Security Challenge in South Asia

Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert

December 3, 1998

Where does South Asia fit into the evolving international (dis)-order? The broad assessment is easy: the region (especially its three largest states, India, Pakistan and Ban-gladesh) is more democratic and free than ma-ny other regions (despite some very serious problems with the functioning of democracy in every state in the region), they are poorer than most other parts of the world, the major states of the region play a much smaller role in global affairs than their counterparts elsewhere.

South Asia is also more socially complex because of the way in which linguistic, ethnic and class differences are expanded by the additional factor of caste and sectarianism.

Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of South Asia is managing this social complexity and preserving democratic systems, albeit imperfect ones. South Asian politicians spend an enormous amount of time simply keeping things going.

This is the price of democracy, but India and Pakistan in particular have learned that short-circuiting democracy only make things worse in the long run. The regional record of using force to manage ethnic complexity is less impressive.

Not only has this alienated important groups within each of South Asian states, but there is a powerful temptation to cross borders and support ethnic groups in one’s neighbours.

The 1947-48 war between India and Pakistan, their 1965 conflict, and the 1971 war that led to the creation of Bangladesh were all rooted in ethnic and irredentist conflicts, as was the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka and conflicts between India and Bangladesh, Bangladesh and Burma and Nepal and Bhutan.

In several cases, these “wars by other means” too had terrible consequences, most notably India’s support of Tamil Tigers. Pakistan’s support of the Taliban is also problematic. The Taliban, like the LTTE, is antithetical to the core values and principles of Pakistan and India, respectively, and not hesitant about turning their fury against their one-time patrons.

Only the India-China war of 1962 can be said to be a war over territory, rather than ethnic rival-ries, although even here China’s concern with Indian support for Tibetans was a complicating factor.

Finally, the record of movement towards a regional economic, political co-operation, let alone a co-operative security system, is poor. This has been widely discussed by South Asian scholars themselves, who look with interest and envy at the growth of the European Community and Asean.

Here there are structural reasons for the slow growth of regionalism: a culturally and economically dominated India still feels deeply insecure, and regards its neighbours, especially Pakistan, as the entry point into the region for hostile outsiders (especially China and the US).

Yet, the smaller regional states, again Pakistan is the most important case, are afraid of being left alone in the region with a dominant India, and regard their cultivation of outsiders as legitimate insurance against a wrong turn in Indian policy.

This puts outsiders in a difficult position. Classic geopolitics offers them two strategies. One is to ally with the region’s dominant power, India, and allow Delhi to limit one’s ties with Islamabad, Dhaka, and Colombo, Kathmandu and even Male. The other is to maintain ties with India’s neighbours as a way of keeping up the pressure on India.

I have always believed that the problem could be finessed by a pre-emptive Indian policy of generosity and restraint. The Gujral Doctrine was one such effort, and the present government seems to be more solicitous of the concerns of India’s neighbours (except Pakistan).

To summarise, South Asia can teach the rest of us something about a number of security-related problems. To my mind, the most important of these is the way in which the region has managed its own diversity. My own country benefited enormously from ideas and strategies developed in India, as have a number of other states and regions.

There have been some setbacks, but by and large, the record is excellent. We have learned that managing social diversity is a labour-intensive activity, that an open, democratic society assists rather than retards this effort, and that one need not be a wealthy, industrialised state to have a functioning democracy.

On the other hand, the record of managing regional relationships leaves much to be desired, and the fault does not lie entirely within the region. I would be the first to note that the policies of the US have, at times, made things more difficult in South Asia. This is also true of China, and, in the past, the Soviet Union.

Yet, American policy was never guided by a strategy of countering India, and I believe that the PRC is moving towards a more balanced regional policy, one oriented towards problem-solving rather than manipulation.

Finally, South Asia has had a generally good record of resisting the temptation to deploy weapons of mass destruction ?? until May! The interesting question has always been: “Why has India not become a nuclear weapons state?” when strategic logic would have seemed to have dictated that it would be an early proliferator.

The restraint shown by India before the tests went unrewarded, which was one major reason why the fateful step was taken. I remain hopeful that regional policymakers will now embark upon a careful study of the mis-steps of others. Washington built and deployed weapons in obscene numbers and in some cases, with unreliable command and control procedures.

A few years ago, there was an informal competition at my former university to come up with a substitute for the “post-Cold War period.” There were no clear winners, but in my opinion, the best entry was “precariously peaceful world.” I thought this captured the essence of our situation: by and large the world is at peace. No major state seeks to change the fundamental way in which the world is ordered.

At the regional level they may be discontented and angry powers, but again none seem to have concluded that a policy of regional domination, by violence, is a viable strategy.

In my judgement, the key words might be management, evolution and transformation. The present world needs a lot of routine management, to keep the bad from getting worse. Management is boring and unexciting, but we should not treat lightly the importance of routine diplomacy and contacts between the states.

At times, these can be supplemented by non-official dialogue, but the heavy lifting has to be done by states themselves. However, we need to be aware of deeper evolutionary trends which will compel changes whether we want them or not. Governments are rarely the first to identify such trends, but may be essential in dealing with them.

An area of particular importance in the years to come will be the vertical and horizontical spread of portable (i,e, biological) weapons of mass destruction.

Finally, we must be alert to possibilities to transform the way in which we address the problems discussed above. Strategic issues are often dominated by cynical advocates of realpolitik, conservatives who believe that mankind is fundamentally inclined to conflict and war.

At best, they argue, the world can be managed most of the time by a few great powers with common interests. I would disagree. While nothing significant can be done without the participation of one or more great powers, these states are amenable to influence from others, and time and again we have seen situations which were thought to be intractable, or permanently insoluble, resolved or ameliorated. In other words, it is possible at times to transform conflicts.

(The author is senior research scholar, Brookings Institute, Washington, DC. Excerpted from his keynote lecture delivered at the summer workshop of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, Colombo.)