Saturday 29 August 2015

First Trans-Himalaya Development Forum (Pakistan Observer)

Geopolitical notes from India

M D Nalapat

Friday, August 28, 2015 - The first Trans-Himalaya Development Forum (THDF) was held in the picturesque town of Mangshi in the Yunnan province of China on August 25 and 26, with scholars and experts from nine countries participating. These were India, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Maldives, and the discussions focussed on ways of boosting the economic synergy between these countries, so as to lead to a higher overall growth rate for a region which has a population of 3 billion and a combined GDP more than that of the US. The conference was organized by the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) in collaboration with the Government of Dehong-Jingpo prefecture. This is a part of China where 48% of the population belong to ethnic minorities, each speaking their own language and having a distinct culture and tradition from the Han majority. Although there have been phases in the 65-year history of China as a Peoples Republic where local cultures were frowned upon by Communist Party officials, the period since 1983 has seen a relaxation in such measures. 

Connectivity is central to economic transformation. The effect of internet communications has been to create a web of linkages conducive to increased participation in growth activities. In India, because of online booking of tickets, corruption in the sale of railway tickets has come down substantially, and the same is happening in other sectors going online, such as the issue of visas and passports. However, while the information superhighway has reached almost every part of the globe, physical infrastructure has lagged behind, with the result that several regions are not able to leverage the advantages that their populations can bring, were there better road, rail and air connectivity. China has moved ahead at a very high rate of speed in improving physical infrastructure, and this experience would be useful to its neighbors, were it to be reproduced in countries with far lower levels of infrastructure. 

The recent setting up of an investment bank by the BRICS powers ( which should be expanded to BRIICS, so as to include Indonesia) provides a vehicle for funding such ventures. Together, India and China have the strengths to ensure fast and effective development of infrastructure across the trans-Himalayan region, and the conference represents a first step in such a process of cooperation between them as well as the other countries involved in the initiative. Fortunately, discussions at the meeting took place in an atmosphere free opt geopolitical tensions, with the Indian and Pakistani delegations having a cordial exchange of views. While the suggestions diverged on occasion,. there was a substantial amount of commonality between them, reflecting the fact that poverty is the most deadly foe confronting the two subcontinental neighbours.

President Xi Jinping’s concept of “One Belt One Road” is a bold plan, and to succeed, needs to be seen as an entity rather than regarded as two separate segments, one in the west and the other in the east. There has to be an integration of west and east, and for this to happen, there needs to be seamless connectivity across both sides. Thus, Pakistan would gain access through India for its land trade with Bangladesh and ASEAN, while India would gain access to Afghanistan and Central Asia for its commodity exports and imports from these important locations. Certainly there are questions of sovereignty still to get decided, but the fact is that access is at the core of such discussions, and if access gets given, talks about more difficult problems will take place in a more cordial and cooperative atmosphere. President Xi’s “One Belt One Road” is in truth “One Belt and One Road”, and needs to be implemented in a comprehensive and cooperative way for the countries of the region and beyond to gain the benefits possible from the plan. 

Interestingly, both the Indian and Pakistani delegations were broadly supportive of the suggestion for access through each country for the other. Such a move would be a game changer, creating jn the process several hundreds of thousands of new jobs in both India and Pakistan that are linked to trade and commerce with each other and through each other, rather than - as now - through trading ports such as Dubai. It was pointed out that after decades of differences of view, India and Bangladesh have agreed to use each other’s territory to ferry trade and people across each other country’s territory. Should a similar situation take place between Pakistan and India, both countries may be able to cool down the superheated rhetoric which often takes centre stage while discussions on mutual ties take place in each other’s country. The Trans-Himalaya Development Forum saw some very clear exposition of different points of view by the Indian and the Pakistani participants, but in an atmosphere of calm and friendliness. Alka Acharya from India began the dialogue on the question of Indian access to Central Asia and Afghanistan through Pakistan, a stance which found understanding among others.

Water was an important focus, with Khalid Rehman of the Pakistan Institute of Policy Studies raising the matter initially, and being followed by this columnist, who pointed to the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan as a possible model for a water treaty between China and the lower riparian states, so that tensions related to the sharing of water would be reduced in future. Overall, the breadth and depth of the connectivity suggested in the “One Belt One Road” initiative has transformational potential, provided it is imll; emanated in a manner that is deemed to be equitable to all participating countries. For too long, arguments on geopolitics has held up trade and commerce in the Himalayan region, and this approach needs to get replaced by a series of measures that recognize the fact that cooperation for economic development is force multiplier for stability in the region. 

The expectation is that the suggestions made during the August 24-25 conference will be communicated to the governments involved, such that cooperation rather than conflict, And that the focus changes not on differences over geopolitics but on the need to expand the boundaries of growth. The internet has shown how boundaries have become less and less of an obstacle in the crafting of ties between the different countries of the globe. In present, links are getting established both west and east of the region,such as that between India and Myanmar and between China and Pakistan. Truly can it be said of the countries in the region that economic imperatives are driving forward the agenda of connectivity that was the subject of discussion at Mangshi.

—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.

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