Monday, February 07, 2005

BANGLADESH:SAARC close to use-by date

+ The Seven Sister states of northeastern India would no longer be the frontier but would lie smack in the middle of this economic growth zone. The Indian central government would have an incentive to plow resources into these neglected states and allow more freedom to solve the 50-year insurgencies. Bangladesh would have the most to gain from such an outcome. Those pipe dreams of becoming a transport hub would become a reality, as would be the possibility of its manufacturing industry supplying regional markets. For example, it is more economical for Bangladeshi cement to be sold to the northeast as it is nearer to those markets. +

08/02/2005

SAARC close to use-by date
By Farid Bakht

The 13th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation - or SAARC - was due to meet February 6-7 in Dhaka. The meeting was "postponed" for the second time. The first meeting, set for January, was pushed back in the wake of the tsunami. This time, India unilaterally decided it would not participate, citing the royal coup in Nepal and the "deteriorating security situation in Bangladesh" following the assassination of a former finance minister and opposition leader.

The reasons cited are not credible, given the extensive security preparations that were made in Dhaka and the Nepalese king's intention to attend the summit personally. Major progress on a free-trade agreement was expected.

SAARC and its seven members - India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka - is now in the midst of a crisis. It was a grand idea for the 1970s. Made in Bangladesh. But it may already be out of date. We all know SAARC has been a dead duck because India and Pakistan persist in their pointless rivalry. Everyone supports the latest rapprochement between India and Pakistan, even if it is 30 years too late.

The emergence of Bangladesh was an opportunity to discard Britannia's poisoned gift of communalism. The absurdity of the two provinces East and West Pakistan was exposed and put to an end. Bangladesh won its independence. The Pakistani military was humiliated and went back to its barracks with its tail between its legs. Unfortunately, it was not punished for its actions and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto reneged on his promises for a progressive and modern society. If both had happened, we would have seen a different South Asia emerge. Pakistan would have diverted resources from an unnecessarily bloated military machine into a modern industrializing economy. They might have negotiated with India over Kashmir, leading to independence or autonomy (whatever the Kashmiris voted for in a UN-supervised election) and moved on.

Instead, the Pakistani military decided to play its version of the "Great Game". The Indian administration decided to ignore the aspirations of Kashmiris. Not surprisingly, the "Switzerland of Asia" went up in flames. The Taliban would not have been possible without Pakistan's Inter-Intelligence Service and the need for the Pakistani military to prove useful to Washington.

The gas factor

The giant US company Unocal wants to supply India with gas and oil from Central Asia. To do so it needs a pipeline to go through Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Iranians are also eyeing the Indian market. So how big is the gas factor in the talks between India and Pakistan?

Neither pipeline is feasible because there is absolutely no chance of stability. Ex-Unocal adviser Hamid Karzai is president of Afghanistan in name only. He is in effect only the mayor of Kabul. President General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan cannot guarantee the safety of his own life, let alone a pipeline through lawless Balochistan in the southwest or the infamous North-West Frontier Province.

At best, India and Pakistan can agree to withdraw troops from frontiers, open up road and rail links and legalize the trade that is already happening. Talk of a union is premature and next to impossible, given present mindsets.

Already, they are locking horns over a proposed dam that could block the Indus River in Pakistan. The entente looks as though it will not last that long.

SAARC can never take off until the issue of 1947 and partition is solved once and for all. A solution means acceptance of the other to survive and genuine moves to cooperate. Moreover, diplomats and the two militaries have to grow up and graduate from playing imperial games. These petty jealousies have given us the most stupid of wars over a glacier in Kashmir - the Siachen.

China-India rivalries

The world has moved on. China is the manufacturing workshop of the global economy, just as Manchester was in 19th-century Britain. China's economy is fragile and will go bust in the next few years, but the Chinese are following the upward trajectory of the Wild West American economy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Booms were followed by busts, only for another boom to appear soon after. China may be volatile, but the giant is awake and is not going back to sleep.

How is South Asia reacting to this? Many Indian think-tanks, stuffed with retired colonels, are talking up a rivalry between India and China. They are entrapped in the Pentagon world view that China needs to be "contained" and that the US will "ally" with India in this endeavor. But why? For whose gain?

