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Time to Reset Foreign Relations between South African and South Asian Countries

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Southern African and South Asian countries have realized that one of the most important means of achieving greater economic independence is through regional integration of economies. Fostering economic diplomacy between the eight member nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and  fifteen member nation  Southern African Development Community (SADC)     is  one of  the key   foreign  policy  objectives  both  regional blocs can work together at least in the  next decade .  South Africa and India can thus exercise quite a influential foreign policy focus in linking these two regions from the government’s side the basic questions revolve around the effectiveness of its current strategies. Whatever the nature and scope of Southern African and South Asian economic difficulties and whatever the degree of success may be expected in coping with them, certain factors stand out. The fact that South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC ) has articulated   a common  economic policy objective is a step towards  more effective  regional  and continental  interaction First and foremost, the Southern African   region is a rich mixture of 15 sovereign nations.

South Asia accounts to be one of the largest consumer markets with over 1.5 billion people living in eight nations covering a wide range of  products in the  eight member nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)   regional bloc. Like South Africa is now a model for other African nations, similarly. India has helped South  Asian  nations  to turn  their  attention  in ward to the African and  Asian continent. South Africa’s strategic   position at the Southern end of Africa makes it unique, overlooking the route around cape to the Far East and thus adjacent to one of the world’s busiest trade routes, especially for   oil trade. This  is also the case with  its almost un-parelled mineral wealth  and advanced  industrial commercial  and financial economy  which has tremendous American and European vested interests .  Although    South Africa   is generally   regarded   as an industrialised state its modern sector   remains   limited. South Africa’s position has further strengthened with Southern African Development Community (SADC), which is the formation of 15 member nations. In that context the   Intra-regional trade among the SAARC countries, namely India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives is about 5 percent and is  far below  its potential.

For this reason, the SARRC has taken a more neutral approach in its regional initiatives and the national interests and policies have influenced the external policies of the member states. Therefore, the responsibility of SAARC regional grouping is to facilitate a conducive political environment among member nations to deepen trade ties with key economic partners. Since the member states launched its Agreement on South Asian Free Trade (SAFTA) in 2006 the region has witnessed many dramatic changes in trade and economic cooperation at various levels. The road map for implementation of SAFTA was both politically and economically ill adopted to fully operate within member states   and scholars were beginning to question some fundamental aspects of the regional trade agreement framework.   The fact that the SAARC has articulated common economic policy objectives is a step towards more effective regional continental integration.

Over the past few years India’s foreign policy initiatives have strengthened its focus on   Southern Africa’s geopolitics. The other Fifteen South African countries, particularly South Africa, have been one of the top priorities of India. In the past four years, bilateral trade between India and South Africa   has crossed the  USD 10 billion. This has had a direct impact on the domestic markets of Southern Africa and South Asia.The African countries have been able to use this window of opportunity in their favour due to South Africa’s leading role in the continent. South Africa has had a strong interest in maintaining a more stable balance of power within the continent. The underlying fact of transformation was due to the solid political and economic achievements that the nation underwent. South Africa has maintained good relations with the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), South African Development Cooperation (SADC), and Brazil Russia India China and South Africa (BRICS) member states on a number of key issues. The integration agenda of SADC has also been strengthened through the Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan which is a comprehensive 15-year strategic roadmap. This plan not only boosts regional economic integration but also leads to the addressing of the socio-economic issues in this region. South Africa, as chair, provides policy direction and suitable programmes to the other member states of SADC with the aim of boosting regional trade, creating jobs and enhancing skills among the member states.

South Asia offers unique travel   products that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. When travelling to India, Sri Lanka or the Maldives it is important    to find trusted high quality travel agents that provide personalized services to the clients visiting these countries among the newly emerging markets. Since India’s economy is growing swiftly, with around 300 million middle class, the tourism sector of South Africa is seeing improved prospects with an increasing number of Indian tourists. India still continues to be as one of the  top tourist spot for South Africans with about 60,000 South Africans visiting India in 2017. South Africa is popular among Indian travelers. South Africa has enjoyed double-digit growth from the Indian market for the last five years with the numbers increasing substantially each year. Port and shipping are other areas, which benefit both nations mutually. Durban, Colombo and Mumbai have some of the busiest handling ports in Asia. Hence, a surge in the Indian and South African economy will lead to an increase in the volume of cargo cash transactions and services related to it between these regions thereby creating more jobs for the locals and expatriates of these countries.

