The post-COVID world is likely to bring forward a plethora of new challenges and complexities for South Asia. The major transformations in the global geostrategic and geo-economic matrix raises questions concerning what options the region faces in the unfolding circumstances.
Speakers mulled over these issues, raising questions and seeking answers in a webinar on 'South Asia in the Era of Geostrategic Competition.' The discussion, held on 4 February, was jointly organised by the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS) and the Elcano Royal Institute of Spain. Participants from various countries and professions joined in the interactive dialogue through the Zoom platform, raising various issues and bringing different perspectives to the table.
In his welcome remarks, president of BIPSS, Maj. Gen. ANM Muniruzzaman (retd), said that South Asia had become extremely relevant in international politics. It was the home of half of humanity, a region of emerging powers, nuclear member states, and was a close neighbour of the rising power China.
He said that the webinar jointly organised by BIPSS and the Elcano Royal Institute was also a reflection of the friendly relations between Bangladesh and Spain which were going from strength to strength.
The Spanish ambassador to Bangladesh, Francisco Benitez, in his opening address said the webinar was a timely initiative and a timely exercise of public diplomacy. He said that such dialogue was a perfect way to nurture bilateral relations.
Ambassador Benitez went on to say that there were several developments to be followed in the South Asian region, including issues pertaining to terrorism, competition, disputes, clashes of interests of the big powers, the recent destabilising factor in Myanmar, the tensions between US and China and between India and China, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and other fast moving events.
The key challenges for the South Asian region, Shafqat Munir highlighted, were water security, infectious disease security, health security, nuclear security, the potential for conflict, hydro-conflict, human displacement and migration, terrorism, economic security, poverty, the economic impact of COVID and more
Moderating the event, director of Elcano Royal Institute, Charles Powell, introduced Elcano as one of the leading think tanks dealing in foreign policy and international relations. He observed that the dialogue organised in collaboration with BIPSS was extremely relevant to the emerging global and regional scenario.
In his keynote, Shafqat Munir, research fellow at BIPSS and head of Bangladesh Centre for Terrorism Research (BCTR), said emerging circumstances called for questions on how to navigate in the post-COVID world. The issues that had gained prominence in recent times included China's BRI, the US' Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), the post-US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the post-COVID global situation in general, among other issues.
He raised questions on whether the emerging circumstances were indeed Sino-centric or whether certain quarters were being too quick to write off the US.
The key challenges for the South Asian region, Shafqat Munir highlighted, were water security, infectious disease security, health security, nuclear security, the potential for conflict, hydro-conflict, human displacement and migration, terrorism, economic security, poverty, the economic impact of COVID and more.
He highlighted the potential for strategic competition in the Indian Ocean as well as the non-traditional threats like piracy and illegal unregulated fishing.
Shafqat Munir said that rather than just highlighting the problems, there was need to also look for a way forward. The recommendations he made in this regard were regional cooperation, conflict resolution mechanism, mitigation of the ongoing arms race, addressing climate change, addressing water security and water basin management, increasing the capacity for energy management and developing renewable energy and working towards poverty eradication.
Concluding, he said, "Both complexities and transformation are apparent in South Asia. The countries of the region need to engage in further meaningful collaboration to achieve global competitive advantage. South Asia needs to work more actively the international system for better regional and international integration."
Charles Powell raised the question of Bangladesh's perception of China as a neighbour. "Are we moving towards a more Sino-centric world or a multi-polar world?" he asked.
The other participants at the meeting highlighted their concerns and made observations on India-Pakistan relations, the Myanmar situation, the Rohingya crisis, vaccine diplomacy, human trafficking, post-election changes in the US policy, women's empowerment, the apparent new Cold War and more.
The speakers were all in consensus on the need for increased collaboration, both in the South Asian region as well as on a global level.