Dr Rajan Bhattarai
Concept of cooperative security evolved particularly after the end of Cold War. This is a concept which emphasizes more on prevention of war by creating multilateral security framework between the states than by focusing on war. The basic thrust is that security makes sense at the level of individual human beings, reduces tensions and helps build confidence and develop better cooperation among the states to tackle the newly emerging security threats.
Cooperative security includes defense exchange, security dialogues and exchange of intelligence information. It organizes joint military exercises, enhances mutual cooperation and organizes regular mutual visits besides taking other confidence-building measures. This also includes creating multilateral framework between the states to help develop a constructive security mechanism so as to establish peace and stability. Cooperative security permits deeper understanding of mutual aspects of security and takes security beyond traditional military concerns.
It promotes regular defense exchanges, security dialogues in various levels between and among the states, formation of multilateral security frameworks in regional level, sharing of intelligence reports, and exchange of observers at military exercises and joint inspection of military bases among others. It is believed that such multi-layered cooperation and exchange model enhances trust and lessens perceived threats between the states.
All eight members states of SAARC—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka—share common historical ties, religious and cultural traditions, linguistic affinity and social norms. This provides ground for developing common understanding on many issues. In fact, this commonality should be made a basis of regional cooperation among South Asian countries. But this has not happened so far, especially regarding security cooperation. In the last 60 years of post-colonial history, South Asia has remained the least regionalized sub-region in the world.
South Asian region is regarded as a major theatre of non-traditional security threats where world’s largest number of poorest people lives. Their lives have been plagued by illiteracy, deprivation of basic needs, ethnic discord, caste and gender-based discriminations and other oppressive social orders. To deal with this situation, SAARC needs to take joint efforts and develop mutually agreed plans of action. Governments of all member states should work toward this direction.
South Asia has been facing growing religious fundamentalism, ethnic conflicts, environmental degradation, natural calamities, refugee crisis, social crimes and terrorism. Even after the introduction of human security concept and its increasing prominence worldwide, ruling elites of the region seem to be guided by state-centric security views and think of military approach as the option to deal with these problems.
This traditional mindset of dealing with the widening security threats in the region has created a wider gap in security enhancement. Concept of security has broadened in the recent decades. Hence it requires different approaches. But the lack of proper understanding of the issues and failure to conceive the broadening concept of security has further complicated the problems.
Security was a key issue in the SAARC even in its initial days. SAARC initiator like late President of Bangladesh, Zia-ur Rahman had underlined the need for security cooperation among the member states while discussing formation of SAARC in the early 1980s. He held that peace and security were prerequisites for economic development in the region.
However, the security issue was not included in its initial agenda as it was opposed by some of the member states, despite some small countries insisting on it. Instead it was left to be dealt through other channels in bilateral and other multilateral levels.
Those who were hesitant to include security issue argued that increasing cooperation in the economic, cultural and other soft areas would eventually lead to stability, development and peace in the region. Therefore, they argued, military issues need not be a formal agenda in SAARC summits.
However, given the urgency of the issue and attention it deserves, SAARC leaders have started utilizing the opportunity to discuss security related problems during the informal discussions and bilateral meetings, including in SAARC summits. Things changed after 20 years of establishment of SAARC. Leaders of this region began to raise security related issues even in the formal forums. Islamabad summit of 2004 marked this shift.
Signing of additional protocol to the SAARC regional convention on Suppression of Terrorism in the 13th SAARC conference in Dhaka reflects the growing consensus among leaders to enhance security cooperation. Such a move also echoes the growing importance of security consideration in the SAARC process. It has been realized that without addressing core security and political issues, no matter how controversial, it would be impossible to implement and promote other regional cooperation programs. Such realization is a positive development to create a stable, peaceful and prosperous South Asia. The region needs to develop better security cooperation particularly on sharing of intelligence and information reports, promoting mutual supports, regular defense dialogues and enhanced security coordination between the states. Such move will help to build confidence among the states and also contribute to improving security environment in the region.
South Asian states need to rise above narrow and traditional security views to build trust and strengthen security cooperation in the region. Only this will help them to deal with the newly emerging security threats. After all member states—even those who were reluctant to discuss security issues in the past—have understood the importance of collective effort to deal with security issue. Given the asymmetric nature of relationships between member states, cooperative security framework seems to be the most practicable solution towards enhancing regional security in South Asia.
The author, now a CA member, was foreign affairs adviser to former Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal