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Minority opinion

Daily Star, Dhaka

Minority opinion

By Zafar Sobhan

18 May 2007

I have often in this column argued for greater regional integration and for greater connectivity for Bangladesh. I am on record as being a supporter of our entry into the trans-Asian rail and highway networks. I have been a strong proponent of transshipment and have often suggested that we need to be more open in our policies and mind-set towards the rest of the world. I have decried what I see as a "Fortress Bangladesh" mentality, and have argued that we need to integrate ourselves as fully as possible into the global community.

It ought to follow from all this that I must be a strong supporter of Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), right?

Not so fast. As time goes on, I have become more and more skeptical about Saarc, and despite the current happy-talk emanating from the latest Saarc summit concluded last month in New Delhi, and despite the conventional wisdom that Saarc is finally beginning to deliver, I find little reason to be more optimistic in my outlook.

How come? The reason is that it remains unclear to me what the advantages of being part of the Saarc grouping are over entering into bilateral relations with each individual Saarc country instead. It seems axiomatic that we could more easily tailor bilateral free trade and other such agreements than succeed in putting together a multi-lateral one that meets the needs of all seven (now eight) member states.

Indeed, this is why we have been pursuing (without much success) bilateral trade agreements with India and Pakistan, and it seems to me fairly clear that if and when such treaties are ever signed and come into effect that they will be more useful to us than anything we receive under Safta (South Asian Free Trade Area).

Think about it. It is difficult enough to enter into an agreement with India on trade that would be sufficiently protective of our national interest, without having to worry about how such an arrangement will effect Pakistan. Similarly, why should our relations with, say, Nepal, be at all contingent on what Bhutan or the Maldives want?

In fact, the tension between India and Pakistan, specifically, makes it unlikely that we could enter into better relations with either country with a multi-lateral approach rather than a bilateral one. Nor are these the only tensions in the region. This is one area in which collective bargaining is likely to weigh us down rather than shore us up.

Now, within Saarc there are some groupings, such as India, Nepal, and Bhutan, where there is tangible advantage to thinking multi-laterally (in the case of a regional energy grid, for instance). But that is why we have the South Asia Growth Quadrangle. But I can think of no situation in which it would be advantageous to subject the decision-making process to the consensus of the seven (now eight) different countries.

One reason for Saarc was perhaps for the smaller countries of the region to get a better deal out of India by teaming together. This has not happened. It might have proved a sound gambit had the other five countries tried this approach in the absence of Pakistan, but with Pakistan as part of the grouping, it means that one is more likely to get a good deal without them, than with. Sri Lanka figured this out some time ago which is why it has signed a bilateral free trade agreement with India, rather than waiting for whatever concessions it will enjoy under Safta.

The main problem with Saarc is conceptual. The truth is that Bangladesh’s economic future lies to our east and not to our west. If we compare the two regions of Southeast Asia on one hand and Central Asia on the other, it seems pretty clear which one we would do better to throw our lot in with, both in terms of geographical proximity and in terms of economic advantage.

This is why I have always like the concept of Bimstec (Bay of Bengal Initiative for MultiSectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). Essentially, Bimstec substitutes Thailand and Myanmar for Pakistan and the Maldives. Now, that’s what I call a pretty good trade! Even if, today, Pakistan is a more important trading partner than Thailand, this will not be the case in ten years. And in terms of foreign investment and managerial and technical know-how, we are far better off cultivating relation with the latter.

With Pakistan lurching towards ever greater strife with each passing day, closer association with it at this precise moment in time sees like an anachronistic idea. Certainly, there are historic and other connections, but in purely practical terms, they are yesterday’s news. There is no reason why a country so remote from us in distance should continue to be so important to us, certainly in comparison to the countries of Southeast Asia. Even less reason when the country itself remains dangerously unstable

Beyond Pakistan, the situation is grimmer still. Count me as one who is less than enthusiastic about Afghanistan joining the fold. With the Taliban still powerful outside of Kabul and with Afghan war veterans having caused all manner of havoc in Bangladesh (though, thankfully, not lately), I don’t really see what Afghanistan brings to the table except for the potential to export instability.

One of the hallmarks (and purported end goals) of any regimen of regional integration would be more porous borders and freer mobility of labour and common people. Frankly, when one reviews the numbers of Afghan war veterans who are either incarcerated, have had cases brought against them, or even been executed, for militant activity in Bangladesh, it is a fair question to ask whether this would be altogether a good idea from our point of view.

This is not to say that there is not unrest in Sri Lanka or Nepal. Or Myanmar and Thailand, too, come to think of it. India s well, for that matter. But the truth is that as a Muslim majority country we are uniquely (Maldives barely counts) vulnerable to the fall-out from the instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and if things get worse there, out of all the Saarc countries, we stand to suffer the most down the line.

Time to Look East, I think. Hmmm. Didn’t I hear that idea somewhere before?

Zafar Sobhan is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.