political conflict within South Asian states which are affecting national as well as regional economic cooperation and growth, bilateral complexities between states have also been addressed to some extent through diplomatic means. The SAARC Charter, when being drafted, came to include the stipulation that “bilateral and contentious issues” should not be included for discussion in the Association’s formal agenda as they could cause conflicts and jeopardise consensual decisions and action. However, pragmatically, all SAARC Summits do, informally, provide space, time and opportunities for bilateral close encounters of the confidential kind which, of course need to take place outside the formal meetings of conferences. Such informal confidential bilateral engagements have, in the past, helped considerably in easing tensions and providing space for seeking pragmatic solutions to bilateral and contentious issues and for maintaining some regional economic impetus. In 1999, a SAARC ministerial meeting taking place in the salubrious Sri Lankan hill resort, called Nuwara Eliya, was expected to take a decision on a definite time frame for the next Summit scheduled for Nepal. The forest resort provided opportunities for a confidential Walk in the Woods by the Foreign Ministers of India and Pakistan. This private encounter certainly helped clear some sensitive aspects, as well as facilitate decisions for the convening of one of SAARC’s earliest corporate meetings. In 2000, the South Asian Business Leaders’ Summit in Karnataka, India took place, attended by ministers as well. It also contributed to help clear the road to the 11th SAARC Summit. The corporate sector’s practical approaches towards furthering mutually economic benefits among SAARC countries have been a major asset which their Governments appreciate. To some extent, it has also helped tone down traditional (even historical?) bilateral political complications in favour of the larger context of regional economic cooperation which brings better results for their respective people.

The genuine engagement of the people is a primary aspect of democracy which is essential to replace conflict with a peace that can endure. This needs to extend beyond the election processes, however regularly they may be held. In many economic processes, projects however beneficial they may be seen to be by Governments, do need in the long term, the support of the affected people and their engagement. Conflicts with the public are often involved, setting back peace and obstructing development projects which may be ill-conceived. At the last SAARC Summit held in the Maldives in 2011, some Heads of State were alive to, and articulated on circumstances under which some development measures could be harmful to the public and even cause conflict. For example, Nepal’s Prime Minister Bhaburam Bhattarai referred to “the increasing gap between rich and poor that had given way to enormous stress on social harmony… peace and security” in the region. His point was that socio-economic processes vitally needed to be “genuinely people-centred and justice-based” and not lead to conflict. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, noting that while conflict had indeed been replaced by peace in his own country, did warn however, that there was also “a mood of great urgency, even of impatience (as) a large part of our societies consist of young people, inspired by new ideas and looking forward to a promising future. Patience is not infinite”

As I had indicated at a South Asia-China Cooperation Conference in Kunming in June this year, democratic governance clearly needs to protect and preserve rural communities from the dangers of excessive greedy corporate exploitation that could lead to damage and destruction of dwindling forest reserves and pollution of water resources which sustain rural communities. These resources are, in effect, part of a nation’s vital natural environment. Replacing Conflict with Peace alone, without providing inclusive development, would not endure. Mass demonstrations by the people have taken place throughout SAARC countries, including, for example, in India where thousands have agitated for early, conclusive action against gender, social and caste discrimination. Prof. Ratna Kapur has described the cruel gang rape and killing of a female student on December 12th last year as “the crisis of Indian masculinity” which “occurring with alarming regularity” compels the country “to reflect upon who we are as a society”.

The Indian Ocean Region

Apart from the political, economic, social and security factors interwoven within the complex internal fabric of individual SAARC countries which cross borders causing impediments to positive, people-centric regional cooperation, the prospects of peace and security in South Asia are also obviously affected by global developments which figure in the Asian Century.

These include, for example, perilous volatile developments and non-traditional security threats affecting peace in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Global developments and issues, including in the Middle East Region, have muddled peace considerably. The United States, the world’s largest economy and military power, which had involved itself in the Middle East, is currently seeking to “pivot” to a focus on the Indo-Pacific which it considers essential for its own perceived security concerns, economic connectivity and national interests.

This affects the South Asian region as well as also South East Asia and East Asia. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are located in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). In terms of economic, human, security and other connectivity, the Indian Ocean is one of the most widely traversed oceans in the world. The 13th Meeting of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IORARC) which met in Australia’s Indian Ocean city, Perth in November, identified the following main characteristics of the Indian Ocean. It is the third largest of the world’s oceans; the people living in the IOR account for almost 40 per cent of the total world population; Indian Ocean ports (including Pakistan’s Gwadar, Sri Lanka’s Colombo and Hambantota, and Bangladesh’s Chittagong) handle over 30 per cent of global trade; around 60 per cent of sea-borne oil trans-shipments cross the Ocean; and 40 per cent of the world’s gas reserves are in the Indian Ocean region. It is a vital region that affects progress towards the Asian Century. Sri Lanka is situated in the virtual centre of the Indian Ocean.

The Indian Ocean also provides sinister under-world criminal connectivity for internationalised criminal cartels involved in people smuggling, drug trafficking, gun-running, credit card frauds and cyber-crimes. Some elements within the rump residue of the LTTE which have been involved in these activities have also allied themselves with these globalised cartels, including even with Somali pirates who have posed major threats to fishermen from the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Piracy, according to World Bank estimates, costs the global economy around US$ 18 billion annually in increased trade costs. Illegal fishing, carried out through resource-destructive methods by larger neighbours is another threat faced by Sri Lanka on which talks are due.

