8.3 Regional Collaboration and Integration
We will promote a policy of regional collaboration and integration in South Asia to enhance the regional agreements and establishments that already exist, so that we can better address joint challenges and opportunities among the countries in the region. At the same time, we have huge political and security complexities due to unresolved ethnic, religious, linguistic and hegemonistic issues. In addition, this is complicated by the way any aspect of an endeavour for regional integration would impact on the national interest of a particular member.
We see regional collaboration being essential for economic integration that may allow sharing the benefits of a larger regional market and for coordinating large-scale, multi-country infrastructure projects, dealing with intra-regional migration streams, adopting common approaches to shared healthcare, education, justice, tourism and environmental issues etc. Regional collaboration would also contribute to raising a unified voice on behalf of the region on the global stage.
Due to the diverse nature of the issues being tackled regional establishments could represent a truly regional character, but some may take an intra-governmental, sub-regional or supra-national scope. These establishments assist inter-regional dialogue and cooperation in multiple disciplines such as the economy, science, technology, transport, health and environment, security etc. This will strengthen economic ties and bring forth mutually beneficial learning experiences in diverse disciplines.
There are global issues of common interest such as the implementation of the UN Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the Belt and Road Initiative of China for better connecting Asia with Africa and Europe. These need to be further explored to assess the national benefit gained from such initiatives in terms of South Asian regional collaboration and integration agenda.
However, due to the multi-polar nature of Asian powers, these will be formidable obstacles, particularly in terms of economic integration. Despite the fragmented nature of the regional market, several intra-governmental agreements exist. From treatment of foreign direct investment, to product standards and government procurement regulatory discrepancies exist. Such discrepancies impose high burdens, particularly in terms of costs on firms in general and SMEs in particular, that attempt to export to or invest in regional markets. Thus, the great potential of a regional market of almost two billion people, or about one fourth of the world’s population, remains underexplored.
The countries in the South Asian region have a shared culture, language and history as well as political and diplomatic concerns and significant issues due to terrorist activities. South Asia also has the youngest working age population in the world. Thus, this region offers a great development potential and immense scope for effective regional collaboration. Effective regional collaboration and integration can make a significant contribution by accelerating economic growth, generating employment and ensuring the well-being of its citizens.
Regional collaboration and integration move beyond trade liberalisation underpinned by trade expansion. This is vital for long-term inclusive growth, sustainability and stability. Regional collaboration through improved logistics, trade facilitation and connectivity combined with the removal of non-tariff barriers will provide a large market with better economies of scale and reduced trading costs. Working together and learning from each other will lead to better regional connectivity, investment, infrastructure, supply chains, energy development and food security.
Regional integration will require greater cooperation in investment and transport connectivity. This needs effective cooperation leading to mobilisation of both intra and extra-regional resources for productive utilisation. As a result, food and energy security also become critical issues. However, due to its natural location, Sri Lanka does not have border disputes with any country in the region. In terms of its economic policy, it has been liberal and outward oriented. Still for the country to stand on its feet, resolution of ethnic and religious tensions through a process of devolution of power is essential. Till these matters are resolved, the role Sri Lanka could play in any regional collaboration and integration role will be limited.