Regional Conflicts Hampering Growth in Central & S E Asia By Rashid A Mughal

REGIONAL conflicts in Central & SE Asia continue to put brakes on economic development and growth. The ongoing territorial dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia is creating uncertainty and preventing development in the region. The story of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan agreement, leading to a rather unsuccessful campaign by Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) for suppressing the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, is well known. Indeed it is a complex ongoing story, although both governments are straining hard to prevent the LTTE’s war against Colombo being once again written into the bilateral agenda. The issue is nevertheless explosive, both in its domestic and international dimensions, in both countries. Events in Tamil Nadu, beginning with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and changes in the electoral fortunes of several Tamil Nadu parties among them, illustrate the point.

Bangladesh has fewer internal issues likely to figure on the bilateral agenda with India, except the hardy perennial of the Hindu — Muslim divide, common to all states in the Indo-Gangetic — Brahmputra valleys and more recently the influx of Chakma refugees to India. There are territorial disputes between Bangladesh and India, though smaller in size: the disputes centre on a small piece of territory in the Berubari Union, a tiny new island thrown up by physical changes and the delimitation of economic zones in the Bay of Bengal. Fortunately these disputes have been treated by both governments with restraint and no great mistrust has sprung up over them so far. At least one of them, the Berubari Union, is reported to be on its way to being finally resolved to Bangladesh’s satisfaction. But dividing the waters of the River Ganges between India and Bangladesh, following the completion of Farrakha barrage, remains disputed. Nepal and Bangladesh have agreed to the scientific principle of developing all eastern rivers as systems for the common benefit of the peoples of the entire valleys in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Here India has balked.

There was a time when some favoured a whole region-wide river training programme, such as was implied in an offer of technical and economic aid by the US President John Kennedy in the 1960s. But both India and Pakistan were then lukewarm about the idea. Bilateral issues and demographic compulsions within each state, insofar as Indo-Bhutan and Indo-Nepal relations are concerned, criss-cross. It is a pattern that is conspicuous throughout the region. In theory this could be turned to advantage by adopting a regional approach. India’s preferred bilateral methodology seems to emphasize divisions rather than unities. For the rest, old India’s frontiers have moved in all directions. What is directly relevant is the interplay of two forces: a series of internal disunities among ethnic identities in each successor state of the British Indian Empire are getting mixed up in intra-regional disputes. This threatens both (inherited) modern state structures as well as regional harmony. Ensuring stable regional peace requires much hard work to resolve these polarities. The other element is the intellectual appreciation of the benefits of the regional amity and cooperation. The example of the EC has inspired so many regional cooperation experiments. But SAARC in South Asia remains a stunted growth, inhibited by strong emotions.

South Asian trends, the changes in the USSR, especially in its Asian Republics, tantamount to a veritable earthquake. Successor states in Central Asia are likely to do two things—re-establish cultural, political and economic links with South Asian states, as well as with others in the southern rim of Asia. Second, they would re-orient their economies as autonomous units, diversifying their sources of capital, technology and raw material as well as markets. These economies’ demand and supply alike will be huge. As circumstances are now, a few South Asian economies can offer substantial partnership to them. The only notable surplus in South Asia is manpower, mostly unskilled and illiterate, which is unlikely to be needed. No doubt, India has certain capabilities for providing capital and machinery to new Central Asian states but the level of technology offered by India in terms of both cost and quality is unlikely to have an edge over what the major industrial countries can offer. Second, the new states may need longer-term loans and credits that may virtually exclude South Asians as possibly large trading partners.
Pakistan may also have some capability to provide a few of the needs of those states. But its export surpluses are puny and mostly earmarked for dollar-earning markets. Its capability, in contrast with major industrial powers to be a substantial trading partner of the new states, is much smaller. As markets for the new states, the capability of South Asian states is quite as small due largely to: (a) the poverty of the masses throughout South Asia; and (b) most of their markets being already dominated, if not cornered, by big industrial powers. Nevertheless, there is likely to be much talk about new possibilities of economic cooperation and trade, inspired by memories of ancient trade links between Central Asia and parts of South Asia.

The immediate future is likely to see a political and cultural opening out of the Central Asian States. They will naturally seek to forge links with South Asian states, especially with those that are in the extended South Asia, Iran and Afghanistan. Cultural and political rhetoric of emphasizing the new links is sure to run smack into hard economic facts. Central Asia’s more substantial economic links are sure to be with leading western powers — Japan, the EC, the USA, and other European powers and largely with China. A varying amount of competition among major industrial powers to secure a favourable position in these states, if not to corner their markets or raw material, would pose new political problems — both for the Central Asians and South Asians. International relations in Asia may not run a smooth course, since no one knows what political passions will dominate the new emerging powers in Central Asia. It seems likely that their current ethnic prejudices and emotions based on race, religion, sect, language and nationality would, in fact, define their politics: they would naturally want their own armies and air forces to assert their separate identities and conduct their own rivalries, if not wars. That would offer plums on a platter to established arms manufacturers, and roller coaster politics in the region will ensue. It will inevitably exert rather nasty pulls and pressures on South Asia — a region comprising states that are already internally strife-torn and embroiled in deep mistrust.

— The writer is former DG (Emigration) and consultant ILO, IOM.


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