Integration is key to regional security and prosperity
India and its South Asian neighbors are fixated on state-centric or conventional security planning as they are inclined to see threats through territorial prisms. In the process, they overlook non-conventional threats such as terrorism, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, underdevelopment and illicit trafficking in people and drugs. These can only be addressed from non-conventional security perspectives with an emphasis on soft borders and regional integration.
Fresh ideas are needed to break the behavior patterns of South Asian countries that prioritize political and territorial security issues over economic, cultural and technological cooperation. Their complex bilateral political and territorial disputes hamper progress in other areas that could drive regional economic development and address non-conventional security threats.
The most significant breakthrough in bringing peace to the Kashmir Valley was witnessed in the shape of former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf’s four-point formula, former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Lahore Bus Yatra initiative and both attending the Agra summit. Although the leaders’ endeavor to bring peace in the Valley could not stand the test of time due to the Kargil war in 1999, the ideas and practices unleashed during the period paved the only way forward to arrive at any workable solutions to the Kashmir puzzle.
The four-point formula was a maverick idea to reduce the risk of conflict between India and Pakistan through the phased drawdown of their respective forces from the border areas. Under the formula, both countries would give the Kashmiri population greater freedom to move across the Line of Control (LOC) without altering their existing territorial possessions.
Promoting commercial and tourism activities in Kashmir by allowing people to move across the border would bring prosperity to Kashmiris, as well as serve the long-term economic interests of both India and Pakistan. Late Indian leader Vajpayee’s initiatives aimed at people-to-people contacts and bilateral talks continue to be effective at maintaining the peace between the two countries. If France and Germany, despite their history of conflict, could become close trade partners, and the Southeast Asian countries could forge close trade ties despite bilateral territorial conflicts, the improvement of Indo-Pakistani ties in socio-economic and cultural areas should be possible.
Islamabad’s reluctance to allow its territory to be used as a conduit for Indo-Afghan or Indo-Central Asian trade has impeded Indian trade and commercial interests and prevented Pakistan from diversifying its economy. While Pakistan allowed Afghanistan to transport some of its exports across the Indo-Pakistan border, it refused to permit Indian goods to be moved into Afghanistan, let alone Central Asia, capitalizing on the Afghan Trade and Transit Agreement of 1965. Without regional integration, Pakistan’s reliance on American aid and Chinese concessional loans under the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor project to stay afloat has left its economy in tatters, allegedly requiring an IMF bailout to revive it.
Despite registering a robust growth rate, India is still facing non-conventional threats similar to those affecting other countries in the region
Despite registering a robust growth rate, India is still facing non-conventional threats similar to those affecting other countries in the region. The primary reasons for this have been the uneven distribution of resources within India and a lack of regional and sub-regional integration within South Asia. Even the achievement of a modest level of regional integration could improve growth rates and steer the South Asian economies towards inclusive growth by opening up larger markets, keeping the prices of products low, and providing different points of access to health and education services.
It is evident that the regional integration process in South Asia has been held hostage to the Indo-Pakistani conflict. While there could be no annual South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit meetings between 1999 and 2002 following the Kargil war, the 19th SAARC summit in Islamabad in 2016 was cancelled following terror attacks on an Indian army base in Uri, Kashmir.
While SAARC members signed an agreement and launched the South Asian Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA) in 1995 as a stepping stone to the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA), the South Asia picture is still gloomy as it is one of the least integrated regions, with intraregional trade accounting for just 5% per cent of total South Asian trade.