Seminar at Chatham House

On Wednesday 11 May 2011, the Chatham House Asia Programme, in collaboration with The Democracy Forum and Asian Affairs, held a roundtable seminar on the theme of European relations withSouth Asia. The event was chaired by Dr Gareth Price, Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme, Chatham House, and the speakers were Dr Christian Wagner, Head of Asia Research Division, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), Berlin; Dr James Chiriyankandath, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies; Dr Ruth Kattumuri, Co-Director of the Asia Research Centre and India Observatory, LSE; Dr Luis Peral, Research Fellow, European Union Institute for Security Studies (Paris); and Dr Zarni Maung, former Research Fellow on Burma, LSE Global Governance.

Dr Price opened the seminar with a welcome to the speakers and guests, and made a brief reference to the genesis of the event from the perspective of Chatham House. Shyam Bhatia, editor Asian Affairs said the seminar had been largely prompted by economic issues in South Asia, though such issues could not, of course, be isolated from other factors. This seminar would, he hoped, provide a forum for discussion that would offer ideas about how progress could be made in the relationship between Europe andSouth Asia.

The first speaker was Dr Christian Wagner, who began by referring toIndia, its domestic politics, economy and regional role inSouth Asia. There have always been many demands, said Dr Wagner, both from the EU and the rest of the outside world, for India to act as both a ‘regional policeman’ and a stability anchor in this ‘area of crisis’. But he expressed doubts aboutIndia’s fitness to fulfil these roles, citing various historical reasons, including its foreign policies in the 1970s and 80s. However, liberalisation and its positive effects onIndia’s foreign policy since 1991 have, he said, had a strong impact and the country has tried to improve relations and intensify bi-lateral co-operation with its neighbours through, for instance, free-trade agreements, such as the one made betweenIndiaandSri Lankain 1998.

This, said Dr Wagner, opened up questions about how farIndiawould use its economic resources, and its ability to act as a regional authority – something about which he expressed scepticism, especially in the long-term. This was because, from a domestic perspective, he could see no ‘political will’ in India to end policies of interference, and he also warned of overloading India with too much responsibility in the region, especially in the light of its past and present confrontations with neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Also affectingIndia’s role as a regional power is the emergence of ‘new players’ such asChina, which could be said to enjoy greater political, economic and military co-operation with its neighbours thanIndia.

In response to a question from the audience about ‘regional power’ as it applied toIndia, Dr Wagner said that regional power was an attempt by any state to order a region according to its own agenda. ButIndiais ultimately restricted, he said, so it cannot necessarily promote its own ideas of democratic governance.

Dr Zarni Maung raised a point about the UK placing significant ‘political weight’ on India as a rising power, while Dr Ruth Kattamuri said she believed India lacked understanding in the 1970s and 80s rather than political will, and had in fact tried to help its neighbours (eg Sri Lanka) rather than interfere.

Dr Wagner argued thatIndia’s one-time support for militant groups such as the Tamils could surely be classed as interference, while Dr Kattamuri countered that theUKwas guilty of similar meddling. Expectations of leadership fromIndiamight be unrealistic, she added, in the light of its diverse society and the huge number of outsiders living there, and in any case, she expressed doubt thatIndiaeven wanted to play a leadership role, asEuropeseemed to expect it to. Dr Wagner noted that leadership byIndiamight work on an economic level but not on a political one.

Dr James Chiriyankandath took the floor next, on the topic ofIndia’s domestic politics and external relations. He conceded that since the liberalisation ofIndia’s economy in the early 1990s,Indiahas managed relations with its near neighbours better, but its focus is now more global. To be successful, said Dr Chiriyankandath,Indiamust be accepted in theSouth Asiaregion, but it would ‘wait forever’ to be accepted as a regional hegemon. He also spoke of the recent BRICS summit, India’s decision to focus more closely on ASEAN and its concern regarding security around its borders, how to manage the politics of growth, poverty and plurality, and to keep the union of states together culturally, economically, etc. Dr Chiriyankandath also referred to the corruption that existed within the Indian polity, which had ‘really boiled over’ within the past six months (as evidenced by the Telecom scandal, Commonwealth Games, etc), and which has affected the entire political spectrum, undermining confidence in the political class.

