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Redefining South Asia

A conversation with Nihal Rodrigo Former Secretary General of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)

Q: How would you define the ‘Asian Century’?

Ans: I deem it fit to describe the global changes anticipated as not exclusively tied to the rise of only ‘Chindia’ i.e. China and India, and its future dominance. I prefer to describe the process as ‘The New World Symphony’, with apologies to Dvorak, the composer. Overall harmony, in political and other aspects, rather than confrontational cacophony, is what is currently required in the region.  India and China may be cast as joint composers or conductors playing, in harmony, with all other players, including any soloists playing their own theme without, however, affecting overall harmony. Emerging and established powers must ensure that they serve as group conductors, and emerging voices from the global south, including those in the Asian region, must be taken on board. Currently, there exist a few discordant notes which need to be addressed to ensure symphonic harmony!

Q: Do you see ‘The Asian Century’ as established, emergent or still to be deciphered?

Ans: I would say with conviction that an Asian Century is not yet established though it is well beyond its embryonic stage. The notion is burgeoning, at an exponential rate, and hence I can safely conclude that a new age in global realities is emerging fast.

That said; given factors, beyond the economic such as political and social contingencies, make it uncertain whether the current global trend will eventually lead to a collapse of Western hegemony and influence in international affairs. It is very clear that the West is ever vigilant and conscious of the emerging Asian giants, and this is somewhat indicative from the fact that India was the first country to be invited to Washington following the election of Barack Obama for the first term in 2008, and China was the first country that Barack Obama visited consequent to his arrival in office as the President of the United States of America.

It has been argued that significant challenges and risks need to be managed in order that the dream of ‘The Asian Century’ is realised.

Despite the acknowledged exponential growth, particularly in economic terms, of countries in Asia, a related phenomenon has been the growing inequality within the countries itself, in which wealth and opportunities are seemingly confined to the upper echelons of society, thereby undermining notions of social justice, social cohesion and social stability. Analogous to the economic rise of Asian region, there have also been significant costs to the environment and certain aspects of governance.

Q: How such aspects of governance may be addressed in order to reap the dividends of economic growth in the long-term, given that affluent lifestyles and increasing national growth rates? Further, do you think such a scenario is inevitable or a cause for concern that ought to be addressed strategically?

Ans: It must be noted that the unequal growth within nations in Asia, and its adverse impacts on social security and harmony have been categorically acknowledged, particularly by leaders in South Asia. The most recent examples are from the seventeenth SAARC Summit held in Addu, the Maldives in November 2011. Nepali Prime Minister Dr Baburam Bhattarai at the Addu Summit said:

‘The increasing gap between rich and poor has given way to enormous stress on social harmony, peace and security in the region. The challenge demands that poverty alleviation strategies be comprehensive and that socio-economic processes be more people-centered and justice-based.’

Economic disparities within states, including in SAARC, have bred frustration and led to revolt and revolution particularly in remote rural areas. Poverty alleviation programmes are being promoted in SAARC with varying degrees of connectivity and success. Sri Lanka’s early recourse to poverty alleviation strategies has been successful in the country, which is ahead of all SAARC countries in terms of the UN Human Development Index (HDI). On some aspects, China focuses on models of rural development following on Sri Lanka’s own rural awakening programmes, and we have had exchanges of bilateral delegations for in situ study of related rural experiences. The Chinese programme is similarly called, ‘Back to the Countryside.’

Q: These are the ‘traditional threats’ to countries in the region. How and where would you place the emerging and ‘non-traditional security threats’ of the 21st century?

Ans: In such a discussion, non-traditional security threats must not be overlooked. Major global hazards have emerged for SAARC countries from non-traditional security threats in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), affecting even the landlocked countries. The Indian Ocean is the most traversed Ocean in the world and provides East-West connectivity. It is also resource-rich in terms of fisheries as well as oil, gas and valuable mineral deposits. Indo-Sri Lanka cooperation in oil and gas verification is proceeding. Bilateral issues exist as well with regard to fishing rights. Indian, Maldivian and Sri Lankan fishing communities have been victimised by Somali pirates.

Other non-traditional external security threats faced by SAARC, as well as other countries traversing the IOR, include people-smuggling, gun-running, drug-trafficking and some incidents of kidnappings for ransom.

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