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South Asian union for peace, progress

Together we can prosper through trade and fight common enemies like poverty, violence, drugs and human trafficking, writes Vipul Mudgal.

india Updated: Jan 22, 2007 02:45 IST

The Immaculate Conception and Commercial – peace scholar J Duncan Wood borrowed the name of this French countryside inn to describe the world we live in. Human motives are invariably a mix of the lofty and the base, and nothing typifies this better than a country’s foreign policy.

It has to chase a nation’s basest interests, without diluting its sublime ideals. But the real test comes when the business of peace is transacted between nations that can best be described as blood relations or brother enemies. All deals have to sidestep history’s tricky faultlines, but fortunately there is commerce.

Stuck in a time warp, somewhere between the grassroots and the globe, the South Asian neighbours have so far reserved a special inflexibility for each other despite shared dreams and vulnerabilities. While rigid foreign policies don’t quite meet midway, a realisation is slowly sinking in that together we can prosper through trade and fight common enemies like poverty, violence, drugs and human trafficking.

Trade as development strategy

As the world’s largest democracy, and its fourth largest economy, India needs to find more of trade, energy, raw material and markets in its own region. Each one of the South Asian countries has similar requirements from India and other neighbours.

A 2006 paper by Research and Information Systems (RIS) fellow, Ram Upendra Das, challenges the myth that regional giants like India would grow at the cost of smaller neighbours. Das shows, through empirical evidence, that regional trade benefits the smaller, underdeveloped countries more than their bigger and more developed neighbours. The study concludes that the cumulative gains of regional commerce are bound to improve trade investment linkages and export competitiveness of each of the participants.

Economic integration as security

A 2006 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) publication concludes that investments in water and energy networks offer greater security payoffs in South Asia than even trade. The networks would have to include oil and gas pipelines, electricity grids and schemes for sharing river waters.

The CEIP study argues that lack of connectivity, political conflicts, trade barriers and impediments to cross-border investments are the primary factors in South Asia’s weak economic integration. In contrast, regional trade between neighbours in other parts of the world has created a trade-security nexus by developing healthy stakes in one another’s’ growth. Intra regional trade in South Asia is only 2 per cent of its combined GDP compared to 37 per cent in NAFTA, 63 per cent in the European Union and 38 per cent in ASEAN. Growing Sino-Indian trade proves that historical rivals can be strategic competitors without sacrificing mutually beneficial trade partnerships.

Is South Asia a coherent bloc?

Foreign policies of much of South Asia seem frozen in rigid adversarial positions. Two main reasons for this are non-resolution of chronic disputes and very little change in domestic political climates. By far, the most positive signs are that India and Pakistan are closer to resolving disputes over Sir Creek and Siachen, and that the idea of modernity is taking root in peoples’ minds all over South Asia.

A regional report, "State of Democracy in South Asia" (SDSA) prepared by a five-nation team led by sociologists Peter R deSouza, Suhas Palshikar and Yogendra Yadav, shows that the domestic climates of South Asian countries and political aspirations of its people have been changing for the better.

Based on extensive surveys, dialogues and case studies, the report shows that individual countries have developed multicultural mores of political and social coalitions. Such societal implosions are bound to have long-term foreign policy consequences. The SDSA report’s conclusion that democracy is the "reigning ideology and aspiration" of the region’s people has important implications for South Asian integration.

First Published: Jan 07, 2007 23:59 IST