Regionalism: A New World of International Relations

Book Review

Regionalism today is assuming an important dimension in India’s foreign policy. And this is in keeping with a trend towards regionalism which is finding acceptance in every part of the world. Every state looks for an optimum mix of bilateralism and regionalism in its foreign policy. In his latest book, ‘How Neighbours Converge: The Politics and Economics of Regionalism’, Ambassador Inderpal Khosla analyses this phenomenon of regionalism, which is impacting the very structure of international relations today. Ambassador Sudhir T Devare reviews this profound and scholarly study

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited leaders of South Asia for his swearing-in this May, what was invoked was essentially a sense of goodwill for the countries of the region of South Asia. For India, peace and security in this region is the basic priority even as it seeks to build bilateral ties with individual countries. Today, regionalism is assuming an important dimension in India’s foreign policy. And this is in keeping with a trend towards regionalism which is finding acceptance in every part of the world. It is in a way ironical that while technology and globalisation are closing the distance among countries, there are new developments which seem to give primacy to the factor of geographical proximity and commonalities of a region.

This was, however, not the situation till a couple of decades ago. In India, regionalism was looked upon with indifference if not scepticism. The emergence of SAARC in 1985 was accepted, but not with enthusiasm. And the situation was not very different elsewhere in the world except possibly in Western Europe, Southeast Asia and to some extent in Latin America. The debate between bilateralism versus regionalism, rather multilateralism per se has gone on for some time and still continues. Large and powerful nations did not generally favour regionalism, whereas smaller countries saw in regional groupings a sense of assurance for their security and well-being and greater prospects for cooperation and peace.

This phenomenon of regionalism, which is impacting the very structure of international relations today, is the subject of a profound and scholarly study, ‘How Neighbours Converge: The Politics and Economics of Regionalism’ by Ambassador Inderpal Khosla.

Peace and Cooperation

One of the pre-requisites for regionalism is peace. In fact, peace and cooperation are the two sides of the same coin as far as regionalism is concerned. The author describes ‘cooperation’ as a guarantor of peace. Khosla says at the very outset that his book is about peace and cooperation as against the concepts of war and power. He further argues that the constituency of peace and cooperation is not small; but was not well organised and may be lacking in finance. Since the 1990s, peace has, however, received serious attention.

With inter-state conflicts still raging across the world, weapons of mass destruction getting deadlier and the spectre of terrorism and sectarian violence posing greater danger, questions may arise whether the trend towards better understanding and cooperation implicit in regionalism is indeed real and sustainable. The author takes the view that with the spread and acceptance of globalisation all over the world, peace rather than war has become the mainstay of statecraft, and economics is the prime mover of human affairs replacing politics. He has analysed in great detail regionalism - its genesis, history, evolution, the European context and discusses various theories associated with it. He also explains in lucid terms regionalism as against regionalisation. Whereas the former is a policy, the latter is a process. Discussing the symbiotic link between globalisation and regionalisation, the author expresses the view that encouragement to regionalisation in international peace and security created the ground for proliferation of regional arrangements in international economic exchanges. Europe found a practical way for regionalism through economics (for example, the Steel and Coal Community as the starting point). Regional Trading Agreements (RTAs), Customs Union, Common Market, Economic Integration can be described as various forms of regionalisation.

Old and New Forms of Regionalism

Throughout his seminal research work on the subject, Ambassador Khosla brings out persuasively that regionalism is a new form of international relations, a very effective one which contributes to building interdependence and thereby, to peace and security. He goes on to identify old and new forms of regionalism. North-North or South-South Cooperation, he believes were old forms, whereas North-South Cooperation is a new one which is multi-disciplinary and includes culture and identity. His three case studies on regional cooperation in South Asia (SAARC), Southeast Asia (ASEAN) and the EU are excellent examples of scholarly work and personal insight, and will be an absolute delight for any researcher who wishes to delve in-depth on these subjects. The appendix containing a Glossary of Regional Cooperation Organisations, which is attached to the contents of the book, will be highly useful given the fact that a plethora of regional cooperation arrangements have come up in recent years and more seem to be on the way. In each of these studies, the author has divided his analysis in three parts: The Drivers, the Story of Cooperation (of Unity in the EU’s case) and the Impact. He has added one more part – Histories and Cultures – under SAARC.

