A vision of connectivity

Muhammad Amir Rana

PRESIDENT Donald Trump of the US has shaken the geopolitical landscape of the world in such a way that many nations are struggling to adjust. At present, world politics are quite fluid, which has created more space for Chinese President Xi Jinping to materialise his dream of regional connectivity.

America’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has triggered a process of regional realignments. Some TPP-linked nations, including Japan, India, Vietnam, Australia, and Singapore, are considering prospects for a broader regional security and economic coalition. These nations fear the growth of Chinese influence in the area. Other regions, including the Middle East and central and South Asia, are also reviewing their geopolitical priorities and exploring new avenues of regional cooperation. Changing regional politics are suitable for the growth of the Chinese One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative.

What exactly does the OBOR notion hold? It will provide connectivity in emerging geo-economics with all trade routes leading to China. It will have geostrategic advantages for China and OBOR partners but most importantly, it will foster new regional awakenings beyond cultural, ethnic, historical and civilisational connections among nations.

This is prime time for Pakistan to review the notion of its regional consciousness. As far as this country is concerned, amongst many, it is part of two major regional alliances: the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc).

The SCO is a broader alliance against common security threats, from extremism to narcotics; Pakistan is going to be its functional member in the near future. Full membership will not allow the country to get the benefit of collective advantages of the alliance but to evolve closer economic and strategic relations with different members of the SCO. Saarc is a critical regional alliance, as it perceives not only common economic and political interests but has also emotional and civilisational context for member states.

However, apart from geographical proximity, South Asian nations share little in common. Many scholars even raise the question whether something like ‘South Asianness’ exists between them. Even if there is some cohesion, can common cultural values and civilisational links transform into a regional bond of geo-economic and political cooperation?

Our social and political elite has to grow out of its obsession with ‘South Asianness’.

No doubt South Asian nations share some civilisational and religious traditions, but their ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious diversities have been sources of nationalism in all of them. Each South Asian nation has unique and diverse cultural, ethnic and religious patterns. Some of these expressions might be common to a few nations but in other customs and traditions, they are entirely different. The Saarc website also shows that each nation has different cultural expressions, which is reflected in their dress codes, foods, and customs.

One may argue that people from the same ethnicity could be divided across borders in South Asia such as Punjabis, Bengalis, Tamils, Pakhtuns, the Baloch, etc, but most of these ethnicities have evolved their own cultural and social expressions and feel less proximity with their ethnic fellows across the borders.

The Saarc crisis also shows that South Asian nations must find some other common ground based on mutual economic and political interests. The Indian media and many of its academics have already declared Saarc a dead body. The initiators of the regional forum also appear disinterested. Bangladesh is debating joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations forum. Sri Lanka sees no value in being part of Saarc and feels more proximity with the Asean nations. The disintegration of Saarc has started and South Asianness is losing its context. And even if it holds together, it appears difficult for Saarc to make any difference in the region.

Saarc has been a non-political forum. On the demand of India, a clause was included that bilateral political issues and conflicts will not be discussed here — but India itself exploited the forum for political purposes. The prime objective of Saarc was the promotion of the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and improvement in their quality of life; but it has achieved very little in this regard. India also has attempted a minus-Pakistan formula and is exploring options for alternative regional alliances such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.

Saarc is history now, and Pakistan must explore new avenues for regional cooperation. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as a part of OBOR provides many opportunities to forge regional and bilateral economic and political ties with South Asian, central Asian and Indian Ocean nations. Pakistan can take the initiative of promoting economic cooperation among Arabian Sea nations including Iran, Oman and Yemen, and consider prospects for a border-sea nations’ alliance among Arab states and a few South Asian nations, including Sri Lanka and the Maldives. A similar equation can be found in western and northern neighbours, mainly Afghanistan and Iran. To maximise the benefits of CPEC and gain more economic and political advantages, Pakistan needs to do some out-of-the-box thinking.

The changing geopolitical arena will have multiple advantages for the country, but Pakistan’s social and political elite has to grow out of its obsession with South Asianness. Similarly, the security and political leadership has to rationalise its ties with Arab countries. What is needed is a comprehensive review of the approach to the Middle East. Joining the 39-nation alliance led by Saudi Arabia may not be a bad idea if it will convert into a security, economic and political forum based on the common interests of all members. However, this should not come at the cost of Pakistan’s relations with its immediate neighbour Iran, which also offers enormous potential for economic cooperation. Better bilateral ties can be maintained with the US, Europe, and the rest of the world while prioritising regional connectivity. This is the lesson Pakistan can learn from the OBOR initiative and supplement it with its own vision of connectivity.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn January 29th, 2017

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