South Asia sees fresh security challenges in a changing landscape

Speakers at the roundtableCollected

Rivalry of the big powers, conflict between regional powers, potential water wars, climate change, cyber warfare, pandemics and many more factors could make South Asia a hotbed of conflict in the days ahead.

The region sees newer and bigger challenges in the changing global landscape and these circumstances call for pragmatic strategies by all involved.

While speaking at a roundtable on 'Emerging Security Challenges: South Asian Security Landscape', speakers made these observations, covering various traditional and non-traditional areas of security and the changing global circumstances.

The roundtable was organised at a local hotel in the capital on Sunday by Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS).

In his opening remarks as moderator, Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, distinguished fellow, BIPSS, said that security is a core value of human life. It is the central theme of international relations.

The issue of security gave rise to a myriad of questions -- who should provide security? Was security for states or the individual? By what means was security to be ensured? The issue also involved challenges to sovereignty and the concept of sovereignty, which was considered the bedrock of the global system.

He said, security can be about bombs and borders, and can be about bodies as well. "We are in a changing world," said the former caretaker government advisor for foreign affairs, "And new powers are emerging, like China and India." In the regional context he noted how the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) had become totally inactive mainly due to the enmity between India and Pakistan. On a positive note, he pointed to the demographic dividend of South Asia, giving the countries of the region an advantage. He also mentioned how the South Asian diaspora around the world were clinching important positions in politics, business and other sectors.

Niloy Ranjan Biswas, associate professor of the department of international relations at Dhaka University, said there was need for new understanding of geostrategy in the post-Cold War era. South Asia in the contemporary context had an extended land base construct, with geographical boundaries deconstructed. "It is about what we include or exclude to construct a meta region," he deliberated, pointed out how the initiative SAARC itself had devolved.

He saw South Asia as a meta region still evolving. It had commonalities but was also heterogeneous. It was geographically small, but its population took up 25 per cent of the world population.

Referring to non-traditional security, he said that while the pandemic saw a certain amount of cooperation, it also displayed dissonance.

And in the traditional security contest, India and Pakistan as two nuclear powers of the region had fortunately managed to avoid big 'conventional clashes'. Not even Europe could avoid significant clashes as is evident today.

He went on to discuss the growing strategic significance of China in the region, as well as that of India. He pointed to the extension of the South Asian parameters to Afghanistan and to Myanmar, both countries facing significant trouble.

Farzana Mannan, associate professor of Jahangirnagar University's department of international relations, spoke on the non-traditional security challenges of South Asia, with a focus on climate change. She said non-traditional security challenges like the pandemic, climate change and cyber security are often human-induced disturbances.

Migrants invariably ended up with 3D jobs -- dirty, difficult and dangerous.
Farzana Mannan, associate professor, department of international relations, Dhaka University

She noted how in the region air pollution was causing frequency of the monsoon rains. Natural calamities led to increased risk of hunger. Thus climate change was expected to cause a 2 per cent loss to the GDP by 2050.

South Asia was not only densely populated, Farzana Mannan pointed out, but had the highest concentration of poor people. Agricultural land was being lost due to climate change, increasing the vulnerability of the region.

She stressed the need for freedom from war, freedom from fear and freedom to live with dignity.

There could be clashes between India and China and that South Asia could also become a hotbed of India-Pakistan conflict
Brig Gen, Shahedul Anam Khan (retd), former associate editor of the Daily Star

She said, "Climate change has the potential to pose as a threat to food security. People in the region spend more money on food and with rising food process, cannot spend on education and other areas."

Economic security and health security were also challenges for the region, Farzana Mannan said. Displaced by climate change, people migrated to the cities, but it was difficult to find jobs due to their unskilled status. Again, shortage of drinking water led to diarrhoea, cholera and other water-borne diseases.

As for the threat to freedom of living in dignity, she said that migrants invariably ended up with 3D jobs -- dirty, difficult and dangerous.

Brig Gen, Shahedul Anam Khan (retd), former associate editor of the Daily Star, began by saying that security was an environment that allowed people to live and to exist without external influence, coercive influence that affected their functioning.

"We are an important region," said the former military officer, "but we lack the verve we should have. When we talk of South Asia, we cannot forget its history. It is not a singular security construct. Each country has its separate security concerns, constructs."

As for the location of South Asia, he continued, it straddled two important regions, the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. It is also in close proximity with China, the next great power and the second next great power, India.

He cautioned that  there could be clashes between India and China and that South Asia could also become a hotbed of India-Pakistan conflict.

The presentations were followed by lively interaction during the concluding question and answer session. The roundtable was attended by former diplomats and civil servants, foreign diplomats, academics, journalists and others.