The African Asian Neighbourhood

25 January 2021

A book launch and an online discussion hosted by The Diplomatic Society brought together several experts on international relations to share their experiences and knowledge on regional cooperation within the African Asian paradigm. SAARC, the South Asian Association for regional Cooperation, an eight country bloc, the African Union (AU) with 55 countries, Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) with ten countries and IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association) with 22 countries, cover 95 countries and is home to around half of the world’s population at 3.6 billion people. Connectivity and cooperation between people and nations has significant sway in the geo political and socio economic context.

In his observation as the moderator of the discussion, Founder and Editor of The Diplomatic Society, Mr Kirtan Bhana observed a shift in international relations pointing to three poignant events of the last two decades of the new millennium. The first was the September 11, 2001 attacks in the USA. This devastating act sounded alarm bells for a drastic change in geo-political and social interaction. The other is the 2008 financial crisis which exposed the stark imbalance in the needs of humanity and the supply and demand value chains. Now we are confronted by the Covid-19 global viral pandemic, having not yet completely resolved the previous crises. Humanity, it seems, is in drastic need for innovation in international relations.

Ambassador Nomvuyo Nokwe, Secretary General of IORA explored the diversity of the rim nations which range from LDC, emerging economies and developed countries that share the bounty of the Indian Ocean. The implementation of maritime cooperation in one of the busiest and prosperous shipping lanes in the world is unlocking the potential of what is called the ocean economy. Effectively managing the waters require safety and stability to create an economically and ecologically safe and sustainable environment. The Indian Ocean is rich in natural resources that can spur innovation in new energy, food, aquatic life including sea plants, fish and animals. The value from tourism and travel is an added factor in connectivity, people to people links, communication, media and entertainment among others.

Sri Lanka’s growing role in the region is due to its strategic location as a pivot between Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and was succinctly outlined by High Commissioner Amarasekara of Sri Lanka to South Africa. His remarks on the Government’s initiatives on Sri Lanka’s policy on the international and local direction the country is taking are informed by his illustrious career and experience in the civil service of Sri Lanka. Amarasekara recognizes SAARC as an emerging region with future markets and points to the various bilateral agreements within its region and the incentives for investors which are opening new opportunities in the island nation. The two major ports of Colombo and Hambantota have been developed and are centred on some of the world’s largest shipping lanes. The Sri Lankan government’s revitalised foreign policy on Africa will significantly increase interaction with Africa.

The significance of India and its impact on the region was presented by Consul General Ashok Babu of India to South Africa who is based in Cape Town. India has always had a deep commitment to SAARC since its establishment in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1985 during the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first President of Bangladesh. Since his election to the Prime Minister of India, Mr Narendra Modi has made the relations with the neighbouring nations a priority of his foreign policy. India has contributed to a SAARC development fund. The South Asian University, one of the first aspects of regional cooperation in education, has been steadily developing, and will soon become a fully-fledged institution for students from all over the region. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) which overlaps some of the countries of SAARC was established in 1997. Projects include transport connectivity networks and start up and entrepreneurial support.

Africa’s growth, evolution and rise are one of the main pillars for India. It acknowledges Africa’s full participation in the contemporary world is the only way for global re-balancing to take place. The U$11 billion worth of projects, U$54 billion of investment and 3rd largest export destination for Indian goods and services is a clear indication of India’s engagement with Africa. The continuous people to people and knowledge sharing exchanges as well as cooperation on environment and maritime safety and security are developing and strengthening relations.

The book ‘Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of the South Asian Union’ by author Dr Srimal Fernando was the catalyst for this discussion. His supervisor Prof Pankaj Jha, Dean of research at the Jindal School of International Affairs (JISA) at the O.P Jindal University in New Delhi, India, challenged Dr Fernando on the relevance of SAARC, stating that the regional body has withered since its establishment with slim possibility of its revival. The book has re-invigorated interest in the regional body which is headquartered in Kathmandu, Nepal. Prof Jha also spoke of practical ways to connect people through connecting the ports and the coastal communities. Ms Marla Mossman, Founder and Director of the Peace Caravan Project in New York, USA introduced Dr Fernando as a person passionate about his country and the region and in peace building. Dr Srimal Fernando is a recipient of the prestigious O.P Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and the South Asian University Scholarship under the (SAARC) umbrella. Dr Fernando also serves as Advisor/Global Editor of The Diplomatic Society for South Africa in partnership with Diplomatic World Institute (Brussels).

Dr Philani Mthembu of the Institute for Global Dialogue in Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa concurred with the importance of regional cooperation and the significance of the book in this regard. The 1955 Bandung conference was the first conference to bring African and Asian countries together. In 2005 the New African Asian Strategic Partnership (NAASP) was launched. By encouraging these regional value chains, harmonizing rules of trading and of origin, this is how the African Continental Free Trade Agreement hopes to boost intra Africa trade which currently stands at less than 20%. The trend towards regionalism and inter regional cooperation will lead to greater resilience explained Dr Mthembu.

Describing the Association of South East Nations (ASEAN) Mr Hoang Van Loi, Vietnam’s Ambassador to South Africa said, “As an open community and partner for peace and sustainable development of the international community, ASEAN has constantly made efforts to expand and deepen the equal partnership. ASEAN has maintained multilateralism, trade, liberalization and contributed to the construction of core mechanisms of economic and security architecture in the Asia-Pacific. ASEAN's success brings a South Asia towards cohesion of valuable lessons and experiences. First, unity in diversity is one of the basic principles of operation. Second, the focus of connectivity and connectivity is political-security, economic and socio-cultural. Third, peace, stability, solidarity, unity, prosperity and sustainability for the benefit of each member as well as of the entire region are the primary and fundamental goals of the bloc. Fourth, the Association must play a central role in any international forum or agenda related to the region, especially in all matters of development and security. Cooperation and dialogue within the bloc or with countries outside the region should be based on mutual trust and international law and order.”

Advocate Ajay Sooklal, a specialist in legal and economic diplomacy at The Diplomatic Society summed up the discussion pertinently when he stressed the importance of implementation. He pointed to the plethora of interactions and engagement that have produced many policies statements, signed and ratified agreements, adopted mandates and research documents. These memorandums should give effect to the shared history of Africa and Asia and should be fast tracked to bring about real benefit to the people and their livelihood.

There will be a series of discussions hosted by The Diplomatic Society during the course of this year which will bring key role players on relevant issues to find outcomes for implementation. We will keep you updated with the events, news and participation opportunities.

The recording of the Webinar can viewed on The Diplomatic Society's YouTube channel.
Click here for the link