A question of sovereigntyS Asia is full of cooperative ventures that have stalled due to perceived notions of eroding national control
Theoretically, in a region like South Asia, any trans-border interaction could take the form of cooperation, assistance, competition and rivalry. Depending upon the nature of domestic polity and the foreign policy orientation of interacting countries, if there is cooperation between two nations, then their goals are shared. Whereas in the case of competition, such as the state that exists between India and China, common goals are hardly shared, and in case of a situation of rivalry, like that which exists between India and Pakistan, the two nations actually work to hinder each other’s goal. The core elements in these interactive matrices have been sovereignty, identity and national power.
Conventionally, cooperation ventures are driven by common and shared goals of the actors involved. The moment a cooperation venture of any kind is initiated, it pre-supposes and demands sharing of resources, institutions and policies with other participating partners. However, sharing resources over which a country had absolute control and total ownership would also mean losing this unquestioned, territoriality-based national control. Even partially giving up national control and ownership of such resources could be perceived by the sharing country as an erosion of its national sovereignty. This sensitive linkage between cooperation based on sharing and the subsequent perceived erosion of national sovereignty actually triggers uncanny feelings of surrendering independence and national identity to another country. Therefore, despite cooperation being a positively loaded concept, countries that have to share their resources with others are reluctant to cooperate. They even withdraw from the process of cooperation.
Unless the areas of cooperation are far more diverse than simply sharing natural resources and there are other much more overwhelming considerations, this withdrawal syndrome among participating countries has always remained prominent in this region. For instance, harnessing of water resources in Bhutan like Chukha, Tala and Kurichu projects with the support of Indian finance and technology meant a loss of national control of its own resources. Even then, Bhutan. a small landlocked country, willingly accommodated Indian participation. This was because there were other overwhelming considerations that made Bhutan both confident and comfortable with sharing its water resources. These compelling considerations included the ready and sustained availability of a market for Bhutanese electricity in India, a promising high revenue fetching item in its very limited export basket, security cooperation and arrangements, consistent and dominant planned development financing by India for the last 70 years, and open border based closely integrated soci0-cultural and economic interactions.
Complications in sharing
At the same time, gas exports from Bangladesh to India, water from India’s rivers that flow to Bangladesh and Pakistan, and Nepal’s exports of hydel power generated from Indian investment in Nepal all involve cross border sharing of various resources in a formal and durable manner. Most of these resource could not be shared despite protracted negotiations and agreements mainly because native resource sharing with neighbouring countries and the erosion of sovereignty and identity of the sharing nation got tangled up with cooperation matrices. Whenever these countries perceive this erosion of sovereignty, they tend to withdraw from the regional cooperation process even after formal commitments and agreements. The much trumpeted Mahakali River Agreement between India and Nepal in 1996 never took off. The project is now shelved, as the two countries failed to produce even a basic document such as a detailed project report in more than two decades. At the heart of this mammoth failure is also Nepal’s lurking fear that it will lose absolute control over its precious water resources.
However, in terms of “defensive positionalism” or reluctant cooperation, all the countries—big and small—have behaved in similar fashions in South Asia. Even a gigantic country like India took almost two decades of protracted negotiations to reach the Treaty on Ganges River Sharing at Farakka with Bangladesh in 1996 and the proposed Teesta agreement still hangs in uncertainty. In fact, India withdrew from the agreement on the trilateral gas pipeline between Myanmar-Bangladesh and India that was signed in 2005 mainly because Bangladesh demanded access to electricity produced in Bhutan and Nepal through Indian transmission grids and unilateral free trade access to the Indian market. India considered this to be a kind of intrusion into its territory and sovereignty by Bangladesh. India, besides not giving such a transmission passage and transit right to Bangladesh, actually withdrew from the project.
Some agendas beyond the norm
Besides the unilateral removal of trade restrictions in all the Least Developed Countries under South Asian Free Trade Area; three major power deals became an unprecedented reality. These included 500 MW power exports from India, national grid to national grid inter-connection between Bheramara in Bangladesh and Behrampur (West Bengal) in India, and a 1320 MW coal based unit at Rampal (350 kms South West of Dhaka) under the Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company consisting of Bangladesh Power Development Board and National Thermal Power Corporation of India. These, along with the historic land boundary agreement with Bangladesh of 2015, were definitely a sharp deviation from India’s own policy stand that prevailed just a decade ago.
Similarly, the much talked about Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor has literally been abandoned despite broad commitment at the highest level mainly on the grounds that it would impinge upon India’s perceived security interests. In fact, the joint statement between India and China during Indian Prime Minister’s visit to China on May 15, 2015 clearly stated that ‘the two sides welcomed the progress made in promoting cooperation under the framework of the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) Economic Corridor. Both sides recalled the second meeting of the Joint Study Group of BCIM Economic Corridor, and agreed to continue their respective efforts to implement understandings reached at the meeting.’ Here, within a cooperation venture, the ‘hidden power struggle’ and national power demonstration remained conspicuous. It is noteworthy that Bangladesh is a member of another sub-regional grouping known as Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN), that Myanmar constitutes a key partner in Bimstec, and that India built a trilateral highway between India-Myanmar-Thailand under India’s (Look) Act East Policy.
Sovereignty issue ever present
Therefore, national identity and sovereignty are sensitive, critical and all-encompassing issues to all the countries in the cooperation game in South Asia. This stands regardless of their size, military power, political system, economic orientation, topography and natural resource endowments. Tackling this perception of national sovereignty itself is a major question in Saarc as it demands moving away from a traditional model of cooperation, measured sacrifice and matured outlook. And invariably the countries, big or small, in the region lack this. That is why initiatives like the “beneficial bilateralism” of the Janata regime in the late 1970s, the “unilateral gestures” of Prime Minister IK Gujral in the mid 1990s, the ‘out of the box approach’ of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA Government (1999-2004), and the transforming engagements of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA Government (2004-2014) generated so much hope in the region.
However, these initiatives were never institutionalised in India. They were essentially individual based bilateral triggers that were constrained by serious domestic political limitations and commitment sustenance. South Asians are now minutely watching the unfolding of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy and his policy of ‘cooperative federalism’ to decentralise and broad base the foreign policy decision making process. Some primary indicators have emerged between India and Nepal with deals varying from energy and connectivity to transit arrangements. The question of how these successful bilateral initiatives could be leveraged to consolidate regionalism in South Asia and are also internalised in the Saarc process remains broadly unaddressed.
Lama is a senior professor in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and former Member of the National Security Advisory Board, Government of India