Thursday, May 30, 2013

To Connect Southeast Asia to Central Asia, Passage to India and Pakistan Vital

The 21st century cannot truly be the Asian century if some parts of Asia remain mired in instability and declining growth

China and India are two important regional powers. Any development involving their co-operation or rivalry impacts on the evolving strategic matrix of the region. Indonesia, given its own historical links with India and China on political, cultural and religious matters, is keeping watch on how the two countries are addressing their historical differences.

Indonesia, in itself a rising power, wants these two powers to move in tandem as development and trade partners with Southeast Asia — not as rivals.

So it is no wonder that Indonesian leaders and media want China and India to seek trust not only between themselves but also by expanding relations with Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states.

In this context, the trip earlier this month of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to New Delhi and Islamabad, the capitals of India and Pakistan, was prominently reported in the media.

Indonesia wants to work with China across the South China Sea to keep the region tension-free, ensuring progress in negotiations between China and Asean to establish guidelines to settle disputes peacefully.

It welcomes the strengthening of economic corridors running from China through India and Bangladesh, and another through Myanmar, as economic links between East Asia and South Asia.
Indonesian media rightly focused on Li’s visit to India. For Indonesia, China and India are large markets for commodities exports. Trade between Indonesia and China sits at about $51 billion a year and trade with India at $17 billion.

China is Indonesia’s biggest coal importer and India takes 80 percent of its crude palm oil exports. Combined, these countries are a mass of 2.5 billion people — 35 percent of the world’s population. India and China are leading investors in Indonesia. Both countries have significant commercial, political and security interests in Southeast Asia.

Pakistan views growing China-India relations as a stabilizing influence in its immediate neighborhood.

In this context, Li’s visits were a relief. If the proposed regional trade agreement between India and China, with the possible inclusion of other South Asian countries, takes place, it will strengthen economic interests. This development will militate against a relapse into the mutual suspicion that guided interstate relations in the 1960s and 1970s.

Twice former prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif emerged in elections earlier this month as the new leader of Pakistan. He is known to be a pragmatic politician interested in building bridges of friendship and fraternity with India, and consolidating the existing strategic partnership with China.

The way his electoral win has been received in both countries is propitious for peace and stability in the region. On Monday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sent a special envoy to meet Sharif in Lahore. Earlier, Sharif had a friendly meeting with Li in Islamabad.

Under the sagacious leadership of Sharif, the new government — after having resolved some urgent bilateral issues with India — may embark upon trilateral economic initiatives to kickstart economic development, including power generation, infrastructure projects and the payment of foreign debt.

The 21st century cannot truly be the Asian century if some parts of Asia remain mired in instability and declining growth. China, as Li’s visits to India and Pakistan indicate, recognizes that peace is a precursor to the development of Asia as a whole.

While in India, Li spoke of the economic corridors involving China, India, Myanmar and Bangladesh; in Pakistan he agreed to set up an economic corridor to further connect their two economies. On the South Asia visit, Li sealed 11 co-operation agreements on trade, technology and culture.

Pakistan and Asean have recently discussed how Pakistan can help connect Southeast Asia to Central Asia, a region that includes Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Both sides hope that Southeast Asia will soon be effectively connected with Central Asia. The two economic corridors can provide the basis to connect Southeast Asia with the Central Asia through Pakistan.

In this pursuit, quadrilateral co-operation among India, China, Pakistan and Indonesia can play a central role. The idea is based on more than a mere desire. All these countries have the wherewithal and economic power to connect these two regions for trade, investment and manufacturing.

China borders Central Asia. India and Pakistan have decided to relax their trade regime. Both have signed agreements to facilitate Afghanistan’s trade with India. Pakistan provides the shortest and cheapest link to landlocked Central Asian states. Indonesia cherishes happy relations with China and Pakistan.

Wise leaders in these countries are ready to implement their vision for sustained growth in Asia. Healthy economies can provide the right environment to connect Southeast Asia with Central Asia.

Realism is needed given the risk of serious problems in the integration. But Indonesia, being the 19th largest economy and harboring abundant natural resources — including oil, gold, coal, gas, lumber, rubber, palm oil, nickel and zinc — can persuade Asean states to connect with South Asia and onward to Central Asia.

The whole exercise could complement World Trade Organization mechanisms currently under discussion. Sanaullah is the ambassador of Pakistan to Indonesia. .Jakarta Globe (JG Illustration)

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