In the sphere of transportation, vehicles imported from India are comparatively more affordable for African middle class consumers than importing them from elsewhere. Ashok Leyland, Tata and Mahindra vehicles are widely used in Sri Lanka, especially in rural areas. Setting up vehicle assembly plants in Africa or joint venture enterprises could further reduce the cost of the vehicles. Over the past few years, Indian and Sri Lankan companies have established various business ventures together to promote prosperity and to create sustainability. Indians have set up factories in Southern Africa, providing jobs in both countries. Change by nature comes from the past as well as moving towards the future.   Never the less many countries of South Africa know that they must begin to make sacrifices now for their long run survival.  Different    analysts    have interpreted    the two regions development in different ways.  Numerous countries in South Asia and in Southern Africa have grappled with economic dilemmas of how best to deal with debts left behind by previous governments. One of the most visible and most powerful trends in Southern Africa and South Asia today is the thriving Small and Medium Businesses.

As these two regions    look to the future of these member nations .It is clear that everything depends on how thoroughly the Southern African and the South Asian nations learn from the mistakes. This is a daunting task but the SADC and  SAARC  nations  must find satisfactory solutions. They must establish a mutually beneficial relationship between the two sovereign partners or continents.  This will go a long way in opening up the doors of a bright new future for South African and South Asian nations. The crucial question is how to secure such integration.  SAARC and SADC   nations have a powerful  influence on the way forward.  India    and South Africa might   take on   the future   architecture   of SAARC and SADC   in the wake of an free trade agreements (FTAs) . India or South Africa   is thus    an unlikely   saviour   of   regional   Free   trade. The South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) is a crucial   entry point for   Southern African   nations into economically   dynamic    area of the world    that has   been integrating   among them. .There is this further question of India’s   influence in SAARC itself?  SAARC and the South African Development Cooperation (SADC), nations have a powerful influence on the way forward. It is clear from these discussions that there is consensus among   the main players here on the need to pin down trade and cooperation. Being among the closest   prosperous economies, it is time for South Asian and South African policy makers to think beyond and make trade transactions smoother and more business friendly for both these regions.

Research scholar at Jindal School of International Affairs, India and an editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa

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South Asia

Afghanistan: the US and NATO withdrawal and future prospects

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On April 14, the United States of America announced that it would withdraw all its troops stationed in Afghanistan from May 1 to September 11, 2021. On the same day, NATO also said it would coordinate with the White House military to initiate the withdrawal.

The year 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of war in Afghanistan, a conflict that has actually been going on since the Soviet invasion of that unfortunate country on December 24, 1979.

What are the plans of NATO and the United States? How will the situation in Afghanistan change in the future?

Regarding the US announcement of the deadline for troop withdrawal, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has said that the Afghan government respects the US government’s decision to withdraw its troops by the agreed date.

According to the Associated Press, there were 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan before May 1, far below the peak of over 110,000 in 2011.

According to the websites of the Financial Times and theDeutsche Welle, some ten thousand soldiers from the 36 NATO Member States and other US allies are currently stationed in Afghanistan, including as many as 895 Italian soldiers, as well as 1,300 Germans, 750 Brits, 619 Romanians, 600 Turks, etc.

President Trump’s previous Administration signed a peace agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan in February 2020, setting May 1, 2021 as the deadline for NATO to begin withdrawing from that country. The Washington Post reported that after the current US government issued the withdrawal statement, the Taliban immediately said that if the United States violated the peace agreement and did not withdraw its troops in Afghanistan, the situation would get worse and one of the parties to the agreement would take responsibility for it.

This year is the twentieth since the United States started the war in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The war in Afghanistan is the United States’ longest overseas war, and has killed over 2,300 US soldiers and wounded some 20,000 people, at a cost of over 1 trillion US dollars.

Although the United States and its allies attacked the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the situation in Afghanistan has been turbulent for a long time, with over a hundred thousand Afghan civilian casualties in the fighting.

According to The New York Times, both Parties’ members of the US Congress have differing views on the consequences of withdrawal. According to the newspaper, Republicans and some Democrats believe that the troop withdrawal will encourage the Taliban insurgency, while others believe it is necessary to put an end to this indefinite war.

But what considerations can be made for the US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan?

It is well known that the purpose of the United States in taking the war to Afghanistan was a very heavy measure of retaliation against al-Qaeda, which had organised the terrorist attacks of September 11, and against the Taliban regime that protected the top leaders of that terrorist organisation. Although al-Qaeda has not been destroyed, it is unlikely to create similar problems. The United States has achieved its strategic goals and is no longer involved in East Asia’s tactics and strategy.

The interests of NATO (considering its individual Member States) in Afghanistan are fewer than those of the United States. As a military alliance with the United States, the achievement of US strategic goals means that NATO’s equal strategic goals have also been achieved. Hence, rather than continuing to run the risk of confronting the Taliban and al-Qaeda after US military withdrawals, NATO is more willing to remove the “political burden” as soon as possible.

