A view from Sri Lanka

Unpacking South Asian Regional Security in the 21st Century:


By Prof. Gamini Keerawella,

Executive Director, Regional Center for Strategic Studies

(Text of a lecture,‘Threats to Security in the 21st Century: Finding a Global Way Forward, delivered by Prof. Keerawella, at the School of Integrated Social Sciences, University of Lahore, Pakistan May 5-6, 2018)

South Asia, home to a fifth of humanity, is one of the least integrated regions in the world. The intra-regional trade in South Asia accounts for only 5% of its total trade, manifesting a low degree of economic bonding in the region. Two main states in South Asia were born into an environment marred by mutual antagonism and it continued to remain so as they got locked into a multiple-levels conflict as to the dispute over territory, balance of power, threat perceptions, mutual accusation of interference in each other’s domestic affairs and rival foreign policy approaches. The relationship between India and its other neighbors constantly fluctuates in an environment of mutual fear and suspicion. Faltering SAARC process appears to be in limbo since 2016 after the India’s boycott of the Islamabad Summit, in retaliation to the Uri attack in Kashmir. Against these ground realities, what is really meant by ‘regional security’ and ‘regionalism’ in South Asia? Firstly, to unpack these issues, I intend to raise some fundamental questions pertaining to the construction of the term, ‘South Asian region’, and of the concept, ‘regional security of South Asia’.

Polysemy of term

The polysemy of the term ‘South Asia’ and processes of its multi-layered construction will be traced. What is the reference point of regional security exactly? It must be made clear that ‘regional security’ and the ‘regional security complex’ are not the same; the first is a reference point and the latter is an analytical tool. The regionalism is a process propelled by multi-faceted regional bonding. Later, the issues and processes of South Asian regional security and insecurity in the 21st century will be unpacked with the help of these analytical insights.

The term South Asia bags different notions, depending on the context of its use and the underlying stake of its construction. The term has been presented as a civilizational entity, a geographical description and also as a political idea. The shared cultural heritage in South Asia is a historical fact but culture is a constantly evolving phenomenon. The existence of different religions and paths of civilizations in South Asia also contests the idea that South Asia forms a single cultural region. Many states in South Asia are post-colonial entities and they possess a similar colonial experience--unification and division. However, the geographical description of South Asia does not correspond with any sense of political belonging. Against this backdrop, what is meant by South Asian region? To answer this question, it is necessary to trace the genealogy of concept of ‘region’ in international studies and evolution of regional security studies.

Concept of region

The concept of region entered into the academic realm of international studies as a unit of analysis only after the Second World War; but its ideological roots can be traced in the geo-political writings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the early Cold War years, an analytical category of region, located in between the individual state and the global system, was recognized in line with global strategic projections of the superpowers.

The concept of ‘region’ as a heuristic construct to study international relations gained currency with the proliferation of area studies in US centers of higher learning and research after the Second World War. At the same time, certain scholars in international politics conceptualized geographically distinct group of states as subsystems or subordinate systems. Leonard Binder, then Director of the Near East Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, can be considered the pioneer to use subsystem approach to study regions. He was soon followed by a group of scholars such as Michael Brecher of McGill University, William Zartman of SAIS and Larry W. Bowman, of Connecticut University who employ systems theory to bring regions to international politics. In defining regional subsystems, William R. Thomson identified four necessary conditions of a regional subsystem: (1) the actors’ patterns of relations exhibit a particular degree of regularity and intensity to the extent that a change at one point in the subsystem affect other points, (2) the actors are generally proximate, (3) internal and external observers and actors recognize the subsystem as a distinctive ‘theatre of operation’, and (4) the subsystem logically consists of at least two or, quite probable, more actors.

Cold War Context

In the Cold War context, regions were identified mainly in terms of the importance given to the region in global strategic calculations of the Superpowers. South Asia as a region was not considered vital to their central strategic balance. However, India and Pakistan as individual states figured to some extent in the containment and de-containment strategies of superpowers. The commonly used term in academic parlance at that time was the Indian Sub-continent. The attention was mainly on the Indo-Pakistan rivalry.

It should also be noted that. in the deliberations of Asian Relations Conference in 1947 or Colombo Powers Meeting in 1954, the term South Asia was not used at all. It was in the late 1950s, that the US State Department and the World Bank used the term South Asia. In 1959, US state department published a briefing document entitled ‘Subcontinent of South Asia’. It was believed that the term South Asian region is politically neutral, compared to the term Indian Sub-continent.

It is with the establishment of SAARC in 1985 that the term South Asia received a new currency. Since then, various agreements were signed and initiatives were launched with South Asian regional focus. The achievements of SAARC in promoting regional cooperation, especially in some functional areas should not be discounted. However, progress in achieving goals and objectives of regional cooperation in key political and economic domains is far from satisfactory.

In this situation, what is meant by South Asian regional security? If security is defined as pursuit of freedom from threat and fear, i.e., a process then, whose security are we talking of when it comes to South Asia? In this regard, three references need to be taken into consideration: South Asian Region as a whole, the states in the region and more importantly, people in the region. South Asia’s position in the global system and region-wide security issues that demands regional approach and action constitute the first level. The reduction of adversarial environments linked with fear and suspicion in relations among South Asian States and promotion of trust and confidence through economic interaction and political dialogue would be the concerns under the second level of reference. Security concerns of individual citizen in the region can be included in regional security as many of them are more or less common irrespective of state boundaries. Threats to human security can be cited as a case in point. The discourse on Peoples’ SAARC represents this tendency.

Regional Security

In addition, the term regional security can be used to explain present state of security conditions, i.e., an analysis. A rich body of literature is available in South Asian regional security and in particular the contributions of the Copenhagen School must be noted. Barry Buzan and Ole Waever, in their highly influential work published in 2003, Regions and Power: Structure of International security, developed the regional security complex theory (RSCT). They argue that security is clustered in geographically shaped regions because threats travel more easily over short distance than over long ones. Furthermore, threats are most likely to be in the region and security of each actor in a region interacts with the security of other actors in the region. They observe "a set of units whose major processes of securitization, de-securitization, or both are so interlinked that their security problems cannot reasonably be analyzed or resolved apart from one another". In analyzing the Regional Security of South Asia from the perspective of RSCT, they observed two points. First, the South Asian regional security complex was slowly moving towards an internal transformation from bipolarity to unipolarity as India got stronger and Pakistan weaker. Second, the rise of China was creating a center of gravity that was slowly drawing South Asia into closer security interaction with the East Asian regional security complex. In his article on the South Asian Security Complex published in 2011, Barry Buzan argued that despite many events in South Asia, but ‘little in the way of structural change from the analysis in Power and Region’.

Thus, it is useful to bring to focus the difference between two contexts in which the term regional security is employed: process and description. According to Earnest B. Hass, "the phenomenon of regionalism is sometimes equated with the study of regional integration. Regionalism can be a political slogan; if so, it is ideological data that the student of integration must use. Regionalism can also be an analytical devise suggesting what the world’s ‘natural’ regions are (or ought to be)". Regionalism is a process as well as an outcome of the process. Regionalism cannot be imposed; it should be evolved. The primary condition of regionalism would be a common regional identity that is determined by a number of factors. Having common socio-cultural traits and values does not necessarily generate regionalism. The perception of having common regional attribute must set in motion of a process of regional bonding. Political and economic dynamics in operation at different levels are critical factors that promote or hinder regional bonding despite the fact that the region claims common regional attributers.

Continued Tomorrow

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