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Book Review – Regional Dynamics and Strategic Concerns in South Asia

The book, which is based on the deliberations and discussions of experts that took place at an international conference organized in Pakistan by the Islamabad Policy Research Institute in collaboration with Hanns Seidel Foundation in November 2017, comes as a pleasant surprise.

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The book comes out at an opportune time, as India and Pakistan celebrate their 71st independence. It is this relationship between the two largest countries in the area, which is the fulcrum of South Asia and its interplay dominates the dynamics within the region, as well as that outside.

Most academic discourse on issues pertaining to South Asia is either met with wary optimism or plain cynicism. This could be attributed to the traditional security lens through which most South Asian issues are studied from and the lack of accepting alternate views in academic circles, which has created echo-chambers in policymaking circles.

This is where the latest anthology on South Asia, coming out of Pakistan, titled “Regional Dynamics and Strategic Concerns in South Asia” comes as a pleasant surprise. The book is based on the deliberations and discussions of experts that took place at an international conference organized in Pakistan, by the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI) in collaboration with Hanns Seidel Foundation in November 2017.

SCO has vigorously endorsed CPEC, which will establish Pakistan as a regional connectivity hub for development in the Central Asian countries.

The themes of the anthology are not only reserved to pertinent outstanding disputes, such as Jammu and Kashmir or the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan but also cover an array of other equally pressing issues, such as climate change and socio-political trends in South Asia – areas which are usually not given enough academic attention.

The book starts with and insightful overview of the region by General Zubair Mahmood Hayat, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC), Pakistan, and includes comprehensive and important policy recommendations from a number of internationally renowned experts in the field.

There are four thematic sections in the book. The first section is titled “Regional Dynamics of South Asia.” It contains essays on topics ranging from socio-political trends in South Asia, to the threat of climate change to regional states.

Admiral (R) Dr. Jayanath Colombage writes in his essay, “Assessment of Socio-Political Trends in South Asia”, that the major conundrum facing the region is the mistrust between India and Pakistan. He argues that Chinese investment in the Belt and Road Initiative is increasingly being seen with suspicion by major countries.

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This has resulted in strategic convergence against it by states like India, USA and Japan, and in doing so, has created a strategic opportunity dilemma for smaller states in the region and will potentially hinder their economic, social and political development.

Dr. Boris Volkhonsky discusses the effect Pakistan and India’s membership of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) could have on the bilateral relations between the two states. While, he opines that Indo-Pak bilateral differences could possibly cloud the SCO agenda, he points out that in the long term the SCO membership could accrue dividends for both. SCO has vigorously endorsed China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which will establish Pakistan as a regional connectivity hub for development in the Central Asian countries.

Furthermore, on issues of water-sharing, which have become another major Indo-Pak bone of contention, the author recommends using SCO as a forum for discussion. He also points out that Russia’s role in the region should not be overlooked, especially by Pakistan. In fact, one of the recommendations in the book is to accord priority to re-arrange a visit of President Putin to Pakistan.

Biswas Baral takes on the environmental concerns facing and being ignored within South Asia. In his piece, he warns us that floods are likely to cost South Asia USD 215 billion each year by 2030, he notes that India, Bangladesh and Nepal are currently investing more than USD 32 billion on building 78 water projects to combat flooding.

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Pakistan, in this regard, is far behind, and unfortunately, environmental issues were not given enough priority by any political party during the General Elections. Biswas recommends greater sharing of water-related data, which is classified as ‘sensitive’, as being vital among SAARC countries, along with more investment in climate-resilient agriculture and agro-product diversification.

He even calls for the demilitarisation of the Himalayan glaciers, which is an ecological crisis zone. After laying the foundation with the current regional dynamics in the first  section, the book shifts to “Strategic Concerns in South Asia” in the second section.

This section covers an array of topical issues such as the rising tensions between China and the United States, and the possibility of war between these two global powers, and how this would play out in South Asia.

Andrew Small, German Marshall Fund, Washington, D.C, “Accelerating Competition: The Risk of Regional Blocs in South Asia,” talks of the increased political competition between India and Pakistan that may change the underlying nature of the relationship between the two, especially if the USA decides to challenge China, in what the latter considers its own territory.

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However, he argues that the US-China relationship has generally been one of cooperation and competition, but this has fluctuated over time. He further elaborates that both the countries are deeply embedded in a global economic order and thrive off one another. However, this cooperation is becoming difficult, due to emerging strategic differences between the two countries.

As far as the South Asian region is concerned, it plays second fiddle in this relationship, except for times of extraordinary crisis. Mr. Small’s assertions can be countered by reading the US National Security Strategy, released last December, and the National Defense Strategy released in January this year.

The documents term China as a “revisionist power” and underlines US intent to counter Chinese efforts to “displace the US in the Indo-Pacific region”. It is this strategic objective which is responsible for the ongoing trade tensions between the two powers and may even lead to the expiration of the decades long US policy of engagement with China.

The third section solely focuses on the Afghan conundrum titled “Strategic Situation in Afghanistan and its Regional Implications.” Ambassador (R) Rustam Shah Mohmand, in his thoughtful piece titled “Navigating Troubled Pathways: India’s Role in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Apprehensions”, explains that despite making admirable contributions towards the stability of Afghanistan, Pakistan has not been able to undertake a successful strategy for peace-making in Afghanistan.

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This he puts down to the country not being able to address the root cause of insurgency and being preoccupied with India’s role in Afghanistan. Vladimir Potapenko, Deputy Secretary-General, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in his paper “Reconciliation Process in Afghanistan: Role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” assesses the role that the SCO could play in stabilizing Afghanistan.

The fourth and final section of the book is devoted to finding solutions to issues discussed at length in earlier sections of the book. The acclaimed scholar, Dr. Christian Wagner, writes about “The Role of Global Powers in Building a Cooperative Security Order in South Asia”, he proposes, South Asian countries rely on themselves to work on an issue-specific security order which helps in mitigating regional differences, rather than relying on major powers to create a conducive regional environment for the resolution of outstanding disputes.

Unfortunately, the experience of SAARC has shown that the forum becomes hostage to the relationship between two of its largest countries, India and Pakistan. However, given world events with Europe grappling with the exit of Britain, and NATO under constant attack by President Trump, the future of ‘collective’ institutional visions at the moment seems rather bleak.

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However, Professor Dr. Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema, has hope in the UN in his paper titled “Resolving the Jammu and Kashmir Dispute: An imperative for Regional Peace”, writes that the Modi government has given up a policy engagement and instead, has intensified brutalities on the people of Indian Occupied Kashmir. He emphasizes the role of the United Nations in ensuring a plebiscite which would allow Kashmiris to exercise their right of self-determination.

The emphasis on the role of the UN is especially significant in the light of the recent UN report (the first of its kind), which condemned India on human right violations in Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK). The anthology offers nuanced and dispassionate study of some of the most pertinent issues facing South Asia today, and is worth delving into for anyone interested in understanding South Asian strategic issues (old and new). The book is available in hard copy and free online download:

https://www.ipripak.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/rdib1362018.pdf

Reviewed by Mr. Umar Farooq Khan. He holds a Masters degree in ‘International Studies & Diplomacy’ from the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), University of London.