While announcing the terms of the withdrawal, the White House has stated that the threat of extremist organisations such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab and ISIS is spreading globally and it is therefore meaningless to concentrate forces in Afghanistan, with a steady expansion of its military cycle. At the same time, however, the White House has stated that after withdrawal, diplomatic and counter-terrorism mechanisms will be reorganised in Afghanistan to face security challenges. Hence, from the US perspective, there is currently a greater terrorist threat than al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The prospectsfor advancing the Indo-Pacific regional strategy to oppose China also means that it would be counterproductive for the United States to remain in Afghanistan any longer. Even after the troop withdrawal, there will be insecurity in Afghanistan. That being the case, however, the United States will still find ways and means to support the Afghan regime and the armed forces of the Kabul government.

The Washington Post has also reported statements by a Pentagon official who has stressed that Afghanistan is a landlocked country: consequently, once US and NATO forces withdraw, one of the biggest challenges will be how to effectively monitor and combat extremist organisations and resist threats to US security: at that distance it will be even more difficult without sea landings.

According to Reuters, the CIA predicts that the possibility of a further US-Afghan peace deal is little and has warned that once the United States and its allies withdraw, it will be difficult to stop the Taliban.

The Afghan government forces currently control Kabul and other large cities, but the Taliban are present in more than half of the country’s territory and rural areas. In the future, the possibility of a Taliban counter-offensive cannot be ruled out.

Great Britain’s The Guardian has commented that the years of war have generally made Afghans feel a strong sense of insecurity and the withdrawal of troops will not bring much comfort to the local population. According to the London-based newspaper, for the United States this is yet another war that cannot be won.

According to experts, there are two extreme possibilities in the future situation in Afghanistan. The excellent situation is the one in which the less extremist wing of the Taliban mediates so that, once the United States withdraws, the Taliban can gradually move from being an extremist organisation to being an internal administrative one and then negotiate with the legitimate government supported by the United Nations: this would mean a long-term peace after forty-two years of war.

Under extremely unfavourable circumstances, instead, the Afghan government forces would overestimate their military strength and intend to continue the war alone against their traditional opponents, at which point peace negotiations between the two sides would break down.

This would mean falling again into a prolonged civil war and into eternal war.

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Bhashan Char Relocation: Bangladesh’s Effort Appreciated by UN

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Bhashan Char. Image source: dhakatribune.com

Bhashan Char, situated in the district of Noakhali, is one of the 75 islands of Bangladesh. To ease the pressure on the digested camps in Cox’s Bazar and to maintain law and order, Bangladesh has relocated about 18,500 Rohingya refugees from the overcrowded camps to the island since December last year. The Rohingya relocation plan to Bhashan Char aligns with the Bangladesh government’s all-encompassing efforts towards repatriation. The initial plan was to relocate 100,000 of the more than a million refugees from the clogged camps to the island. From the onset of the relocation process, the UN and some other human rights organizations criticized the decision pointing to remoteness and sustainability. UNHCR showed their concern over the island’s susceptibility to seasonal storm and flood. They proposed for a “technical assessment” of the Bhashan Char facilities.

An 18-member UN delegation visited Bhashan Char Island on March 17 this year to have a first-hand assessment of the housing facility for the Rohingya forcibly displaced Myanmar Nationals (FDMNs). Shortly after the UN’s visit, a team with 10 diplomats including heads of missions of embassies and delegations from Turkey, the EU, US, UK, France, Germany, Japan, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands also went to the island on April 3 to appraise the facilities. All the members of the technical team opined that they are ‘satisfied’ with the facilities in Bhashan Char. The experts of the UN told, they will hand over a 10-page report of their annotations and they have already submitted a two-page abridgment. On April 16, they released the two-page synopsis after a month of the visit.  After the three-day study of Bhashan Char by the UN delegates, they recommended the Bangladesh government to continue the relocation process to the island in a ‘phased manner’. The team twigged three points – education for Rohingya children, increasing heights of the embankments and better communication system. The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh A. K. Abdul Momen concerted to take the necessary measures to create a safe and secure environment for the Rohingya refugees until the repatriation takes place. The relocation is not the solution of the Rohingya crisis rather the over emphasis of the relocation and facilities inside Bangladesh is protracting the crisis and distracting the attention from the broader emphasis on the repatriation to Myanmar.

