Stitch in time

  • There is an immediate need to come up with a regional security framework for South Asia that includes China
- Safal Ghimire
Stitch in time

Sep 11, 2014-

As the 18th Saarc Summit is around the corner, the government is busy sweeping up the streets of Kathmandu and planting flowers alongside. But preparations on beautifying the city seem to have overridden concerns about regional cooperation and security.

As of now, the power of military giants looms large in our neighbourhood, as their defence expenditure rises steadily. Last year, Pakistan increased its defence budget by nearly 15 percent. This March, China announced a hike of 12.2 percent, and India raised its budget by 12.5 percent. So among nations, there seems to be a growing sense of mutual distrust, internal jeopardy, political instability, and growing military ambitions. Furthermore, security issues relating to cyberspace, telecommunication and climate change, along with migration, connect us at an unprecedented level. Any efforts at staying isolated and insulated as far as security matters are concerned is, therefore, impossible.

Furthermore, every single country these days attracts attention from multiple power poles. But such ‘multi-lateralisation’ of players in security is contrary to the concept of sovereignty. No matter how much one tries, insular sovereignty, at least in matters of security, cannot work in our region due to structural reasons. Therefore, the much-talked about external involvement in internal security should be broken down and scrutinised.

Conflicting notions

The notion of sovereignty envisions the individuality of nations. But security cooperation involves multiple sovereignties. A rejection of any external role in internal security fails to incorporate subverted international needs and interests. Multi-lateralisation of security is a challenge to single sovereignty. Nonetheless, denying space for transnational actors in security could be a risky step in international relations. It also does not comply with security needs in an interconnected world.

Countries in the same region share similar security challenges because of political, technical, economic, educational and other exchanges between constituent nations. The security of one country is interdependent on the other, especially along the borders of adjacent states. In that context, West Africa is an example of how violence spills into surrounding countries and the Arab region is an example of how anti-state protests spread.

Neighbouring territories suffer common security threats, which need a concerted effort to be tackled. Beyond military and political security, interdependent security functions might also be linked to societal, economic, environmental, and cultural issues. So it is essential to acknowledge the multiple links in security and sovereignty that prevail and are sustained in an interconnected setting.

Interlinked problems

Studies suggest that three variables are crucial in regional security cooperation: regional structure, regional power roles, and regional power orientation. All these variables are sensitive in our context and call upon all actors to sit together and discuss. Some might fear that creating a regional security architecture and working regionally could constitute a regionalism effect in international relations. But this should not be understood as an act of isolation from the rest of the world. Rather, it is a concerted effort to address area-specific security and political economic concerns.

Taking the example of our own neighbourhood, when there is a need for inter-state collaboration, the countries seem busy addressing intra-state problems. Income disparity, different movements for autonomy, and combating terrorism and insurgency are major challenges for India. In Bangladesh, its democracy and electoral system is itself under question. Afghanistan is unsure about its post-2014 future, after the exit of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) forces. Nepal has yet to emerge from of its post-war transition. And though the Sri Lankan government won its war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), it has not yet addressed the root causes of the war itself. Bhutan claims to be a happy nation but restricts critical voices against the regime while China is facing secessionist and right-based movements.

But all these issues are more or less intertwined. For example, conflicts in North-East India and Balochistan in Pakistan have multinational connections.

Nepal-India and Pak-Afghan cross-border crimes, human trafficking from Bangladesh, Sino-India border disputes, spillover effects of Afghan conflicts, and the restive Tibet region with roots down to Nepal and India depict a number of security issues that interconnect this region.

South Asia shares some more common security threats, which include smuggling of illegal drugs and endangered species, money laundering, terrorism financing, religious extremism, nuclear rivalry, internal insurgency, sub-national conflicts, electoral complications, and proliferation of small arms. Furthermore the region also includes nations with nuclear capabilities. Every single issue here needs multiple actors to work together.

Time to collaborate

No country is in a position to survive without keeping its eyes and ears open to security issues in its vicinity. Hence, the regional security architecture in South Asia—including China—is a must to collectively address pressing issues. Such a mechanism should go beyond Saarc members and Interpol formalities at the operational as well as academic level.

Meanwhile, in the absence of regional security cooperation, global superpowers have become more politically and militarily active in this region. Warding off such regional problems is only possible through collaboration, but one should be cautious, so that regional suzerainty does not emerge in that process.

Ghimire is a PhD Candidate in Conflict, Peace and Security at the University of New England, Australia

Published: 12-09-2014 09:20

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