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Securing South Asia

By Lakshman Kadirgamar

Given its preponderance and centrality within South Asia, India may justifiably regard any alien presence or influence in the region, without its consent, as a potential threat to its security.

TODAY, ANY serious instability in a country will necessarily affect the stability of neighbouring countries. In the South Asian context, the very essence of regional security and cooperation is, first, the political will to forge a cohesive and concerted association amongst ourselves. If our regional unity is to be preserved and promoted, each regional member-state must address this core issue of political will from the standpoint of its own situation — geographical location, historical experience and chosen national aspirations. If that core issue can be addressed collectively, then the prospects of forging regional cohesion would stand greatly enhanced. Secondly, the measure of such security depends on our understanding of the intrinsic character of our region, where each stands in relation to the others, the impact upon us, severally and collectively, of the prevailing external order, and how best we should respond thereto. Thirdly, it is a shared conviction among all our political parties and throughout our citizenry in Sri Lanka that the only way to such agreement, if indeed it can ever be achieved, is to talk freely and frankly to one another, in order to minimise, hopefully eliminate, misunderstanding and develop mutual trust and confidence.

There are certain unchangeable and inescapable regional realities. The first is India's preponderance over all others in South Asia, based on size, resources, development and power, allied to influence. A second is India's unique centrality. No two others among ourselves can interact directly with each other without touching or crossing Indian land, sea or air space. Also, with each of its neighbours, India has special ties — whether of ethnicity, language, culture, kinship, common historical experience or shared access to and dependence upon vital natural resources — of a character and to a degree of intensity not shared by any two others. A third reality is the coterminality of the national borders of regional member-states with those great natural physical barriers which encompass South Asia — the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean. Probably no other region in the world presents such an integral security zone. Consider the analogy of a wheel. At its hub lies regionally preponderant India. Radiating as spokes are India's neighbours with each of whom India shares land or maritime boundaries, but no two others are thus joined without at the same time touching India also. Binding those spokes to that hub are the physical barriers that I mentioned. Recognition of this characteristic, of the security of the region being an integer, a thing complete in itself, was central to the administration of the British Raj. Given its preponderance and centrality within the region it would not be surprising, indeed it would be wholly logical, if India regards its security along similar lines. In my view, India may justifiably regard any alien presence or influence within those natural security borders, without its consent, as a potential threat to its national security.

For Sri Lanka the proximity of India, a mere short dash away by fibre glass boat with outboard motors, the "India factor", if one may so describe it, is a cardinal factor in our lives, as a nation. There is of course much more to that India factor than the proximity of neighbourliness. To begin with, there is no other neighbour equally powerful and proximal to countervail India. Then, there is India's huge advantage in the disparity of resources and global influences to which I have alluded. We have with it the widest interaction between peoples and governments. It is within its power to help or hinder us to the greatest extent. Realities may be unpleasant. But they can be faced with dignity. The old cliché remains apt; foreign policy is driven by a nation's understanding of where its self-interest lies.

In this context there are three elements of the "India factor" which vitally affect governance in Sri Lanka. First, when our domestic political and military problems descend into crisis, we would be well advised to avail ourselves of that factor: namely, of India's help in resolving any of our internal crises, as indeed major world powers have advised us publicly to do, India being indisputably the pre-eminent regional power. The second element is the Tamil connection between ourselves and Indian Tamils, principally in Tamil Nadu State. The third is what I may call the "backyard concept", that is to say Sri Lanka is India's exposed southern flank.

With regard to the second element, while the large Tamil population in south India gives India a special concern with the Sri Lanka Tamil question, let me emphasise my view, however, that to concede such a special concern is by no means to acquiesce in unwarranted Indian interference in our affairs, as such. It must, nonetheless, be recognised that, if the situation of Sri Lankan Tamils becomes seriously disadvantaged, no Indian government of the day can shut its eyes to that situation and those consequences because the "spill over" effect of those consequences on Tamil Nadu would inevitably and compulsively engage the attention of the government of that State and the Central government of the day. Hence, it is an obvious conclusion that ideally the Tamil question within our polity should be so managed as to preclude the need for Indian concern, far less involvement. However, it would be wholly unrealistic for anyone to claim that under no circumstances could India have a legitimate concern with the management of certain aspects of our internal affairs.

The third element stems from our own geographical location vis-à-vis India. As I said Sri Lanka is India's exposed southern flank. It thereby becomes a matter of vital concern for India as to who comes and goes, and what happens, in Sri Lanka. Given the unique character of the region which makes it an integer, in terms of security, India is likely to worry legitimately about any alien presence in Sri Lanka, worse still involvement, which precludes her. The point of interconnection is this: should, for instance, a Sri Lankan government of the day, facing an internal crisis concerning the Tamils there, be seen by India to engage the involvement, especially the military involvement, of any other regional member, far worse an outside power altogether, in its resolution, then it would be only fair to surmise that the Indian government of that day will be hard put, whatever moral underpinning is cited to the contrary, to keep its gaze firmly averted in an attitude of studied nonchalance.

If we are able to forge an effective regionalism, built upon and around the strengths of our region, and present to the demanding world beyond a cohesive and concerted collectivity, I believe the rewards would be significant for each and all of us. If we fail in that endeavour, undoubtedly some amongst us would be able to survive and even to prosper. Others, though, will stand deeply disadvantaged. For the small and weak amongst us, there can be no question but that regionalism is our future. The question which the bigger and stronger amongst us must surely address is whether or not their own future would also stand enhanced or retarded by joining with the others in that regional exercise. I believe strongly that it would be enhanced.

In 1996, the Minister of External Affairs of India, I.K. Gujral, delivered a speech at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London on the "Foreign Policy Objectives of India's United Front Government". It was a speech of majestic sweep and elegance and, above all, of almost startling candour. In a passage of enormous significance for the whole region, Mr. Gujral made exactly that commitment of political will on the part of India to mitigate the impact of the asymmetries I referred to earlier. He said that the United Front Government's neighbourhood policy stands on five basic principles: First, with the neighbours such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka, India does not ask for reciprocity but gives all that it can in good faith and trust. Secondly, no South Asian country should allow its territory to be used against the interest of another country of the region. Thirdly, none should interfere in the internal affairs of another. Fourthly, all South Asians must respect one another's territorial integrity and sovereignty. And finally, they should settle all their disputes through peaceful, bilateral negotiations. He felt that these five principles, scrupulously observed, would recast South Asia's regional relationships, including the tormented relationship between India and Pakistan, in a friendly, cooperative mould.

Early this year, Yashwant Sinha, India's Minister of External Affairs, had endorsed the foregoing principles, thus giving them extended bipartisan validity. In my opinion, each of those five propositions is intrinsically sound. Each is capable of implementation. Taken collectively, they constitute a practical and principled foundation for regional cooperation and security. In the Krishna Menon Memorial Centenary lecture of 1996, delivered when I was the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, I endorsed those propositions without reservation, and I added that if India is generous there should be amongst the rest of us matching appreciation and abiding concern for India's security. Seven years later, I wish to endorse those propositions.

(The writer is Sri Lanka's former Minister of Foreign Affairs.)

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