Written by Saawani Raje.

On his visit to Riyadh next week, President Trump plans to unveil a framework for the formation of an “Arab NATO” – a new regional security architecture. Could South Asia be a fertile ground for forming a similar multilateral security alliance? Three challenges obstruct the development of such a framework. First, there is an absence of a collective external threat for the region. Secondly, there is the presence of intense internal mutual distrust, and thirdly, the region’s focus on economic rather than military issues.

Complex strategic relationships between China, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, built to offset threats from each other create a competitive dynamic within the region.

Any multilateral framework has a common collective objective as its core. When this multilateral network is based on security, the main collective objective is often a common threat. Tracing the origins of NATO, which could serve as a blueprint for a future South Asian security alliance, illustrates this point. In 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established between the United States and a group of states in post-War Europe facing a single collective threat— the Soviet Union; providing them with an incentive to cooperate and form a multilateral security alliance. It can be argued that the states of South Asia as a bloc face no real collective external threat. Thus, the main incentive which makes a multilateral security alliance a necessity for these states is absent.

The threat of terrorism could potentially represent a common security concern which might propel these states into initiating a multilateral alliance. However, as the situation stands, there are apprehensions about state-sponsored terrorism from Pakistan. There are similar suspicions in Pakistan about India, too. This leads on to the second main issue regarding the possibility of a South Asian security alliance— that of internal conflict and mutual distrust.

A degree of trust, especially regarding security, is indispensable for building a successful multilateral alliance. However, the internal geopolitics of South Asia are rife with hostilities and deep distrust, contributing to the internal instability of the region. Firstly, the complicated post-1947 geography of South Asia has resulted in geographical asymmetry vis-a-vis India. Accounting for three-fifths of the geographical land mass of South Asia, India shares its borders with all SAARC nations, except Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Afghanistan. This has played a big role in India’s smaller neighbours resisting what were, from their perspectives, India’s efforts at attaining regional hegemony.

Bilateral relationships in the region are thus extremely complex. The increasing role of China complicates these dynamics further. For example, despite India and Bangladesh’s landmark Land Boundary Agreement in 2015, tensions still exist regarding the Teesta water sharing issue, which is two decades old. Additionally, while Sheikh Haseena herself is willing to cooperate with India, the Bangladeshi public is sceptical about bending over backwards to cooperate with India. Additionally, Chinese influence on Bangladesh has been steadily increasing. Similar uncertainties exist between India and its other smaller neighbours. However, with the Modi government’s policy prioritising reaching out to India’s immediate neighbourhood, there is scope for improvements in relationships between India and some of its neighbours.

The protracted India-Pakistan dispute further aggravates internal instability and strife; minimising the possibility of any security alliance that includes these two states. The Kashmir dispute remains intractable, and the current relations between the neighbours have hit rock bottom with the recent beheadings of Indian soldiers by Pakistani troops. While India has hinted at military retaliation, there is talk of defence policymaking rethinking India’s ‘no first use’ nuclear doctrine. This escalation of hostilities between the enemy states has exacerbated the instability of the region. It seems unthinkable that either government would consider entering a possible security alliance which would include the other.

Complex strategic relationships between China, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, built to offset threats from each other create a competitive dynamic within the region. This dynamic makes their multilateral security cooperation more difficult to imagine.  The relationship between India and Afghanistan on one hand, can be seen as being dependent on both Afghan and Indian strategic calculations vis-a-vis Pakistan. On the other hand, Pakistan’s closeness with China to offset the Indian threat is a well-worn tactic, leading to greater distrust among the major South Asian states. The CPEC project, for example, saw Indian objections about the corridor passing through Gilgit-Baltistan, which is territory claimed by India. Afghanistan has also recently expressed a desire to be part of the project, which would exclude India and eventually connect Pakistan, China and possibly, Afghanistan. These uncertain dynamics and continuing tensions and hostilities reinforce the point that South Asia’s strategic calculations, especially in terms of security, are best served by bilateral relations.

One area where there have been efforts in multilateral cooperation is the Indian Ocean. Initiatives like SAGAR as well as India’s recent maritime military policy express India’s strong desire to take the lead in building a security alliance in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to combat conventional and non-conventional threats like piracy, terrorism and China’s growing control over the region. However, major conflicts within South Asian nations revolve around territory and land borders, which are integral in the identity of these states. Thus, even if a multilateral maritime security alliance is built by the littoral nations of South Asia, it will not assume center stage.

Finally, it is reasonable to argue that the current focus of South Asian cooperation is economic rather than military. Reflecting on the origin of NATO, we find that the overriding regional concern at the time was a military and security one. South Asian states, on the other hand, have prioritised economic cooperation over building military alliances. Initiatives like BBIN, BIMSTEC or even CPEC have been their focus, relegating military concerns to the background. Even then, these economic initiatives are riddled with setbacks.

Therefore, one can reasonably conclude that a multilateral security alliance in South Asia broadly on the lines of NATO will not be a reality in the near future. This is mainly because there is no real incentive in the form of a collective external threat for the states of South Asia to put aside their internal hostilities, overcome their deep distrust and set aside their economic cooperation priorities in order to come together in a multilateral military alliance. Is multilateralism possible in South Asia? Despite the dismal track record of multilateral initiatives, yes. However, it is more likely to happen in the economic rather than the military or security arena.

Saawani Raje is a Ph.D. candidate at the King’s India Institute, King’s College London. Her area of research lies in civil-military relations. Follow her on Twitter @saawaniraje. Photo Credit: CC by U.S. Department of Defense/Flickr.

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