South Asia in Global Perspective: Issues and Challenges | 2017-10-24 |

South Asia in Global Perspective: Issues and Challenges

Waliur Rahman

    24 October, 2017 12:00 AM printer

South Asia in Global Perspective: 
Issues and Challenges

Waliur Rahman

It is no coincidence that as South Asia declined Europe prospered. If Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah was not defeated by Clive in 1757 in the battle of Plessey, South Asia would have become the hub of Industrial Revolution. After winning the war the East India Company removed the Capital from Murshidabad to New Delhi. They forced the richest men to invest in Manchester and Birmingham. That was the beginning of Industrial Revolution in the West. This was one of the biggest Capital transfer in history. South Asia was the victim – victim of the cruelty of history. It is very important for us to know. If we don’t record this in history, after a while, researchers at home and abroad, would speak like Lord Palmerston who said, with regard to Schleswig Holstein,: “Only three people understood this problem – one of them is dead, one turned lunatic, and I am the only living person, but I have forgotten all about it.”1


Added to that is what the British war Minister John Stretchy in his book, ‘The End of Empir’, mentioned about the Administrative Kleptocracy through which virtually the whole of South Asia was looted by the British and this was one of the biggest fault-lines in the British Empire.


 The Asian Development Bank estimated that Asia after making three-fifths of the world’s GDP at the beginning of the industrial age in 1820, saw its stake decline to one-fifth in 1940. But there has been a dramatic recovery and by 2025, Asia, mainly India and China, will return to their 1820 positions in terms of world product.



A democratic South Asia with India leading the trend will overtake totalitarian China. China, meanwhile, might overtake USA in producing goods and services. I am mentioning this particularly because the Imperial Power wanted the world to forget this. Chandra Gupta Maurya, whose Empire stretched from Afghanistan to the borders of Bengal, received envoys from foreign kings and potentates as reported by Megasthenes. Alexander took away with him numerous Indian scholars, at the behest of Aristotle, who wanted to learn more about the Indian solution to the problems of metaphysics.2


In India, the civilisation that we inherited can be termed as an Aryan-Dravidian synthesis. It can be said that in India, the present South Asian countries, the ancient culture is almost as extensive as civilisation itself. “In ancient India the higher civilisation of the pre-Aryans suffered military defeat at the hands of the invading Aryans but in time transformed the Aryan mentality itself by enriching the cultural life of the conquerors.” We know from history that the Mycenaean civilisation was defeated, but the result was a higher Hellenic Culture.3



Today if we ask a western researcher, most probably one will say something like what that Lord Palmerstone said. It was a difficult time for South Asia. But Europe was busy in maintaining balance of power. Napoleon and Alexander I was dividing the world, Napoleon and Alexander I met on a raft in the river Niemen and divided up the world even more casually than the ‘Big Three’ did at Yalta. A few years later Alexander I conducted his own diplomacy at the Congress of Vienna just as President Wilson did at Paris in 1919.4


Winston Churchill howled about Mahatma Gandhi in pejorative terms. The sun did not set in the British Empire. South Asia, India, was in stranglehold of the British Empire. But times have changed. South Asia got its way to independence and sovereignty. The economic GRAVITAS and with it the overarching strategic power is shifting towards South Asia and South East Asia – India and China in particular. We are not following Nietze; we don’t look down to the ravine. We are looking above and in the words of Lamartine: “Today South Asia is making together the submilest of poems.” South Asian countries have experienced profound social, political and cultural transformation after globalisation in the past two decades. South Asia has become a primary concern globally for its important strategic location, a big consumer market for multi-national corporations and variety of cultural attributes.



The South Asian countries share a common past, similar problems on common issues and faces similar challenges. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the first regional organisation of South Asian countries, was established in 1985 to strengthen its regional integration. Unfortunately, SAARC has remained a moribund organisation largely because of the non-cooperation of one member state.


Asia, particularly India and China, is bouncing back from a 150 years decline, seeking to regain economic pre-eminence in the world.5 In keeping with its emerging centrality in international relations, Asia, particularly India, will help shape the new world order and the future course of globalisation. The ascent of Asia, as symbolised by India and China, has in some quarters conjured up a perceived threat to western pastures. This found an echo in the 2006 State of the Union address of the former US President George W. Bush, who said: “In a dynamic world economy, we are seeing new competitors, like India and China, and this creates uncertainty, which makes it easier to feed people’s fears.”6 Economic and Strategic GRAVITAS have decisively shifted to Asia, India and China in particular. When I find some countries talking about protectionism, they need to be reminded of the destructive result of protectionism after 1929.


Problems faced in this region and the numbers of people involved are so huge that success or failure in South Asia pose defining challenges to the core mandates of the United Nations as the global arena for problem-solving. Development in South Asia cut across the major fault-lines of the UN system with respect to the challenges of economic development, environmental protection, food and water security, democratic governance and human rights, nuclear war and peace, inter-state and internal conflicts, and new security issues such as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and international terrorism.
South Asia faces public health challenges on a demographic and geographic scale unmatched in the world. The poor education system is in South Asia which prevents the faster economic growth in this region. South Asia is threatened by Daish and also by the Pakistani ISI. Besides facing various challenges South Asian economy is growing fast and it is the world’s fastest growing region. South Asian countries, particularly Bangladesh, India, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, are approaching beyond South Asia by making Alliance with other Asian Countries for economic and security cooperation. This paper will focus on the South Asian Economic, health and educational challenges, Security and Political dimensions in the global perspectives.


South Asian Economic Integration:


South Asia comprises roughly 4 per cent, till 2015, of the Global Gross Domestic Products (GDP).7 South Asia faces formidable development challenges: Accelerating poverty reduction for more than 400 million people who still live in poverty; providing gainful employment to over 12 million people that enter the labour force each year and addressing the growing risks from natural disasters and climate change.8 South Asia is the most dynamic regions in the world with 1.67 billion of population and economic growth is of 7.1% over the last decades and expected to gradually accelerate 7.3 per cent in 2017.9 This region remains a global growth hotspot and has proven resilient to external headwinds such as China’s slowdown, uncertainty around stimulus policy in advanced economies, and slowing remittances. The main challenges remain domestic, and include policy uncertainty as well as fiscal and financial vulnerabilities. According to the World Bank South Asia Region’s Vice President, Annette Dixon,  “A reality check reveals that private investment – a key future growth driver across South Asia – is yet to be ignited to sustain and further increase economic growth. Countries will need to activate the full potential of private investment and exports to accelerate economic activity further, reduce poverty and boost prosperity.”


South Asian economies suffer from a challenging business environment and some are subject to broader uncertainty and insecurity, which is detrimental to investor confidence. According to the World Bank South Asia Region’s Chief Economist, Martin Rama, “Political economy risks are widespread across South Asia, and uncertainty will need to be managed, particularly with a view to creating an attractive environment for domestic and foreign investment alike”.


“Delivering the necessary energy, infrastructure, and regulatory improvements remains critically important to increasing private investment, thus boosting job creation and reducing poverty.”10


Given its weight in the region, India sets the pace for South Asia as a whole. Its GDP is US. $2.18 Trillion Dollar11 and its economic activities are expected to accelerate to 7.7 per cent in 2017, after maintaining a solid 7.6 per cent in 2016.12 This performance is based on solid growth contributions from consumption – boosted by normal monsoon and civil service pay revisions. Bangladesh has shown robust growth despite occasional internal and external headwinds. Growth will be sustained at 7 per cent in 2017, coming slightly down from 7.1 per cent in 201613 and with most economic indicators being stable. Delivering the necessary energy, infrastructural, and regulatory improvements remains critically important to ensure sustained and inclusive GDP growth with strong employment creation capacity.


Sri Lanka, real GDP rose 4.8 percent in 2015, on the basis of strong growth in services, particularly tourism. Bhutan is expected to gain momentum with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) expected to grow at 6.8 percent in 2017 compared to 6.7 percent in 2016. The Maldives is expecting GDP growth to be modest to 3.9 per cent in 2017. Afghanistan’s GDP is $US19.7 Billion till 2015 and GDP growth is 2.0.  Nepal’s GDP is US. $21.4 Billion Dollar and GDP growth is 3.4% until 201515.


It may be relevant to mention that according to the London based Economist, “Bangladesh’s GDP per person is now higher than Pakistan”.16


According to the Military Balance 2017, the South Asian States’ GDP, GDP growth, UNTIL 2016, is the following:


 India      Bangladesh    
Pakistan     Nepal    


The April 2016 World Economic Outlook forecasts (WEO) global growth at 3.2 percent in 2016 and 3.5 percent in 2017, a fall of 0.2 percent and 0.1 percent, respectively, compared with the January 2016 WEO forecasts.17 This downward revision comes on the back of several previous downward revisions in global growth. This persistent slow growth has likely put a dent in global potential output, although prospects for different countries and country groups continue to be far from uniform.18 Growth in advanced economies is expected to remain modest at about 2 percent in both 2016 and 2017. Growth will remain flat in the United States and the European Union—with real GDP growth projected at 2.5 and 1.5 per cent, respectively, in both 2016 and 2017.19 In Asia, Japan’s projected growth has been slashed to only 0.5 per cent in 2016, down from 1.0 per cent growth foreseen at the January 2016 WEO forecasts, reflecting a sharp fall in private consumption. The ASEAN countries’ total real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by 4.6 per cent to reach US $2.57 trillion20 where India holds US $2.25 trillion dollar from South Asian Countries. The total ASEAN GDP is equal to India’s GDP alone. The projected GDP, according to the


World Economic Database October 2015, of South Asia is:


Besides European and other countries in the world, Bangladesh has started Mobile Banking, is a system that allows customers of a financial institution to conduct a number of financial transactions through a mobile device, through Bkash by Brac Bank. This banking system is growing fast in Bangladesh. According to the Bangladesh bank Report, the transactions was Tk. 157,773.31 crore in 2015 through mobile banking which was amount being more than half of the country’s national budget.21


Political Dynamics in South Asia:


South Asia is a region of hope though poverty is here. South Asia stands prominent in international security and the shifting dynamics of regional and Global politics. South Asia’s fastest economic growth, particularly Bangladesh and India, and nuclear weapons capability, basically India, has enabled it to play a great power role beyond the region. Indo-US strategic relations play an important role in the international politics.


The US’ bilateral and multi-lateral relations with China and with South Asian countries, India and Bangladesh, which determine regional political dynamic and strategic power equilibrium in and around South Asian region. The US pays more attention to conflicts within South Asian states. The US is called upon to be a key intermediary in stopping the brutal civil war in Sri Lanka; in encouraging the people and leaders of Bangladesh to resist violent extremists and Islamists; in helping to arrange in Nepal a true and sustained transition to democracy. As declared by the former US under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns: South Asia is now a central focus of U.S. Foreign Policy. For the first time in decades the United States views this region as increasingly vital to our core foreign policy interests. We have better strategic relations with the major powers of the region than we have ever had before.22
The India-US nuclear deal in July 2005 was a product of, not a precursor to, an Indian strategic shift. Before the US agreed to consider relaxing civilian nuclear export controls against India, India had already consented to team up with Washington on matters vital to US interests -from participating in US-led multinational operations and assenting to conclude defence transactions and share intelligence to joining the US directed non-proliferation regime.23
India should be considered as the permanent member at the Security Council of United Nations. Bangladesh strongly supports India’s permanent membership in the Security Council of the United Nations. India has the third largest armed forces in the world by personnel strength, and is continuing a substantial drive to modernise its military capabilities. India participates in numerous bilateral and multilateral exercises and is one of the top troop contributors to UN Peace Keeping Operations. It has displayed the airs of being a great power without demonstrating the stomach or the spine to be one.24 It is one of the members of the Nuclear Club.


Besides nuclear power and large military power India’s GDP is more than Russia and approximately equal to UK and France. Its remarkable GDP with 7.3% GDP growth and a large number of populations, 1,251,695,584 and participation against global terrorism and contribution in world peace, besides China, Russia and UK, gives more validity to the permanent membership in the Security Council of the UN. The comparative figure of GDP and GDP growth of India and the five permanent members of the Security Council has been given bellow:


GDP US$    U.S      U.K    Russia     France          China India    


India and Bangladesh assists the US and the United Nations to fight against terrorism. Recent South Asian security instability is mostly because of Daesh and Pakistan’s ISI. Daesh is threatening South Asia though Dabiq headquarter is already destroyed. Besides Daesh, Pakistani ISI and others Pakistani terrorist groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), under the leadership of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), headed by Masood Azhar and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) led by  Commander Fazal Saeed Otazai aka Fazal Saeed Haqqani, are the main threat for South Asian Security.
Indian Parliament attack on 1st December 2001 and Taj Hotel attack in Mumbai on 26th November 2008 by Pakistani Terror group Jaish- e-Mohammed (JeM), led by Masood Azhar.  Recently, on 18th September 2016, Pakistan attacked in URI in Kashmir and killed 17 Indian soldiers. India affirmed the attack conducted by Pakistani terrorist Militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed. Bangladesh condemned the attack at the highest level. As a result of this attack India boycotted the 14th SAARC Summit in Islamabad and subsequently followed by Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka and the SAARC summit had been postponed. SAARC is becoming dysfunctional only because of non-cooperation of Pakistan.


South Asian Countries, particularly Bangladesh and India, is helping the U.S.A and the United Nations to fight against terrorism after 9/11 terrorist attack in WTC, Pentagon, USA. Besides India, Bangladesh has a remarkable contribution in the United Nations’ Peace Keeping Operation. Bangladesh is holding third position by sending soldiers to the UN Peace Keeping Operations. The U.S former Deputy Secretary of State in Washington DC, Storbe Talbot, particularly thanked Bangladesh for her active participation in global peace keeping operations.25  The three US Diplomats who sacrificed their lives in the quicksand of Balkan imbroglio, where Bangladesh has positioned over 1200 troops, underline the close nexus between the US and Bangladesh.26
The proposal for Asian Highway could not make any progress because of Pakistan’s non-cooperation at the Kathmandu summit when it was raised at the Kathmandu Summit. It appears from Bangladesh, the Pakistan civilian government, particularly in strategic areas, is guided by the defence forces. In order to overcome the difficulties were facing in Joint Transition Cooperation including transit and connectivity, four countries, Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar, set up BCIM (a sub-regional organization of Asian nations aimed at greater integration of trade and investment between the four countries). Beside BCIM, the Four South Asian Countries, Bangladesh-India-Bhutan- Nepal (BIBN), have taken a new project regarding transit within the territory of these four countries.
South Asia faces public health challenges on a demographic and geographic scale unmatched in the world. South Asian countries, India in particular, are facing health crisis with rising rates of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other non communicable diseases. According to the World Bank Report, “Capitalising on the Demographic Transition: Tackling Non communicable Diseases in South Asia,” heart diseases as the leading cause of death in adults aged 15-69, and South Asians suffer their first heart attack six years earlier than other groups worldwide. According to this Report, Cardiovascular diseases would emerge as the main cause of death is 36 percent in India. The number of people with hypertension will rise from 118.2 Million to 213.5 Million by 2025.
Poor education system prevents South Asia from its faster economic growth. The poor quality of education system in South Asia, as reflected in low learning levels, traps many of its young people in poverty and more broadly shared prosperity though the South Asian governments had invested heavily in education to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of Universal primary education for all children. This investment resulted in an increase in the net enrolment rate in South Asia’s primary schools from 75 percent to 89 percent from 2000 to 2010. In the Universities, students are using theoretical learning rather than research study.


South Asia is a region of hope. South Asia is making important contribution to the development of the global economy. The only hindrance to go ahead in this region is the political instability, particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And as recognised in the recently held BRICS Summit (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South South Africa), Bangladesh is concerned with the security situation in the region and violence caused by the Taliban, ISIL/DAISH, Al-Quaida and its affiliates including Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, jaish-e-Mohammad, TTP and HIzb ut-Tahir.27

To bring about peace in the region, ULFA leader Anup Chetia had been arrested in 1997 in Bangladesh by the Bangladesh Border Guard and finally handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), India, after the Bilateral Extradition Treaty between Bangladesh and India. In Bangladesh, some terrorist groups, like New JMB, Ansarullah Bangla Team and lone Wolf may be active. But most of these terror groups are being pursued and destroyed by the law enforcement agencies.


When Awami League came to power in June 1996, decision was made  that in Bangladesh no form terrorism will be allowed and all forms of Terror activities will be decimated. Hon’ble Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina exhorted that Bangladesh has adopted a policy of “ZERO Tolerance to any form of Terrorism”.
Bangladesh has taken out the training camps which were training IIGs in the Eastern border of Bangladesh by the Military and quasi-Military Government of Bangladesh. IIGs were operating in the Eastern part of Bangladesh reportedly with the assistance of Pakistan ISI. Bangladesh has handed numerous IIG leaders including ULFA leaders Rajkhowa, Anup Chetia and others to India.


To further push the rising economy in South Asia, raising quality of education is an urgent priority that could transform the region’s economic landscape. Countries should have to ensure early life nutrition for the children. Countries shall have to ensure good quality teachers in every sector in the educational institutions to fulfil its economic and political aspirations. South Asian countries, particularly India and Bangladesh, are concentrating on sustainable health care to the peoples, because sustainable health is one of the most important factors in ensuring faster economic growth in the region.


Given the diversity that persists in South Asia and the discernible areas of strategic discord, ways and means need to be found to develop wider cooperative arrangements and institutions to build upon existing regional identities. However, in the case of Pakistan, that possibility perhaps is gradually vanishing. It is time to come out of the box and think about the future of SAARC. Evolving common norms, rules and values is the prerequisite for an Asian, particularly South Asian order. A stronger, more vibrant South Asia will emerge by promoting sustainable national security and peace, maintaining balance of power and sustainable national policies.


The writer is Chairman, Bangladesh Heritage Foundation, National Security & Counter-Terrorism, and Former Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of the Peoples’ Republic of Bangladesh