South Asia needs economic integration, not political fissures

South Asia needs economic integration, not political fissures

The South Asian experience has demonstrated that political factors can cause long-lasting breakdown of establishment of economic links

The South Asian region comprises India, Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. The region has the Great Himalayas to the north and the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea in the south, east and west, which makes it a distinctive social, linguistic and cultural subcontinent. Some analysts include Afghanistan and Myanmar with this region due to undefined/unmarked boundaries in the east and west. The region is strategically located and has some amazing topography, enormous natural resources, the oldest religions and civilisation. Yet in spite of all these blessed features, the region suffers from un-necessary wars and conflicts. It is imperative for us to understand that South Asia needs peace more than ever before. This region is an area of many internal strifes as well as global conflicts. It provided space to the superpowers during the cold war period. It has witnessed a series of conflicts pertaining to border, water sharing, insurgencies, ethnic conflicts and resources. The states need to cooperate so that this region can develop and prosper.
South Asia has emerged as a regional entity in the international political system with the creation of SAARC but this has failed to strengthen regional cohesiveness. Regional cooperation in South Asia cannot be said to have evolved into a complete bloc in terms of ‘regionalism and economic integration’, due mainly to the prevalence of conflict over the desire of peace and stability. Given the historical legacy and contemporary reality of widespread conflicts and mistrust in the region, the fact that the formal cooperation process in the region has survived recurrent setbacks is testimony to the resilience of the organisation. The hostile nature of international relations with large sets of outstanding issues, low levels of intra-SAARC trade and joint economic ventures, inadequate information and infrastructure facilities, independent and largely uncoordinated economic policies pursued by each country in the subcontinent and increasing ‘militarisation’ and ‘religionisation’ of the region are all indicators of lack of ‘region-ness’ and herald a bleak future for any type of sustainable economic integration.
It is one of the basic assumptions of liberal thinkers that economics or trade shapes the politics or political policies of nations, but in the context of South Asia it is quite to the contrary; it is the politics or political policies that shapes the economics of the countries here. The South Asian states give priority to politics over economics or trade relations, which is one of the reasons why South Asia has remained the least integrated region in the world. Thus, South Asian nations need to learn lessons from other parts of the world (such as neighbouring Southeast Asia and the European Union) which prove the fact that regional organisations have thrived mainly on cooperation in trade and economic relations. The emergence of several trading blocks and economic groupings all over the world clearly indicates that economic survival and prosperity of any nation in this increasingly competitive post-Cold War era crucially depend on their ability to successfully integrate with other economies. It must also be remembered that without any integrated economy none of the South Asian countries can ever hope to become significant global players.
No doubt, the realisation of durable peace and the future of economic integration of South Asia depends on the ability and interest of South Asian leaders to resolve domestic as well as long-standing differences; this does not mean that political difference or high politics should always be prioritised. But how soon and to what extent they will achieve success can be judged through action rather than pure rhetoric of politicians promoting regional cooperation. Any realistic assessment of the prospects for the growth of economic integration depends on how an individual country addresses existing contentious issues and its commitment in promoting regional cooperation, given the extensive heterogeneity of state formation and economic dynamics in South Asia.
Complementarities in economic structure are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the development of economic relations among countries. The South Asian experience has demonstrated that political factors can cause long-lasting breakdown of establishment of economic links. Furthermore, if peace is to be achieved through integration or vice-versa, a new paradigm of forward-looking process needs to be employed by the South Asian states wherein they can discuss contentious issues such as Kashmir, border problems, distribution of natural resources freely and fairly. In spite of religious and cultural heterogeneity there is no problem at the public level in South Asia – whether one comes from India or Pakistan, Hindu or Muslim they can hug each other without any problem. The centre of the problem lies with ‘high politics’ of the nation states and their agencies.
Therefore, one can argue that these problems have to be addressed for durable peace, otherwise economic integration in South Asia will not bring peace and the process itself will remain at a crossroads. The dilemma with South Asian states is that they are not ready for full-scale economic integration due to the fear psyche of either being swamped into the Indian economy or losing their sovereignty to some extent. They are also literally not ready to solve long-standing political conflicts due mainly to their desire to maintain supremacy over another. At this outset, the concept that full-scale economic integration will lead to peace and hence ‘peace dividend’ is far from reality, at least in the present circumstances that prevail in South Asia.

The writer works at the department of school education and can be reached at [email protected]


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