Story of Cooperation in South Asia

Any discussion on regional cooperation can become only idealistic, and therefore, unrealistic if the socio-political context is not taken into account. This is particularly relevant in the case of SAARC where the record of progress is generally known to be poor as compared to ASEAN and the EU. The reasons are not far to seek. In South Asia, the environment for peace and security or mutual understanding has been uncertain and not satisfactory, to say the least. Perhaps because of its experience with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, India was not prepared to accept any dispute settlement that was not bilateral. India’s firm ‘bilateralism only’ has opposed any regional or multilateral role in its disputes. Evidently, this has the basis of India’s past experience. Interestingly, if commonalities can be the foundation for regionalism, the author points out that the perceptions and outlook of India’s smaller neighbours vary sharply from that of India when it comes to the oft-repeated reference to ‘South Asian shared history and culture’. Whereas India emphasises unity in diversity, others in the region believe in constructing nationalist projects in which histories and cultures are distinct from the Indian. Unity is seen by these countries as ‘homogenisation’ leading to ‘hegemonisation’. On a positive note, the author suggests that one way towards cooperative endeavour would be to reinforce intra-regional and inter-community affinities that are already in place. This could be the point of entry. The middle path would be where unity and diversity are given equal emphasis.

The story of cooperation in South Asia which Khosla narrates in his book is indeed fascinating since he shares his ‘ringside’ view and personal involvement in the SAARC experiment right from its inception. As a joint secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, he was entrusted with drafting India’s reaction when in 1980; President Ziaur Rahman took the initiative to write to Indira Gandhi suggesting some form of a regional link in South Asia starting with the economic field. In describing the entire sequence of events from the genesis of the idea to the senior officials’ meetings, to the adoption of the Charter in 1985 at the first Summit, the author throws light on the evolutionary process in the thinking on regionalism in South Asia of not only India, but also Pakistan and other neighbours. His analysis brings out the reality of mutual differences when he says that in South Asia, cooperation was not the outcome of the Charter, unlike in Southeast Asia or Europe where cooperation was driven by large states. In South Asia, on the other hand, it was driven by smaller states with the largest being most reluctant. Importantly, in discussing his personal association on the subject, the author tries to allay what he calls a ‘myth’ that Indian policymakers were fearful that the smaller neighbours would ‘gang up’ against India. He says that no one in authority in India ever thought along those lines at that time.

Overall, the book offers an optimistic view of regionalism in South Asia. Outlining the flexible and modified positions of South Asian countries, large and small, evolved over the years towards SAARC, it argues that if political disputes come in the way of meaningful cooperation, the solution lies in more trade, more interdependence and a regional division of labour. Regional cooperation may create conditions to generate the solution to political disputes. For India’s foreign policy, which is currently seen to be focussing on its neighbourhood, this offers a great challenge.

Regional Groupings at Crossroads

The two major and relatively successful regional groupings, namely ASEAN and the European Union, which Ambassador Khosla has described in-depth with much insight, are today at crossroads. In terms of political and economic coherence, they may have so far achieved a great deal. And yet, both are under severe pressure to retain their unity and cohesion. Whether it is the question of joining the eurozone or the approach to deal with the financial crisis or the policy towards Russia, there are sharp differences within the European Union. In ASEAN, which was able to imaginatively craft and conduct dialogue mechanisms among major powers in the Asia-Pacific for over two decades, there is the lack of a unified view over the approach to deal with China’s assertiveness on the South China Sea issue. Clearly, national interest considerations prevail overwhelmingly despite apparent success of regionalism.

The central role of bilateralism in policy making is, thus, coming to the surface. Ambassador Khosla’s book does take into account this stark reality of international politics, but seems hopeful that the politics and economics of regionalism will enable neighbours to converge. It is evident that an optimum mix of both bilateralism and regionalism is what a state would look for in its foreign policy, at least in the foreseeable future.

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Sudhir T Devare

Sudhir T Devare is Ram Sathe Chair Professor in International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune and Noida. He was Indian Ambassador to South Korea, Indonesia and first Ambassador to the newly formed countries, Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia, Secretary (Economic Relations) in Ministry of External Affairs, and Director General, Indian Council of World Affairs ( ICWA).

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