The global landscape today is shrouded in a cloud of hostility and it would be in the interests of all to make sure that countries in South Asia become partners in peace and prosperity rather than hotbeds of strategic competition. This was the key message driven home at the 11th ISAS International Conference on South Asia on 3 March at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel Singapore, organised by the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) at NUS.
“The global world today has become more difficult to navigate and we all have to learn to deal with hypernationalistic sentiments and to deal with a world in which free trade will come under increasing pressure,” said Guest-of-Honour Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs. However, South Asia and Southeast Asia are actually bright spots for the future. “We represent regions that have not yet harvested the demographic dividend. If we get our act together, if we invest in ourselves, in our infrastructure and in our people, then we have a realistic chance of harvesting this dividend,” he added.
Titled “Contemporary South Asia: Regional Dynamics and Changing Global Politics”, the conference saw some 250 guests from various countries in attendance and included engaging discussions on the economic, socio-political and security landscape of South Asia in a volatile global political arena.
During an interactive session moderated by Mr Gopinath Pillai, Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Chairman of ISAS, Dr Balakrishnan was asked by a participant about the opportunities South Asia offers, to which he replied, “Look around the room. The real question should be how many non-South Asians are in this room? That is the better index of whether there’s an appreciation of culture, but more important than culture, of the opportunities that are favourable to us in Singapore and Southeast Asia from developments in South Asia.” He added that our diversity presents both opportunities and reasons for caution. Drawing examples from both the European Union and ASEAN, Dr Balakrishnan also cautioned that the pace, sequence and scale of enhancing integration in South Asia needs to be managed to ensure security, social safeguards and consensual decision-making.
In a panel session on Global Developments and South Asia, speakers examined policy responses to challenges of global governance and international institutions and frameworks. “I think what matters in countries’ foreign policy, by and large whether they be big or small, is history, geography and capability,” said Principal Speaker Dr David Malone, Under-Secretary General of the United Nations and Rector of the United Nations University in Japan.
Amb George Moose, Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors at the United States Institute of Peace and former US Representative to EU Office in United Nations, attempted to address concerns about the new US administration’s future policy directions with regard to South Asia, which he candidly said involved a high degree of uncertainty given other preoccupations and challenges facing the US. “It probably won’t come as a surprise that the factors that are going to loom largest in the minds of the senior officials in the new administration at Washington are going to be security,” he said.
The conference also saw panellists discuss South Asia’s position in relation to East and West Asia and the impact of deepening transregional connectivity on national sovereignty and opportunities, particularly with China’s increasing prowess. Issues facing specific countries including Afghanistan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka were also examined.