The Booz-Hamilton-Allen security think tank in the United States (from within which Ed Snowden emerged and later chose to expose) anticipating China’s rise, postulated that, across the Indian Ocean, “a string of pearls” (later more ominously even described as “a necklace of thorns” ) had been placed around India by China to cripple, if not strangle it. The so-called necklace consists of Indian Ocean naval points and ports in SAARC countries, specified by Booz-Hamilton-Allen as being centred in Pakistan (Gwadhar), Sri Lanka (Hambantota), Bangladesh (Chittagong) as well as Sitwe (Myanmar ) in South East Asia. All these ports are certainly being developed with considerable economic and technical assistance from China. Such engagement, Booz-Hamilton-Allen implied, has been to primarily serve the selfish strategic security interests of China in the Indian Ocean region which the think-tank concluded was endangering Indian as well as US interests in the Indo-Pacific region as the Asian Century was dawning.

The US “pivot to the Indo-Pacific” is seen by some in this context. Shyam Saran, a former Special Envoy of the Indian Prime Minister has assessed some time ago that around 70 per cent of shipping to and from Indian ports is being handled by the port of Colombo. He has indicated also that a great deal of Indian break-bulk also needs to be handled through Colombo. Hambantota is being developed to take pressure off Colombo and provide commercial connectivity and not to strangle India.

In fact, in 2008, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and China’s (then) Prime Minister Wen Jia Bao, signed a historic document entitled “A Shared Vision for the 21st Century”. The two countries agreed to assume what was described as “a significant historical responsibility” to promote “comprehensive, balanced and sustainable development in Asia and the world as a whole”. The document also clearly rejected “drawing lines on the basis of ideology and values or on geographical criteria as not conducive to peaceful and harmonious development”. There is no cold war type of animosity between India and China though described as, respectively, the world’s largest democracy and the world’s largest Communist country.

China has certainly played a major role in building naval linkages to provide it easier connectivity across the Indian Ocean which benefits South Asian and other countries as well. This is not a recent phenomenon. The Chinese navigator Zheng He had sailed in naval fleets across the Indian Ocean as early as the 15th Century. In fact his fleet of ships had even reached the eastern shores of the present United States before Christopher Columbus was said to have “discovered” America. Zheng He’s ships have landed in India, Sri Lanka and other Asian countries for economic reasons. A stone inscription of the period in Arabic and Chinese discovered near the Southern harbor of Galle has been dated, by archaeologists, as having been erected in 1411. It praises Sri Lanka for its faith and belief in the pacifist philosophy of Buddhism.

Strategic Maritime Cooperation in South Asia and Beyond in the Asian Century

Sri Lanka has launched a wide-ranging global consultative process described as the Galle Dialogue which has already held four annual Sessions to build greater synergies and cooperation in the Indian Ocean and beyond. Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has emphasised the need for regional cooperation to face the island’s common challenges by harmonising its naval resources and capabilities.

The 2012 Galle Dialogue was held under the theme “Strategic Maritime Cooperation & Partnerships to Face the Future with Confidence”. Defence Secretary Rajapaksa, stated that “throughout history, the Indian Ocean has been a major conduit of international exploration, migration and commerce”. He indicated clearly that, in the current age, “the overall security and stability of the entire Indian Ocean region is critical for the global economy… (and that) fostering greater cooperation and partnership amongst the naval powers active in the region is necessary to support the future prosperity of the Indian Ocean region”. The role of the armed services should not be seen as an obstruction to peace as endeavored by many think-tanks.

Most significantly, dismissing the Booz-Hamilton-Allen theory, he asserted the strength of Sri Lanka’s relations with both India and China and described China’s support for building Hambantota as “commercial in nature and not to be misconstrued as fitting the ‘string of pearls’ paradigm”. In fact, Hambantota is one aspect of Sri Lanka’s “Five Hub Growth Strategy” which aims to position and build the island as a global Naval, Aviation, Commercial, Energy and Knowledge Centre.

The Asian Development Bank on “Realizing the Asian Century”

Apart from some variations in national responses, as a region, all countries of South Asia, under SAARC, agree on the need to cooperate in economic and other activities to promote and facilitate the emergence of the Asian Century rather than being excessively inward-looking and domestic-oriented.

In August 2012, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) presented its Report “Asia 2050 : Realising the Asian Century” at the Emerging Markets Forum in Tokyo. In introducing the report, the ADB President indicated clearly that the Asian Century could not be that of Asia alone but be the century “of shared global prosperity”. The Report covered national, regional and global aspects. It postulated that if Asian countries continued on “its recent trajectory, by 2050 its per capita income could rise six-fold in purchasing power parity (PPP) to reach Europe’s levels (of) today”. Caution was part of the Report’s thrust when it indicates that Asia’s rise is “by no means pre-ordained”. To summarise: it stressed the following “multiple risks and challenges” that needed to be dealt with: the inequality within countries that could undermine social cohesion and stability; intense competition for finite natural resources as the newly affluent Asians aspire to higher living standards; income disparities across countries that could destabilise them; global warming and climate changes; poor governance; and weak institutional capacity being faced by virtually all countries.

The ADB Report in summary states that building Asia’s regionalism will require “collective leadership that recognises a balance of power” among “Asia’s major economic powers” identified as the People’s Republic of China, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Singapore. China has territorial issues to contend with in its bilateral relations with India, Japan, Philippines and others in ASEAN which could complicate the Asian Century. Ren Xiao of Fudan University’s Centre for the Study of Chinese Foreign Policy has stated that “as China grows, its maritime power also grows. China’s neighbouring countries should be prepared and become accustomed to this.”

(The second part of this article will appear next week)

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