SOUTH ASIA: HIGHLIGHTS OF 2012
SAARC: The first of its kind, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was the preliminary effort to seriously consider regional integration in South Asia. Since its inception in 1985, the Association has developed an effective mechanism to enhance regional economic cooperation in particular. It has also expanded its functional outreach to all possible fields, including poverty alleviation, health, agriculture, trade, communications, environment and education, civil society interaction, human resource development, and security. SAARC’s areas of cooperation in fact, vary from Culture to biotechnology, from environment to finance, from social development to energy and many more.
This year marked several major developments on social, political and economic fronts amongst the South Asian countries.
AFGHANISTAN: There were historic developments in the security arena, with a systematic pull-out, as approved by NATO, in a phased manner, (a process that will continue until 2014) of the U.S. troops from the nation. This attempt, by the Obama administration has been a matter of debate on a more futuristic level, wherein it is argued that keeping extremely few troops by the end of 2014 could stall the already slow development of Afghan security, while keeping too many troops could prolong Afghanistan’s dependence on the US troops (First Post, 2012). Despite all the debates lingering around this issue, undoubtedly, it has been a bold decision by the US administration to implement the pull-out. This endeavour will definitely give the Afghan troops more independence and allow them to take charge of their own country’s security. Having been almost exclusively dependent on external aid, the country with a weak economy must first fortify its security position after which it will be able to work towards pulling itself forward from the 172nd rank in the HDI rankings.
NEPAL: Marred by a political crisis, Nepal has unfortunately only seen the quandaries surrounding the efforts towards transforming itself from a monarchy to a democracy. Indeed, the New York Times has put it correctly, by stating that Nepal has been paralyzed by the ethnic, caste, religious, ideological and regional differences that permeate Nepalese society and have apparently made the most basic political agreements close to impossible (New York Times, 2012). Amidst all this, with Mr. Bhattarai almost single-handedly managing this care-taker government, the President of the nation met India’s Prime Minister towards the closing of 2012. India’s positive response towards welcoming any further tie-ups in Indo-Nepal relations has given a boost to the latter. This meeting was largely held for the world’s largest democracy India, to help out the country form a national united government.
BHUTAN: The Kingdom of Bhutan, in 2012 tooks another step forward in trying to move into democracy alongside other developments as well. A delegation of Bhutanese monks arrived in Pakistan in June, this year, on a rather spiritual and historical trip and also the Minister of State (MoS) for Foreign Affairs Nawabzada Malik Amad Khan. The Asian Development Bank (as of December, 2012) stated that Bhutan is still challenged by a narrow economic base, low employment elasticity in the hydropower sector, inadequate involvement of the private sector in economic development and a rapidly growing number of educated but unemployed youth. Thus, the country displays great potential to achieve development in numerous areas. In fact, efforts in this direction have already begun, with the 4th King who started a process in the direction of democracy, which in 2008 resulted in the adoption of a new constitution and the first election ever involving political parties. This transformation is not going to occur overnight, Bhutan’s attempt to search for a transparent, free and fair election of public offices at different levels is a gigantic leap forward (DIPD, 2011).
SRI LANKA: The Sri Lankan President Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa, met the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh in September 2012. This meet focused on strengthening the political ties between the two nations, amongst others being, rehabilitation of Sri Lankan Tamils and addressing their grievances. With regards to Lankan-Afghan relations, it was in the latter half of December 2012, that on the invitation of Professor G.L. Peiris, Minister of External Affairs of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, Dr. Zalmai Rassoul, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, visited the island country. ‘Sharing a common cultural and historical heritage, would allow smoother regional cooperation between the two nations’, was explicitly highlighted during this visit.
MALDIVES: With respect to the second major island country in South Asia, more of holistic development talks were held with other South Asian nations. Towards the close of August this year, Dr. Mohamed Waheed, President of the Republic of Maldives, was on official visit to Sri Lanka on the invitation of the Sri Lankan President. In the areas of education, tourism, fisheries, trade and investments, bilateral diplomatic relations between the two island nations were discussed through the three day visit. Less than a month later, the Indian defense minister A K Antony and his Maldivian counterpart, Col (Retd) Mohamed Nazim, met in Male, to discuss furthering bilateral defense ties between the two nations. In specific, maintaining maritime defense of the Indian Ocean was given significance during the meet.
