Promise and problems of an ‘Asian century’ - Dr Maleeha Lodhi - Wednesday, March 21, 2012

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The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.

Pakistan figured frequently, at times unexpectedly, during last week’s conference in Delhi organised by India Today. The media group’s annual ‘conclave’ is a glitzy, high profile affair. This year was no different.

The theme was ‘An Asian Century’ but the subjects covered were diverse. They ranged from corruption, cricket, dynastic politics and citizen activism to India’s economic future, the rise of China and shifts in global power. Speakers were just as varied – masters of strategy, Bollywood stars, sportsmen, business entrepreneurs, social activists, writers and political leaders.

The conference was less an exercise in self-congratulation than a discussion of the political weaknesses and socio-economic problems afflicting the region. This underlined a central theme – that to realise its global promise Asia first had to resolve its innumerable challenges.

The “stench of corruption” as the Group chairman Aroon Purie chose to put it, stood in the way of progress. When he described the Indian voters’ rage against the corrupt and inept he may as well have been talking about the rest of South Asia. “Politicians”, he said, were “completely out of touch with the needs and aspirations of the Indian people, who just want good governance.” He also referred to India’s ‘China complex’ and the national preoccupation with the question why India cannot match China’s efficiency and clear headedness. His country needed a redeemer.

That explained why the person chosen to make the opening speech was Anna Hazare, who has catalysed opinion and public awareness in India about corruption. He got resounding applause in calling for stronger laws against corruption and for ballot papers to provide people the right to reject candidates unworthy of their vote.

But the man who commanded the greatest attention was the guru of international diplomacy and statecraft, Henry Kissinger who is now close to ninety. In a long career that has seen him deal with issues of war and peace and advise ten American presidents, Kissinger was heard with rapt attention. His keynote address was a tour d’ force of the evolution of the international system, the changes sweeping the world today and the challenges confronting it.

The moderator, MJ Akbar, however kept encouraging Kissinger to delve into history rather than focus on the future. He pressed the former US secretary of state on whether there had been a ‘secret deal’ with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1971 for India not to attack West Pakistan. Kissinger’s response was clear and sharp. Each country was pursuing its interests in that crisis. India’s objective was the creation of Bangladesh, while the US was concerned with reaching out to China, for which Pakistan was the only credible channel. Washington thus made it clear to India especially after the signing of the Indo-Soviet treaty that America’s interest was in the preservation of West Pakistan. The war, he said, was ended on that basis.

The moderator then tried to tempt Kissinger into saying something about why India should not follow the post-9/11 US example of military intervention when it is faced with a cross-border terrorist attack. Kissinger refused to be drawn in and said he could not recommend a ‘blank cheque’ for such action ahead of time. On other questions too he declined to criticise Pakistan. Later I asked the editor of a prominent Indian daily why so much of the Q and A revolved around Pakistan. His answer was instructive: “Indians are still obsessed with Pakistan but of course we are now even more obsessed with China.”

On Afghanistan, Kissinger’s view was that negotiations for a political solution – which he supported – would not be enough. A regional compact was needed to ensure that Afghanistan did not in the future become a threat to others and to help preserve its stability. When a former Indian army chief got up to urge the US not to quit before accomplishing its mission, Kissinger responded with characteristic lucidity. In the ‘abstract’, he said a slower withdrawal might have been preferable. But the way the situation had evolved as well as regional complications made it hard for the administration, for whom he had sympathy, to argue for an extended stay to the American people. It is also for the region to deal purposefully with the question of Afghanistan’s stability, which was “not exclusively an American problem”.

On China he reiterated his well-known stance and affirmed the importance of Sino-US relations in the future. It should be possible to have a long period of global peace and avoid the kind of conflicts that marked European history for two centuries. Kissinger did not see China adopting an aggressive international posture.

This view was also echoed by another American speaker Jon Huntsman, former envoy to China and until recently a candidate for the Republican Party’s nomination for president. China, he said, would move cautiously in projecting its power on the world stage, as its focus would remain internal for years to come.

Kissinger emphasised an important difference in the approach of the two countries to international issues. “Americans believed every problem was solvable” in a short timeframe. The Chinese believe there is no “ultimate solution to every problem” and any solution often produces more problems.

If Kissinger’s was the most thoughtful – and strategic – assessment of challenges in the ‘making of an Asian century’, the most inspiring speech was by Anwar Ibrahim, opposition leader and former deputy prime minister of Malaysia. He referred to his recent visit to Pakistan and also cited Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s warnings against the ‘cancer of corruption’, as well as listed the values he affirmed in his seminal speech to the Constituent Assembly.

Ibrahim’s address extolling the virtues of democracy and free speech was equally emphatic in cautioning against the ‘tyranny of the majority’ and equating democracy with elections. For him democracy without economic empowerment was devoid of meaning. If the focus is only on how to win elections by hook or by crook, and mostly by crook, then democracy becomes a means to enrich ruling families and their cronies.

This theme was to echo in other sessions as well. Speaker after speaker stressed that the political credibility of politicians was at an all time low because promises had not been matched by delivery. An independent judiciary and rule of law were integral to democracy. So was distributive justice and addressing poverty and marginalisation in society. For half a century, declared Anwar Ibrahim, excuses have been given for poverty and corruption. These are not just failures of governance but crimes against the people.

There was much political and economic soul searching during the conference about the need to address the aspirations and anxieties of the present era of greater transparency and heightened expectation. But there were few new ideas about how to do this in order to effectively navigate these testing times. The single most important point to emerge from the conference was that change is required on a larger and more meaningful scale for this to be Asia’s century.

End piece

Coincidentally the first person I met when I arrived at my hotel in Delhi was Dr Kissinger. I have to come here to listen to your lecture, I said, half jokingly because you don’t come to my country. Quick came the response: “no one has ever invited me to your country.”

He was right. A year ago I suggested to several senior officials in Islamabad that they should invite Dr Kissinger for a visit to mark the 40th anniversary of his secret trip to China (in July 1971) that was famously facilitated by Pakistan. That historic visit proved to be a turning point in the cold war and in the evolution of the Sino-US relationship. The officials I spoke to agreed this was an idea worth pursuing. But nothing ever happened.

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