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Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury presenting the keynote address at the 2nd Cosmos Dialogue held at Cosmos Centre, Dhaka

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Speakers at the 2nd Cosmos Dialogue on ‘South Asia in the Contemporary World’ in the city struck a defiant tone to advocate the preservation of the prevailing global order, even as they warned of fresh, often unprecedented challenges presented by a world in flux.

Presenting the keynote address, Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies (ISAS) in Singapore, on Monday said “For countries like Bangladesh, it is very important to have a very stable international system which creates a level playing field for all.”

The biggest threat being absorbed by the system at this crucial time, the speakers felt, was the seeming about-turn in attitudes towards globalisation by those who were its earliest and longstanding champions: in the US, clearly the election of Donald Trump, and Britain’s referendum to exit the EU. Terming Saarc in its present context “severely challenged”, Dr Chowdhury, who enjoyed a stellar career as a diplomat for Bangladesh before taking the reins of ISAS nevertheless insisted it is still “important to stick together as much as we can.”

Dr Chowdhury’s fellow ex-diplomat M Serajul Islam however, sounded far less convinced of the potential gains from such an approach. Veering between direct and indirect castigation of the debilitating role played by the region’s big powers, the ex-ambassador clearly believes Saarc is “stuck with problems”, adding the sooner Bangladesh realizes this, the better. Yet his most damning indictment of the fledgling bloc possibly came over the question of leaving Saarc, that he almost laughed off before adding: “It’s not that there is anything there to leave.”

Sri Lankan High Commissioner in Dhaka Yasoja Gunasekera, who attended the event as a distinguished guest, clearly established the growing disillusionment within the region’s countries with a Saarc that has failed to deliver in over 30 years, on almost any front you can think of. With the India-PAK relationship at its most poisonous now for many years, a consensus did seem to emerge at one stage that Saarc’s days were numbered, and to keep going with it would be akin to ‘flogging a dead horse’.

Undaunted, it was then that the erudite Dr Chowdhury offered the day’s most poignant and arresting proverb, from Africa (his speech had covered Greek and Latin already): “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Even so, he believes that China is interested and is in a position to commit enormous financial resources in the region, mentioning the quite staggering $46 billion it is set to invest towards what is being called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC. The eternal elephant in the room for a number of relationships between South Asian countries, in the present circumstances China might just have to step up to provide the leadership role, although it’s hard to see how the Indians would reconcile themselves to that.

Dr Chowdhury also reflected on how the policies of big powers impact on all. “For countries like us, it is very important to have a very stable international system which creates a level playing field for us.”

Turning his attention specifically to Bangladesh, he said the primary challenge for policymakers, right from Independence, has always been to devise how to survive “in concord with but distinct from powerful neighbours”.

It’s a phrase worth dwelling upon. From the complex geopolitics that played out in the background to its bloody birth to the somewhat amusing tug-of-war ensuing today between Beijing and New Delhi to walk us down the aisle as a developing nation, and be there when we inevitably emerge on the world stage as a singer For only then can you gain a fuller appreciation of its nuance, and its enduring worth as a dictum.

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