PAKISTAN: More on the defense as well as trade sector, Indo-Pak ties seemed to be slowly but surely, strengthened with several visits of important ministers, between the two neighbours. The end of 2012 marked the historical title of the Most Favoured Nation given to India as Pakistan’s trade partner. Towards the beginning of 2012, in February, India’s Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma was on official visit to boost trade relations. In fact, attempts in the direction of progress in trade and business are a key input to improve relations between the two nations. After two months, the first visit by a Pakistani President to India in seven years was marked by Mr. Zardari’s visit to the India capital. Worried by the uncertain security status and the weak economy of the nation, the Pakistani President expressed concerns about the same during this visit. Later this year, in October 2012 Defence Minister Gen. Bismillah Mohammadi visited Pakistan’s border, to investigate the possibility of any form of violence or unrest that could take place. Peace talks between the two nations are also underway and this shows efforts in the positive direction. Another area of cooperation that was explored by the two nations was the new liberalized visa regime, the process which began from December, 2012. It will allow easier entry in the respective countries for visitor visa, business visa and pilgrim visa holders (Laskar, 2012). This move will facilitate greater mobility amongst the people, thus building up on connecting them alongside boosting the trust levels as well. On the financial front, two banks from Pakistan— the Habib Bank and National Bank— are going to open their branches in India and on the Indian side, the Punjab National Bank and Bank of India have evinced their interest to open their branches in Pakistan. The ban on investment has also been removed, which is a giant step towards exploring greater economic integration (Pattanaik, 2012).
BANGLADESH: In 2012, yet another nation saw itself grappling on the security front. Towards the end of February this year, Bangladesh’s Home Minister, Shahara Khatun visited India to discuss concerns about border security and drug smuggling. In September 2012, Agriculture Minister Matia Chowdhury and visiting Bhutanese Agriculture and Forests Minister Lyonpo Pema Gyamtsho signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on agricultural cooperation between the two countries, at the Bangladesh Secretariat. The memorandum was signed to mainly facilitate technical cooperation in the field of Agriculture. On a more academic note, a delegation of 20 senior officers from the three defence services of Bangladesh, including 10 foreign officers from National Defence College (NDC) attended a five-day study tour in India from mid-September. In the following month, Bangladesh’s principal opposition leader, Begum Khaleda Zia discussed with the Indian Prime Minister, the issues of terrorism, bilateral trade, and sharing of river waters in her week-long visit (Livemint, 2012).
INDIA: India, this year, encountered several economic problems like rising inflation, sluggish GDP and the rupee losing value, but is a ray of hope for revival, as can be seen by the rise of the Sensex in December 2012. In fact, the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) has stated that the biggest democracy of the world will overtake the UK by 2017 to become the largest economy in the Commonwealth (DNA, 2012). With respect to political relations being developed with neighbours, new avenues for growth and development were discussed as Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi visited India and met the Prime Minister and other leaders mid-November this year. To mark the end of the year, a month later, similar discussions were held with Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari and interior minister Rehman Malik, when they visited India about a month later, where two-sided efforts towards improving political relations were discussed.
Thus, in 2012, South Asian nations discovered and re-discovered renewed relations in several areas of development amongst them. SAARC has been the linking thread between the member nations, providing the platform for nations to interact and build fruitful relations. There is great potential that is being seen in this region for bolstering intra-regional ties. This year has marked an era of numerous intra-regional visits by important ministers of the South Asian nations, building up and expanding the scope of inter-country political, economic and diplomatic relations. India has made long strides in furthering regional cooperation by assisting Nepal, Bhutan and fostered friendly ties with Pakistan and Bangladesh, in the hope of helping to fortify regional cooperation in the long run.
- Asian Development Bank: Accessed on 19 December, 2012.
- DIPD, (2011), “Bhutan: The Challenge of Moving from Monarchy to Democracy”, Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy. (accessed on 20 December, 2012)
- DNA, (2012), “India to become a bigger economy than UK by 2017”, ANI, 27 December, 2012. (Accessed on 2 January, 2013)
- First post, (2012), “Debate over whether US troops should withdraw from Afghanistan”, 3 December, 2012. (Accessed on 2 January, 2013)
- Laskar, R., (2012), “India,Pakistan operationalize new visa regime”, Rediff News, 17 December, 2012. (accessed on 20 December, 2012).
- New York Times, (2012), “Nepal”, New York Times-World, 30 November, 2012. Accessed on 19 December, 2012.
- Pattanaik, S., (2012), “India-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Meet: The Hype and the Substance”, Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses. http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/IndiaPakistanForeignMinistersMeet_sspattanaik_170912
- Roche, E., (2012), “Bangladesh’s Khaleda Zia seeks to revamp Indian ties”, Livemint (Accessed on 3 January, 2013)