Engaging South Asia

News | March 19, 2019

EastWest Institute's South Asia Initiative hosts roundtable discussion to contextualize regional dynamics and emerging security concerns.

Despite South Asia’s indisputable dynamism, the member states—particularly India and Pakistan—have found it difficult to engage on core issues and often show deliberate resistance in establishing sustainable political and commercial connections. The recent standoff between India and Pakistan, following the February 14 attack on security forces in Indian administered Kashmir, led to an immediate military escalation and made the world realize that the changing calculus in South Asia requires urgent attention.

On March 14, in an effort to mutually discern South Asia’s existing predicaments and underlying peace building opportunities, the EastWest Institute’s South Asia Initiative convened a roundtable discussion at its New York headquarters.

EWI CEO and President Ambassador Cameron Munter led the discussion, sharing insights gained from on-the-ground discussions with key stakeholders during his recent visit to India and Pakistan. Ambassador Munter opened by sharing the vision behind the South Asia Initiative, centered on finding innovative solutions to the region’s fundamental issues.

The conversation established that the India-Pakistan bilateral relationship should not be a zero-sum game. The two nuclear-armed neighbors define the peripheries of South Asia’s security dynamics and must exercise maximum restraint and avoid military solutions in favor of engagement and means of cooperation to uphold regional peace and stability.

During the discussion, participants reflected upon the implications of the India-Pakistan conflict on South Asia’s current trajectory and proposed cooperative mechanisms, with a specific focus on the following themes:

  • There is a recognizable appetite for cooperation and partnership among the Indian and Pakistani business communities. If trade negotiations and cross-border economic links can be enhanced, India would have a logical and beneficial commercial partner in Pakistan.
  • Climate-induced conflict between the two nuclear nations and use of water as a weapon of war is an explosive reality the international community must attend to immediately. South Asia is heavily water stressed and the prospect of any diplomatic tensions involving water will have widespread regional and global security ramifications.
  • The conflicting media narratives in relation to recent tensions paved the way for an irresponsible display of nationalistic fervor in the two countries, as well as within regional diasporas across the globe. It is imperative to have a media dialogue to promote balanced reporting and recognize the consequences of its influence on public opinion.
  • Soft power may be an effective means of bridging the gap in perceptions between the region and the outside world. Empowering stronger people-to-people connectivity through nontraditional diplomacy channels—such as supporting digital infrastructure, health care initiatives and educational exchange—can strengthen greater peace and cooperation.

A participating expert expressed concern that the future of Indo-Pakistani relations is contingent upon finding concrete solutions to the Kashmir issue. Regrettably, the long-standing history between the two countries elucidates that the leadership consciously refrains from reaching a rational and sustainable political solution.

Another expert remarked that the core bodies integral to intraregional relations—military, retired and active policymakers, regulatory institutions—need to be proactively engaged in order to foster integrative synergies between South Asian member states.

The EastWest Institute will continue to expand its South Asia Initiative exploring opportunities for conflict mitigation, and convening additional dialogues to ensure that regional influencers and decision-makers have a productive forum to assess emerging issues and collaborate on integrative actions to un-tap the region’s potential.