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Regional Cooperation in South Asia

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By Khaled Ahmed *

The commitment to regional ‘connectivity’ through trade routes and pipelines is in the offing if India and Pakistan abjure war and focus on the economic welfare of their peoples. And this connectivity will not stop inside South Asia.

Shahid Javed Burki, a former vice-president of the World Bank and a former caretaker finance minister of Pakistan, has written about economic ‘cooperation’ in the South Asian region (Express Tribune 6 Aug 2012).

He has typically proposed four steps to achieve this goal, the first being: bring ‘Pakistan back into South Asia in the economic sense’. He tells us that before 1947 Pakistan’s economy was integral to India’s economy but after partition, politics intervened and the two countries delinked in the economic sense.

The second step would be to ‘open Pakistani space for use by India to trade with Afghanistan and beyond’ based on the ‘transit agreement which is in the works for Afghanistan to trade with India using Pakistani territory’. He says Pakistan needs to overcome its hesitation in allowing Indian goods to flow to Afghanistan through its territory.

The third step he sees as an advantage won by Pakistan if Asian countries allow a network of oil and gas pipelines along with an electricity grid to evenly spread the energy resources in the region, including the controversial Iranian gas pipeline that India is shunning because of American pressure. Two countries, China and India, have the wherewithal to help in this project and both are threatened with energy deficits.

Burki is a realist and is an unbending partisan of Pakistan. These days, loyalty is judged on the basis of how inflexible you are when it comes to India. Not long ago Burki was in favour of delinking economically from India and joining China; he has changed tack because India has changed its strategy towards Pakistan and because inside Pakistan the economic elite has changed its mercantilist view to a more free-market one, a change also reflected in the latest Indian shift of policy.

Pakistan has committed itself to a long list of changes under SAARC and some of these commitments may have been futuristic or unrealistic when they were made in the shape of written documents. With the passage of time, however, they are not only actionable but, it appears, the only way to go.

India, pushed by its latest 20-state wide outage of power, may change its thinking about the Iranian pipeline. Bangladesh, bothered by its own power constraint, is thinking of joining India and Pakistan for receiving gas through the Turkmen pipeline called TAPI.

The commitment to regional ‘connectivity’ through trade routes and pipelines is clearly in the offing if India and Pakistan abjure war and focus on the economic welfare of their peoples. And this connectivity will not stop inside South Asia, as foreseen by Burki.

South Asia is internally short of energy sources. It has to connect with Central Asia where there is resource surplus riding on top of small populations. Diplomats dealing with ‘trade routes’ were in the habit of saying no balanced trade will be possible with Central Asia because of a dearth of consuming populations there.

Now the answer is staring us in the face: the outflow of energy resource from Central Asia will serve to raise standards of living there, as in the sparsely populated UAE, and a possible shift of working South Asian population to Central Asia.

Burki’s thinking is realistic and is most likely to work. What is not working is the conflictual paradigm that has held the field in South Asia for the past 60 years.

[Source: South Asian Media Net]

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