As for its international relations,Indiais, he said, experiencing a transition but change must be incremental, not radical, asIndiahas a vested interest in maintaining the existing order. He also referred toIndia’s relationship with post-civil warSri Lankaand said that the ability ofIndia’s smaller neighbours to grow has provided a ‘counterpoise’.

Dr Price queried whetherIndia’s attitude towards Kashmir and outside interference on that issue had affected the country’s view of interference as a whole, to which Dr Chiriyankandath replied thatIndiabelieves that outside involvement can lead to prolonged and bloodier conflict. Successive Indian governments, he said, had managed rather than solvedKashmir, which was misguided.

Dr Luis Peral offered the view that states were no longer interested in forging stable relationships but in diversifying, and stressed the need to find ‘commonalities’. He also referred to the issue of corruption, citing it as one of the main reasons for recent events inNorth Africa.

One audience member called it ‘simplistic’ to argue that India could be a regional ‘policeman’, especially in relation to Pakistan and Afghanistan, given its historical baggage, while Shyam Bhatia wondered whether playing a global role might be less divisive for India than playing a regional one. Dr Wagner emphasised thatIndia’s most pressing problems were social, not political, and referred to the ‘institutional nature’ of Indian foreign policy, which he saw as an obstacle to the country achieving global status. Dr Chiriyankandath suggested that India could not fix all the problems in its immediate neighbourhood before engaging with a wider region, and spoke of the Indian government’s ‘circumspect’ attitude towards the killing of Osama bin Laden (as opposed to the Press’ much more vocal approach), born of a desire not to antagonise Pakistan or jeopardise a solution to Kashmir.

At this point, various speakers and audience members discussed the notion of building up SAARC in order to improve regional relations.

Dr Ruth Kattumuri’s presentation drew comparisons between EU and Indian demographic trends, illustrated by census-based graphs. She compared and contrasted such factors as GDP, age dependency ratios, gender labour force and education rates, showing clear improvements in, for example, Indian literacy rates. But with improvements in wealth and health came new challenges, she warned, such as greater corruption and increased need to care for the elderly, which was a major issue in bothIndiaand the EU. Dr Kattumuri also pointed to democracy itself as a challenge toIndia– one not faced by neighbouringChina.

Dr Wagner mentioned the uncomfortable question raised about EU relations withIndia, namely why EU taxpayers should help fundIndia’s education system and development, to which Dr Kattumuri replied that the donor-recipient relationship between the EU andIndiawas changing and economic dividends were being paid as a result of growing populations.

After a break for lunch, Dr Luis Peral opened the afternoon session by speaking about the issue ofAfghanistan, the peacebuilding role played there byIndiaand the EU, and the difficulties they faced. Looking at the programme and achievements ofIndia, he said, it could have been designed by the EU, so there could be good prospects for co-operation between the two, especially on economic grounds. However, as India tries to assert itself as a regional power and project its domestic needs, the EU, eager not to be sidelined in the international arena, is trying to maintain its own identity and assert its capacity as a global act in Afghanistan, and there were many examples of the difficulties of co-operation faced by India and the EU in the field of foreign policy and security.  Dr Peral also spoke of the ‘narrow understanding’ of the situation vis-à-visIndia’s relations withPakistanand Pakistani opposition toIndiabecoming a relevant actor inAfghanistan, and he considered counter-terrorism operations from the perspective of bothIndiaand the EU. Dr Peral ended by asking whether we should work to change perceptions so thatIndiaand the EU can co-operate together, or should we start co-operating more so that perceptions can be changed? And where should we start?

Dr Price observed that Afghanistan was one of the countries in South Asia that was most amenable to India, while Dr Wagner raised a point about the EU and India having a different approach when it comes to practical co-operation and Dr Chiriyankandath drew attention to the large number of Indian agencies in Afghanistan, many of whom are engaged not in developmental activities but in intelligence. He also asserted that EU member governments have their own agenda, which may complicate co-operation withIndia

Dr Ishtiaq Ahmad from St Antony’s College, Oxford suggested that we need a liberal institutional model to create a durable foundation for peace in Afghanistan, while Tom Deegan from Asian Affairs said that the EU could help to counter militancy in both India and Pakistan by giving financial aid towards secular education in Pakistan, and Nivedita Velamati from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office commented on the EU’s responses to China’s courtship of various South Asian countries, and the effects of this on decisions on Afghanistan.