It is true that in 1962 China and India needlessly went to war in the Himalayas over a British-drawn border. Jingoism got the better of sense. The ill-equipped Indian military was swept aside. The Chinese could have marched into Dacca and Calcutta (now referred to as Dhaka and Kolkata). They didn't and have shown no inclination of militarily expanding in this direction. So why engage in this pointless competition? For more glaciers?

It would be far more sensible for India and China to get closer. They are making some tentative steps but the effort lacks true willpower. India needs to look northeast toward China. India should invest in China. China should invest in India. In the 1940s, a US general called "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell dreamed of building an all-weather road from Calcutta to southern China. For the wrong purpose maybe, but still breathtaking in its vision. A Sino-Indian partnership would inevitably lead to the construction of such transport links to move billions of euros' worth of annual trade.

The Seven Sister states of northeastern India would no longer be the frontier but would lie smack in the middle of this economic growth zone. The Indian central government would have an incentive to plow resources into these neglected states and allow more freedom to solve the 50-year insurgencies.

Bangladesh would have the most to gain from such an outcome. Those pipe dreams of becoming a transport hub would become a reality, as would be the possibility of its manufacturing industry supplying regional markets. For example, it is more economical for Bangladeshi cement to be sold to the northeast as it is nearer to those markets.

And what of Myanmar? Once the leaders decide to risk it and go for a Chinese-style economic thrust, they will find that there will be an avalanche of Chinese, Indian and Thai investment. Chittagong and Sitwe (Myanmar) ports are nearer to Kunming than Shanghai is. It is only a matter of time. Five years? Ten years? Again, Bangladesh gains because of geography.

For the past few years, another grouping has emerged. BIMSTEC, an economic cooperation which includes Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal but excludes China and Pakistan. Then, there is the grouping of Bay of Bengal nations.

Unknown to many, there is another entity called BICM. This stands for Bangladesh, India, China and Myanmar. For anyone thinking it through, BICM should be the real aim, not SAARC. In the emerging geopolitical realities of this generation, it would be far more beneficial to concentrate on BICM. If it ever became a real association or bloc, it would be unstoppable. Unthinkable now among the elite, it would generate the most support from the populations of the participating countries.

Is Pakistan worth it?

In a choice between China and Pakistan, the answer should be obvious.

SAARC will have to justify itself. It has some competition. We cannot stop and start every time India and Pakistan have a spat. Economies, business and nations need stability. After World War I, the French showed vindictiveness in trying to cripple and punish Germany though crushing "reparations". In contrast, in the early 1950s, the French showed maturity and good sense by working closely with then-West Germany to build the foundations for today's European Union. Islamabad and New Delhi seem to be following the earlier French model. We cannot wait for them to grow up.

In Bangladesh there are still influential people who cannot forget that they lost in 1971. Growing up in a flat rice-growing delta, they still look to the west to the hilly, mountainous regions beyond Punjab, as if they have any cultural similarities. They do not. That is a dead-end.

Bangladeshi prime minister Khaleda Zia had the vision for SAARC in the 1970s. It could have worked then if India and Pakistan had buried the hatchet.

Really looking to the east

Now, we need a new vision for a new century. Bangladesh's Foreign Ministry says it has a policy that is "looking east". If it is looking, one wonders what it is seeing. How else can one explain why it incredibly risked relations with this century's superpower, China, in allowing the Taiwanese to dish out visas in Dhaka?

The Bangladeshi establishment is not alone in being myopic. Ignoring internal opposition, a part of the Indian establishment thinks it can cavalierly destroy Bangladesh, as a by-product of the monstrous River-Linking Project. They want to divert the Ganges and Brahmaputra waters to the southern and western states. What is the point of a South Asian union or economic association if one of its members loses the basis of having a functioning nation?

Water is key to Bangladesh's survival. Period. If the project goes ahead, the "C" in SAARC will not stand for cooperation. It will mean confrontation, as millions migrate to India in search of a livelihood. There is a disconnect between fine words in SAARC summits and the real issues of water (and even gas).

There is an absolute necessity to work together. All players need to have a better handle on their geopolitical position and understand who their true friends are. The strange thing is that many ordinary people seem to be aware of these realities. So why do intellectuals and the establishments miss the big picture?

Farid Bakht is the founder member of Futurebangla, an institute dedicated to social change in Bangladesh. Based in London and Dhaka, he is promoting a greater role for the diaspora in economic decision-making. Previously, he worked in the government in Bangladesh and then as an analyst and entrepreneur in the telecom sector in the UK.