Partnering for Economic Development in South Asia

Published on February, 2016 in Diplomatist

Partnership defines this fast shrinking century. Since the end of the Cold War, the world has increasingly become interdependent both in security and economic development terms. That is why countries no longer speak with the kind of zero-sum undertones, which they used to do in the last decades of the Cold War and the early years of the post-Cold War. At least in rhetoric, ‘win-win partnership’ has replaced the realpolitik jargon of the past century and increasingly guides states towards a new world order whereby every state should be afforded the opportunity to grow and develop alongside the rest.Afghanistan’s experience during and after the Cold War is instructive on why forging results-oriented partnerships of cooperation among nations matter. The Cold War zero-sum power politics victimised Afghanistan as its proxy battlefield. In the end, the West and the former Soviet Union won and lost battles. However, it was Afghanistan and its people that bore the brunt of the two powers’ zero-sum games. They have yet to recover completely from that bygone era of destructive international relations.

Even though Afghans expected to secure international partnership and cooperation to help stabilise and rebuild their post-war country—thereby ensuring global peace and prosperity—they were let down. The United States and its allies prematurely disengaged from Afghanistan in early 1990s, following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from the country. A decade later, on 9/11, the United States paid a heavy price for its failure to partner with Afghanistan and assist with its post-Cold War stabilisation and reconstruction.

Since the tragedy of 9/11, however, the international community has increasingly embraced partnerships of different natures and objectives, common to all of which is economic cooperation. South Asia is potentially one of the richest regions of the world. The region has a common, ancient civilisation that binds its diverse people together. And it’s endowed with youthful populations, whose energy and genius should be harnessed to exploit the region’s vast natural resources for the sustainable industrialisation and development of all South Asia’s still underdeveloped and least connected countries.

The countries of South Asia have unfortunately faltered and even failed to partner effectively with one another and as a region for economic development. And the simple reason for this has to do with the misadventures of some state actors in South Asia who act as if they were still in the 19th century. Afghanistan is a major victim of this negative regional dynamic where ‘manufactured insecurity in the form of terrorism’ continues to destabilise this otherwise peaceful country.

Even so, however, Afghans have made significant strides towards long-term stability, thanks to international assistance, including that of India, over the past 14 years. As Afghans have secured their country and built their state institutions, they have pursued a private sector-led economic growth, consistently inviting domestic and international investors to explore and invest in the Afghan ‘virgin markets’.

The Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs through its Delhi embassy has pursued a robust economic diplomacy agenda. Afghan diplomats, including this author, have made many visits to different Indian states, directly engaging with the Indian business community. They have discussed with them profitable investment opportunities in Afghanistan, including in such sectors as mining, agriculture, energy, infrastructure, telecommunications, services and others. And they have facilitated the signing of MoUs of economic partnership and cooperation with a number of local chambers of commerce, while facilitating the visit to Afghanistan of Indian investors, who have chosen to move in and reap the windfall profits, which so many others have already done.

Despite these efforts, South Asia has remained trapped in paralysing inter-state power politics. This has cost the whole region in direct and indirect ways, especially India and Pakistan. These two major states can change their ‘lose-lose’ relationship by focusing on the many benefits of ‘win-win’ economic cooperation, which underpin their bilateral relations with other states in the world.

The strategic and cooperative partnership of China and India serves as an example. They have successfully managed their differences, while largely focusing on economic cooperation. This approach has so far paid off. In the coming few years, they should be able to reach their targeted goal of reaching $100 billion in annual bilateral trade, with the trade deficit fast closing in favour of India.

As a land-locked country committed to the principles of peaceful coexistence in South Asia, Afghanistan stands ready to do its part to facilitate regional economic cooperation. In the recent Fifth Ministerial Conference of the Heart of Asia – Istanbul Process in Islamabad, Afghanistan renewed its early calls on the rest of the region to follow suit, while shelving their differences for gradual resolution.

President Ashraf Ghani emphasised during the last South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit in Nepal, inviting the whole region to opt for cooperation instead of confrontation that has cost every country in the region, particularly Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. The government and people of Afghanistan hope that 2016 will witness concrete steps, backed by firm political will, to be taken by all South Asian states for working together to ensure sustainable economic development in the whole region.