The 11th summit of South Asian nations, held earlier this month in the Nepalese capital of Katmandu, was long on pomp and short on substance, given the magntude of the threat facing the region.
The talks, held under the auspices of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), ended without clearing the clouds of war over Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Thus, a potential time bomb continues ticking in a region with more than 20 percent of the world’s population.
Tensions have skyrocketed in the wake of the Dec. 13 terrorist attack at the Indian Parliament carried out by suspected Pakistan-supported separatist insurgents in Kashmir. The attack had raised the possibility of a SAARC postponement.
The summit, however, took place, owing mainly to the behind-the-scenes lobbying of U.S. diplomats in Islamabad and New Delhi.
The summit was a morale booster for Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba of the host country, Nepal, which is fighting Maoist insurgents with all the might at its disposal.
The summit signed two regional conventions on “the prevention of women and children trafficking for the purpose of prostitution” and “regional child welfare.”
The summiteers also adopted the Katmandu Declaration, agreeing to commit themselves to 56 points on various issues such as poverty alleviation and economic development.
The Katmandu Declaration highlighted the growing menace of terrorism. The leaders also expressed their determination to coordinate anti-terrorism efforts at the national and regional levels to strengthen the global response to this threat to international security.
Despite the common determination to suppress terrorism, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf clearly disagreed on the definition of “terrorism.” The Kashmiri militants seeking independence from India continue to be “legitimate freedom fighters” for Pakistan, while India considers them “terrorists.”
SAARC has failed to emerge as a regional security organization on the model of NATO, mainly because of its inability to affect such issues as the hostilities between Pakistan and India.
South Asia a region comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka is as well-demarcated geographically as any region in the world.
Despite the well-defined external boundaries, South Asia’s record on regional cohesion is unimpressive. The successive summits since 1985 have failed to provide any common outlook to solve regional problems.
The prime factors of state-to-state relations in South Asia have been the political geography, the legacy of colonialism, differences in language and culture, the communication system, economic conditions, political systems and elite structure, and the role played by external powers.
The Hindu and Muslim religions determine the political boundaries of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The open border between India and Nepal has been a source of irritation for both countries for it provides a corridor for smugglers, criminals and terrorists escaping law enforcement on both sides of the boundary.
In recent years, India has been saying Pakistani intelligence is sending “subversive elements” into India by way of the Indo-Nepal open border. In the northwest, the Afghan-Pakistan border is a well-known haven for crossborder drug traffickers and, lately, for Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists.
Prior to the decolonization in 1947, South Asia operated under a single foreign policy of defending the interests of the British Empire.
The British withdrawal and the subsequent partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan brought about a fundamental change in the power equation of South Asia. The region now constituted four independent countries India, Pakistan, Nepal and Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then known.
South Asia’s geopolitical map in the early 1970s emerged with seven countries with the addition of the Maldives, Bangladesh and Bhutan.
The emergence of seven independent countries with asymmetrical power configuration in the region affected the respective foreign-policy processes and their perception of foreign policy and the security environment.
For each of the countries, the region itself became the primary focus of foreign policy. India has been the single most decisive factor in Pakistan’s security policy. Apart from some marginal global and regional issues, Pakistan has occupied a substantial place in India’s security policy-making process.
For Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan, India has been the single largest factor in their security policies. The relations of these regional Lilliputians with China and the external big powers are intended to counterbalance India’s domination.
The post-partition elite ruling each of these countries tended to prolong rather than resolve the disputes.
With the passing away of the post-partition elite, a new group emerged in South Asia, which took the initiative to organize SAARC in the 1980s. While doing so, they hoped that frequent interactions and agreements on noncontroversial issues would ultimately spill over into cooperative relationship in “high politics,” such as the issues of military security.
Article 10 of the SAARC Charter prohibits the leaders from engaging in discussion of contentious bilateral issues. Both India and Pakistan imposed the prohibition at the time of the creation of the organization.
As Bangladesh and Nepal floated the proposal for a regional organization, India viewed the move as an attempt by smaller neighbors to gang up on New Delhi. Pakistan, on the other hand, suspected that such as organization would institutionalize India’s regional dominance.
As a result, a compromise was made, in which the formal meeting could not discuss the “contentious bilateral issues,” but leaders could meet and discuss such issues informally during a break at the retreat.
Mr. Musharraf wanted such an informal meeting with Mr. Vajpayee, but the latter adamantly refused to meet the former except for a formal handshake. As a result, the military buildup along the 1,100-mile India-Pakistan border is in danger of escalating into full-scale war between the two nuclear rivals.
Chitra Tiwari, Ph.D., has been a lecturer of political science at Nepal’s Tribhuvan University. He lives in Northern Virginia and works as a free-lance analyst on international affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org