Dr Zarni Maung was the final speaker, and he spoke of Europe-Burma relations and what the key players expected from the relationship. Referring to Burma as the ‘last frontier market to conquer’ and one that had been barely penetrated, he considered perceptions of that country from the outside world, problems regarding EU trade with Burma, and the balance between value and trade interests. The Burmese junta, suggested Dr Maung, has commercial interests and a desire for international acceptance, while the EU has substantive commercial and strategic interests inBurma. Dr Maung gave a brief overview of the economic ties betweenBurmaand neighbouring countries such asThailand, before questioning the morality of EU nations such asAustriapromoting defence products within a country that has such a poor human rights record. He spoke of the Burmese military as a major economic as well as a major security organisation, and noted how the EU is building relations with certain class groups withinBurma, not with the country as a whole.

Regarding EU policy rationales, Dr Maung said that if the EU doesn’t invest inBurma, others such asChinaandKoreawill. Ultimately, Europe, as a ‘value-driven’ community (as opposed to the trade-driven nature of ASEAN), must have some kind of intellectual/moral justification in terms of how it approaches Burma and European/western firms have a greater corporate responsibility towards Burma, which, as a military dictatorship, will take time to evolve. Dr Maung then posed a crucial question – since when, in real history, have dictatorships and colonial regimes evolved, without serious struggles, into humane, representative governments? – and ended by pointing to China as a supposedly new model of economic development – ‘take care of the market and democratisation will surely follow’ – which has, in fact, failed to demonstrate its own democratic potential.

A more optimistic note was struck by Dr Wagner, who said that colonial systems such asIndiahad evolved into representative governments, but he also spoke ofIndia’s lack of reservations in dealing withBurma, despite its repressive regime, and observed thatBurmawas not a good case for co-operation. IsEurope, he asked, in a position to keep up with the interests of the South Asian countries in a more general way? Europe’s main concern, he suggested, wasPakistan, and he foresaw more EU funds going into theMiddle East. Finally, he warned of the difficult choices faced by the EU, which could ‘not afford’ to co-operate with all the countries inSouth Asiaand so would have to choose its focus, based on where EU and also US interests lie.

Dr Price pointed to the EU focus on economic diplomacy, wondering if the balance might shift away from the human rights/democracy values of the old EU towards a more commercial EU, and Dr Peral pondered how one could impose sanctions on a country without punishing its population, the effects of which might be, paradoxically, to create more support for the regime.

One audience member underlined the dichotomy between what is professed ideologically and commercial interests but said that, compared to theUS, one can give some credit to the EU in this regard. Dr Chiriyankandath agreed thatPakistanis important to the EU for security reasons, whileIndiais seen through the ‘prism’ of trade. He also asked whether the Burmese regime cared about EU protests against its human rights record, and compared this withSri Lanka, which is strongly influenced by EU views.

David Watts from Asian Affairs raised a point about the limited impact of EU sanctions in places such as Burma and the value of promoting tourism, while Dr Maung spoke of the junta’s rule in Burma as a form of ‘military apartheid’, as well as highlighting the ‘psychological craving’ of dictatorships for acceptance from those outsiders who condemn them, and imagining a welcome for the US in Burma. One audience member reckoned that the withdrawal of the international community fromAfghanistanwould not leave the same vacuum as in the 1990s and hoped that structures could be put in place that would allow regional countries to collaborate. Dr Price wondered if the EU could act as a template for the region.

Dr Wagner made mention of India expanding its activities under the ‘umbrella of the West’, and noted that the EU does not handle minority conflicts well, as evidenced by Northern Ireland and Spain, so was limited in South Asia in this regard, while Dr Peral asserted that the EU has failed to make substantial progress in Afghanistan and has no real leverage globally. Dr Chiriyankandath pointed out that, while the seminar group had discussed issues such as trade, security, aid, democracy and human rights, etc, there was also a need in the future to discuss immigration and employment.

The seminar rounded off with a heartfelt thanks by David Watts to Dr Price and Chatham House for helping to organise and host the event, and to the speakers for their valuable contributions. In turn, Dr Price also thanked the speakers, as well as the team of The Democracy Forum and Asian Affairs for their collaboration.