I want to offer a broad Indian perspective on the subject that we are dealing with. I say an Indian perspective because this may not necessarily be the Indian perspective. It is how I, as an Indian, understand our region and the dynamics that are unfolding in the region.
I see South Asia as a single geopolitical and geoeconomic unit; it is a region that contains countries with very strong complementarities in terms of economic opportunities. It can also be described as a shared cultural space, because there are very strong cultural affinities amongst the countries of South Asia.
The third element, which is too easily forgotten, is that South Asia is also a single ecological unit. Whether we look at the impact of the monsoons, or at how we are affected by the melting of the glaciers, or at how we may be affected by rising sea levels, we must see South Asia as a single eco-system; and that introduces its own very major challenges.
If you are looking at this highly inter-connected region from the perspective of India, the other salient point is that India is by far the largest country in the region. It is the most powerful in terms of its economic capabilities, in terms of its military capabilities, even in terms of its technological capabilities. Indeed, it is more powerful than all its neighbors in South Asia put together.
In other words, a defining feature of South Asia, is that it is characterised by a gross asymmetry of power.
The result of this high degree of inter-connectedness and exaggerated asymmetry of power within South Asia is that India, as the dominant country in the region, inevitably sees its security not only in terms of its current national borders, but also in terms of the borders of South Asia as a whole. India cannot protect its security without looking at what is happening in its periphery. This also means that, for India, any kind of external intervention within its periphery is something that immediately constitutes a security challenge to India itself. This is something which needs to be understood by anyone who wants to understand the geo-political dynamics of South Asia.
The asymmetry has certain advantages for India, but it also has great disadvantages for India.
The disadvantage for India is that the asymmetry of power leads India’s smaller neighbors to seek counterweights to the dominating presence of India — either by soliciting aid from external powers or by banding together in opposition to India. This tendency, even seen from an Indian perspective, is not too difficult to understand. But the result is that, if you look at the history of independent India, you will see that there has always been a strong allergy in India to any external intervention in the boundaries of South Asia as a whole. During the Cold War years, there was an Indian Ocean ‘zone of peace’ proposal from India which was basically designed to keep the Indian Ocean around the Indian periphery free of great power presence, whether on the part of the Soviet Union or on the part of the United States. There has also been an allergy to the prospect of any external intervention in the affairs of India’s smaller neighbors. Most clearly, this has been demonstrated in the kind of responses that India has made to developments in Nepal at various points of time. Naturally, we cannot be immune to what's happening now between the US and China in Nepal. Here, the strong competition between the two sides, which may not have been visible a while back, is now overt; and I suspect that we will find it becoming much more important in the days to come. .
So this is the disadvantageous aspect of the asymmetry of power within South Asia: that India is always anxiously on the lookout for any kind of strong external intervention or presence in its periphery. And much of its foreign policy with regard to the neighborhood is very much influenced by this factor.
The corresponding advantage of the asymmetry of power is that, as the dominant economy in South Asia, India has the capacity to become the engine of growth for the entire region. I have argued again and again that the asymmetry can actually work to India's economic advantage — if it is able to invest in stronger economic connectivity amongst the South Asian countries, if it is able to give preferred access to its market for the neighboring countries, if it is able to give them access to the Indian transportation network, if it is able to become their preferred trading partner. And some moves in the direction of greater economic connectivity have been made — for example, through Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) subregional cooperation in the South Asian energy market and in water transportation using the region’s rivers.
But much more could be done. Above all, there is a compelling case for India to pursue economic integration in its neighborhood in order to meet the region’s shared ecological challenges. To see the need for cooperation, one has only to look at the problems caused by extreme climatic events in various parts of the region (the recent floods in Pakistan and the melting of Himalayan glaciers), or the problems arising because of hazardous and toxic materials being deposited in the river-deltas of South Asia (creating virtually dead maritime zones in areas such as the Bay of Bengal). Ecological challenges on this scale can be addressed only through regional collaboration, with all South Asian countries working together. If we fail to do this, then many of the issues which divide us and many of the conflicts that preoccupy us today will look very irrelevant in the future.
This is something to which none of the countries in the region are paying sufficient attention. If one looks at, say, what's happening in Pakistan and what may happen tomorrow in the eastern part of India, one can see all too clearly that rivers are living systems; they are not property that can be divided into little chunks owned by particular countries. You cannot treat a river in that manner; individual parts of it do not constitute discrete assets. The ability of Pakistan or India or other countries in the region to deal with the region’s river systems therefore critically depends upon overcoming national divisions and coming together to deal with the challenges; collective failure to address the collective hydrological challenges will mean the countries of the region being collectively overwhelmed by them. And, because of the asymmetry of power within the region, it is only India which can lead that particular kind of collaboration.