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Beyond the SAARC Summit

Even as Sri Lanka smooth-talked her way out of the SAARC Summit to be hosted by Pakistan this year, our Prime Minister was reminding the region that cross-border insurgency was not limited to the Indo-Pak situation but was a phenomenon that affects or has affected most SAARC member states and is one that should be squarely on the regional agenda.

If certain other SAARC member countries directly attributed their withdrawal from the scheduled Islamabad summit to the recent 'terrorism' incidents on the Indo-Pak border, Sri Lanka did not. Rather, our Foreign Affairs Ministry, adroitly timing the pronouncement till after the withdrawal by certain other SAARC members, informed the current SAARC chair, Nepal, that the current controversies over participation and exchanges between member states made conditions unsuitable for the holding of the summit meeting at present.

In doing so, Colombo has done its best to indicate to the regional community that its move was prompted by larger regional concerns and was not a siding with either India or Pakistan over a single incident. The Prime Minister, who was addressing the New Zealand Parliament prior to his Delhi visit, was unequivocal about Sri Lanka's specific interests in the geo-politics of her location: "The security and stability of the Indian Ocean is a prerequisite to enable legitimate economic activity to preserve the maritime environment and seabed. These geopolitical realities require that Sri Lanka build strong bilateral relations with its fellow South Asian members and the Bay of Bengal members of ASEAN."

In no-nonsense terms, the Premier was telling the world and our South Asian neighbours that SAARC could only succeed if pragmatism allowed selected contentious issues to be brought on to the formal Association agenda rather than be swept under the carpet for easy manipulation by individual states as levers against neighbour. After all, Sri Lanka, too, has experienced such cross-border insurgency that almost divided the country but could not be addressed by the regional body.

The Prime Minister has boldly gone a step further to envision alternate intra-regional and inter-regional relationships should SAARC continue to fail or to remain hostage to manoeuvres and pressures arising from bilateral tensions. The whole purpose of a regional body is to transcend bilateral relations to build a regional identity that enables greater consensus and a higher-grade common discourse facilitating multiple channels of interaction among member states.

What Mr. Wickremesinghe has made clear is that Sri Lanka, pragmatically, cannot forget where she is located and, consequently, is determined to make things in our neighbourhood work. His speech is a wake-up call to SAARC members to go beyond inter-country power play. As our own, ancient, South Asian political science traditions tell us (to paraphrase Kautilya), even as our immediate neighbours could be seen as rivals and competitors, they also remain neighbours and need to be dealt with in as many ways as possible and cannot be ignored. It is we who will lose if we ignore our neighbours and merely attempt to look further afield for our supportive community.

Thus, even as free trade agreements with countries beyond our own region are useful and could even be key factors in our progress, it is our neighbours, being neighbours, who can play the bigger role as our intimate supportive community. Hence, ties with India remain crucial for Sri Lanka's long term prosperity and stability.

Inherent in Colombo's outlook, as expressed by the PM, is the underlying logic that in inter-state relations - whether bilateral or multilateral - it takes two to tango. ETCA can only succeed if it is wholly mutually beneficial. Likewise, trust-building between member states for the strengthening of the regional body can only come when collective participation can occur free of arm-twisting and bullying.

What Delhi has previously taught other South Asian states is the sophistication of a big power which is able to show restraint in the face of provocations by smaller powers on the one hand and, on the other, display a generosity through unilateral concessions for the purpose of cementing trust and friendship. The greatness of a regional power is affirmed by its civilisation - that superior capacity to transcend immediate self-interests for the common good and, purely in compliance with moral principle - what Sage Kautilya calls 'dharma'.

Likewise, Colombo must take its evolving geo-political strategy - after a decade of non-strategy - to its logical end in terms of its own security interests. Our little island can never be a 'big power' in the Indian Ocean. In terms of our regional role, our military capabilities, both air and naval, need to emphasise long range surveillance and economic security rather than military strike capabilities against other states. At the same time, drawing on our past national experience, strengthening of our internal security remains a major task. Thus, the glamorously expensive supersonic fighters, main battle tanks, long range artillery and other big power hardware is not for us - except for those seeking big commissions, as in our recent past. Our last internal war was successfully brought to a close not by such weaponry but by medium-scale and mobile hardware like MBRLs and ground attack helicopters.

Ideally, even these national security considerations should mesh with evolving regional security arrangements, because in this globalised world no single country can look after itself. Thus, cross-border insurgency is only one irritant that needs multilateral discussion while other issues such as cross-border pollution, natural resource-sharing and nuclear fall-out are all queued up for our South Asian community to take up. For some of these, there are already shining examples - like the Indus River treaty - that can be emulated for our common good.

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