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
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.