A thought-provoking and practical take on South Asian policy (Book Review)

A valuable read, Dr. Srimal Fernando’s clear and considered thoughts on current and future South Asian relations in his recently-released book are incredibly insightful for policy analysts

Justin Chua Dec 26, 2020

A valuable read, Dr. Srimal Fernando’s clear and considered thoughts on current and future South Asian relations in his recently-released book are incredibly insightful for policy analysts. Dr. Fernando’s clear style of writing and straightforward approach makes the book an enjoyable read for all members of the public who wonder about the future of South Asian relations. Moreover, the political advisor and policy strategist, who has worked in President’s Office in Sri Lanka, describes in great detail various concepts which aims to deepen readers’ understanding of a future South Asian Union. 

The many challenges discussed in the book are worth deep consideration by national leaders of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), as they have a momentous task in both stabilising the region, as well as promoting greater shared prosperity amongst its members. 

In broad terms, Dr. Fernando, a Ph.D. holder  in international affairs and a recipient of the O.P Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and the South Asian University (SAU) Scholarship under the SAARC umbrella, in his book advocates for national leaders to do more in order for there to be a greater formalisation of regional integration. The focus is not on who leads the drive towards greater regionalism but rather the outcome, which is of greater regional co-operation.  In this regard, the book contends Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of the South Asian Union hat regional integration will be the most impactful on the lives of all in South Asia, but the region cannot ignore the great extent to which external actors have historically affected and continue to shape the subcontinent.

Where tensions between member states remain insurmountable and large segments of the population continue to live in poverty, investment from nations outside of South Asia is the most effective method in developing greater intra-regional interdependence. The serious challenges posed for foreign direct investment into South Asia leads to few firms willing to commit large sums of funds required for much-needed infrastructure development and industrial production. In this respect, fears of the consequences of external assistance in development, which might change the status quo in South Asia, only becomes acute when individual nations take radically different approaches to who they accept investment from and in what levels.

National interests, or general perceptions of what national interests are, will therefore continue to be the driver of any change to existing circumstances for the foreseeable future. 

In his book, the author has discussed how any South Asian Union must have India as the main driver of regional co-operation, but India must provide greater benefit to its smaller neighbours, or else they will look elsewhere for support. At present, regional integration between India and its neighbours fails to promote equitable outcomes for smaller nations as well as promote development between countries separated by India.

This presents great challenges, as a natural drive by India for regional hegemony without any benefit to neighbouring countries inevitably leads them to look elsewhere for better outcomes. This further justifies a lesser amount of interdependence within South Asia. 

Ultimately, a conceptualisation of integration in South Asia that will bring about greater shared prosperity inherently involves drawing greater comparisons with Latin America and Africa, rather than Europe, North America and wider Asia. In particular, insufficient resources and wanting infrastructure development makes it difficult for there to be regional integration generated from within South Asia. Thus, any shared development and lasting stability within South Asia will ultimately come about through the impact of more advanced economies outside of SAARC.

Dr. Fernando’s conceptualisation of a South Asian Union ultimately stems from the recent history of British rule. In particular, SAARC member states now have the opportunity to exercise self-governance on a regional scale, which requires greater collaboration between all member states. More broadly, the impacts of British colonialism and subsequent independence have created large hostilities between South Asian nations. In this respect, interdependence and collaboration require downplaying national interests centered predominantly on control, especially when it comes to issues raised by countries sharing borders. 

The author has provided much hope for a future South Asian Union, which is based on a critical understanding of the current landscape and appropriate courses of action for the future. In this respect, greater willingness through concrete action is required of current and future generations of leaders. Furthermore, Dr. Fernando speaks from the heart in expressing his desire for greater peace and prosperity amongst SAARC member states.

Through embracing greater co-operation, national leaders can provide a better future for those living in the South Asian region. In conclusion, Dr. Fernando’s book provides carefully considered ideas which policymakers will find extremely valuable. 

(The writer, an Australian lawyer focussing on commercial and immigration law, has a keen interest in commercial law and international relations in the Asia-Pacific region)

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