The UNHCR and other concerned parties should plan for a long run repatriation process. Repatriation is the only durable solution, not the relocation of the Rohingya refugees. For the time being, resettlement under the Asrayan-3 project is an ease for the FDMNs but in the long run the Rohingya crisis is going to turn as a tremendous threat for regional peace and stability. Besides, resentment in the host community in Bangladesh due to the scarce resources may emerge as a critical security and socio-economic concern for Bangladesh.  It is not new that the Rohingyas are repatriated in Myanmar during the Military rule. Around 20,000 Rohingya refugees were repatriated to Myanmar in the 2000s. The focus of the world community should be creating favourable conditions for the Rohingyas to return safely regardless who is in the power seat of Myanmar-civilian or military government. The UN should largely focus on repatriating the Rohingya refugees in a “phased manner”, let alone deciding their concern in the camps and the Bhashan Char. After the praiseworthy relocation plan, they should now concentrate on implementing speedy and durable repatriation. Proactive initiatives are essential from all walks for a safe and dignified return of the FDMNs. To be specific, the relocation is a part of the repatriation, not the solution of the problem. 

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Afghan peace options

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President Biden’s decision to withdraw unconditionally all foreign forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021 will leave behind an uncertain and genuine security concerns that ramifications will be born by Afghanistan as well as the region.

The Taliban seems least interested in peace talks with the Afghan government and appear determined to take control of the entire afghan government territory by force during post-withdrawal of American forces. Short of the total surrender, Afghan government has no possible influence to force the Taliban to prefer talks over violence. Resultantly, the apprehensions that Afghanistan could plunge into another civil war runs very high.

The consequences of yet another civil war will be deadly for Afghanistan and the whole region as well. Among the neighboring countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan will bear the severe burnt of an escalation of violence in particular. A civil war or possible Taliban takeover will surely upsurge and reinvigorate the Islamic militancy in Pakistan, thus threatening to lose the hard won gains made against militancy over the past decade.

The afghan and Pakistani Taliban, nevertheless, are the two sides of the same coin. Coming back to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan is surely emboldened and revives Pakistani Taliban and other militant outfits. Moreover, spread of violence not only reduce all chances of repatriation of refugees but possibly increase the inflow of refugees from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Furthermore, worsening of the security situation in Afghanistan will jeopardize the prospects of  trade, foreign investment and economic development initiatives such as china-Pakistan economic corridor. The chances of Gawadar and Karachi port to become a transit trade route for the region and link the energy rich region of central asia will become bleak until a sustainable peace and stability is achieved in Afghanistan.

It is against this background that the successful end of the intra-afghan talk is highly required for Pakistan, for its own sake.  Officially, Islamabad stated policy is to ensure the afghan-led and afghan-owned peace solution of the afghan conflict. It helped in bringing the Taliban on the negotiation table, which finally resulted in the signing of the Doha deal between US and Taliban. Further, Pakistan has time and again pressurized the Taliban to resume the dialogue. Moreover, Islamabad holds that, unlike in the past when it wanted a friendly regime in Kabul, it aims to develop a friendly and diplomatic relation whoever is on the power in Kabul.

Notwithstanding the stated policy and position of the Islamabad, the afghan government and the many in the US remains dubious of Pakistan’s commitment. Against these concerns, Islamabad categorically stated that it does not have complete control over the Taliban.

The success of the peace process will require coordination and cooperation among the all regional actors and the US and afghan government. Pakistan’s role is of an immense significance because of its past relation with the Taliban. There is no denying of the fact that Pakistan has not complete control over the Taliban. Despite, it has more leverage than the other actors in the region.

The Islamabad’s willingness to use its influence over the Taliban is her real test in the achievement of peace process. However, Pakistan has successfully used its leverage and brought the Taliban on negotiations table. Although, history is the testimony of the fact that mere cajoling won’t dissuade the Taliban from unleashing violence.

The prospects of intra-afghan talks will develop in success when the cajoling strategy is backed up by with credible threats of crackdown which may involve denial of safe heaven to militant leaders and their families, stopping medical treatment, and disruption of finance etc. on the other hand, strong arm tactics fail to bring the Taliban to the table, then Pakistan should make sure that its territory is not used to carry out attacks in Afghanistan.

The afghan peace process has an opportunity for Pakistan to bury its hatchets with Afghanistan and start its diplomatic journey with a new vigor. While Kabul every time attach its failure with the Pakistan and shun away from its responsibility of providing peace to people of Afghanistan, it has a fair point about our pro Taliban afghan policy. Now that the US is leaving Afghanistan, it is high time that Pakistan bring forth a shift in its Afghanistan policy. Sustainable peace in Pakistan, especially Balochistan and ex-fata region is unlikely to achieve without Pakistan contributing to peace in Afghanistan.    

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