Cooperative security in South Asia: Subregional groups can show the way

In SAARC political agenda always dominated social and economic issues, whereas in successful regional organizations like ASEAN and EU, socio-economic issues prevailed over politics, writes Aneek Chatterjee for South Asia Monitor

Aneek Chatterjee Jun 12, 2020
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The idea of cooperative security, which gained credence after the end of the Cold War, refers to activities directed to improve the environment within which nation-states operate and interact with one another. Cooperation among nation-states to minimize the chances of war, and promote peace, is the key objective of cooperative security (CS).  However, CS is not strictly a post-Cold War concept, although it gained popularity during this period. The concept of CS could be traced back to Immanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace”, the 1795 masterpiece. In this essay, Kant wrote, “The law of nations shall be founded on a federation of free states.” 

When Kant referred to a federation of free states, he meant cooperation among these states for establishing peace. Organizations like the League of Nations, the United Nations Organization (UNO), and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have worked for both collective security and CS systems at some point or the other. However, OSCE and NATO could be identified more with the idea of CS in recent times, whereas the League and the UNO worked more as collective security organizations.  

Nowadays, regional organizations like the European Union (EU), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the OSCE also work as organizations to promote peace through CS. After the end of the Cold War, the concept of CS directs more towards socio-economic cooperation among nation-states as a means to promote peace and minimize the chances of war. The scope of such cooperation goes beyond traditional security areas and encompasses non-traditional security issues like climate change, trade and commerce, terrorism, health hazards to name a few. In today’s world, it is not possible for a single nation to address issues like climate change and ecological disasters, health hazards and deadly diseases, terrorism or economic problems. CS system may help nations to face these challenges in a concerted way. If necessary, nations may also cooperate in the area of traditional military security.  


SAARC and Cooperative Security                          

Nearer home, ASEAN’s foray and success in areas of CS leads scholars and analysts to explore the possibility of CS in the South Asian region. The principal regional organization in South Asia, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) had CS in mind from the very beginning. The charter of the SAARC hinted, among other issues, that the organization would be involved in CS in the region. It said:  “Conscious that in an increasingly interdependent world, the objectives of peace, freedom, social justice and economic prosperity are best achieved in the South Asian region by fostering mutual understanding, good neighbourly relations and meaningful cooperation among the member states which are bound by ties of history and culture.” 

A look into SAARC’s ‘area of cooperation’, available on the official website of the organization, also suggests SAARC’s desire to work in areas of CS. Further, SAARC ‘social charter’, issued in the year 2004 and ‘agreement on South Asian free trade area (SAFTA) in the same year; ‘agreement on establishing the SAARC food bank’ in 2007 to meet emergency food requirements of member states; ‘agreement for the establishment of South Asian University’ in 2007; SAARC ‘convention on cooperation on Environment’, proclaimed in the year 2010; ‘SAARC development fund’, created in 2010 et.al. indicate SAARC’s engagements in areas of CS.

Sub-regional groups a good step 

However, creations of all these important mechanisms for regional cooperation notwithstanding, SAARC’s role in fostering CS through regional cooperation in the last 35 years (since its inception in 1985), has not been exemplary. SAARC could not rise to the initial expectations due to lack of trust between the two principal members, India and Pakistan. For instance, despite the creation of SAFTA, intra-SAARC trade has been low. Further, the menace of terrorism could not be wiped out from the region despite the existence of mechanisms such as ‘SAARC regional convention on suppression of terrorism’, adopted as early as in 1987; and many other declarations issued after each annual summit. The issue of terrorism in South Asia further cements mistrust and schism in the normal functioning of SAARC. In SAARC political agenda always dominated social and economic issues, whereas in successful regional organizations like ASEAN and EU, socio-economic issues prevailed over politics. As a consequence, SAARC remained confined to grandiose rhetoric, rather than finding ways for proper implementation of its objectives and programmes.

SAARC’S weaknesses, however, may not be viewed as a constraint in strengthening CS in South Asia. While SAARC will continue to function as the principal regional organization for achieving socio-economic cooperation among member states, smaller sub-regional groupings may be formed for cooperation at the micro and macro levels. Groupings of few nations within a region for cooperation in areas of mutual interest have been operational in Europe for a long time. In fact, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), considered to be the predecessor of the EU, was initially a group of six nations. In today’s Europe many subregional organizations exist to work on common areas of interest. 

The existence of smaller subregional mechanisms like CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam) for socio-economic cooperation within ASEAN has not troubled ASEAN. In reality, like-minded nations within a regional organization may work better to foster their common interests and CS, without harming the interest of the principal organization.

 In this context, the formation of BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) architecture for working in areas of common interest like water resources management, transport, power and infrastructure is a welcome step. Groups like SASEC (South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation) or BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), though not strictly subregional, is a congregation of friendly nations to work in areas of CS. These mechanisms may work satisfactorily in areas of CS.  

Socio-economic development in South Asia 

However, the roles of these new-born mechanisms should not be painted in a dreamy way. Unlike groups of nations in Europe, these organizations are inexperienced and need patience and time to deliver. Further, there must be the political will to see these mechanisms through. 

The scope of CS in South Asia is indeed vast. Issues like ecological disaster, health hazards, terrorism, transport, water resource management, infrastructure, trade and commerce, poverty alleviation, education, et. al, need concerted attention of nations in the region and surroundings. Therefore, subregional groups like BBIN or interregional groups like BIMSTEC must work effectively, without political interference, to succeed. They should put emphasis on socio-economic cooperation to uplift the livelihood of people. The social and economic development of the region can minimize tension and chances of war. But this is easier said than done. 

SAARC has been a prisoner of politics. Let these organizations remain focused on CS, without much political intervention. The strength of these organizations lies in the fact that these are free from the legacy of rivalry, as seen between India and Pakistan. This rivalry crippled SAARC to some extent. Sans this animosity, it may be hoped that these mechanisms would be able to deliver in future, as far as CS in South Asia is concerned.

(The writer is a senior academic and analyst on international relations. He served as professor and head of political science at Presidency University, Kolkata, India. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at akchatjee@gmail.com)

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