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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 52, New Delhi, December 11, 2021

SAARC: Regionalism and the Future Ahead | Santhosh Mathew

Saturday 11 December 2021


by Santhosh Mathew *

After the end of World War II, nations started to realize the benefits that came from regional cooperation. European Union after experiencing the economic and other benefits from regional cooperation tried to share it with other parts of the world. In Southeast Asia, Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) followed the same pattern.

The South Asian nations were little late in seeking the advantages of regional cooperation, owning to the historical circumstances – partition of India and Pakistan, the breaking up of Pakistan which led to the creation of Bangladesh. The Asian Relations Conference (1947), the Baguio Conference (1950) and the Colombo Powers Conference (1954) held at New Delhi, Philippines and Sri Lanka respectively were the basis for initiating regional cooperation in South Asia. In 1980, Bangladesh took the initiative in sending a proposal to all the governments of respective South Asian nations. In 1985, the formal establishment of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) took place. SAARC is a grouping of eight countries namely India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal Bhutan and Afghanistan. Afghanistan is the latest member which was added in 2007. Originally, SAARC was a grouping of seven countries. The SAARC secretariat is based in Kathmandu, Nepal.

The various objectives of SAARC were framed by the heads of government of the member states which includes - to ensure the economic, social and cultural development of the region, improve the living standard of the people living in South Asia and to safeguard the dignity of the life of every individual, to forge regional integrity, develop an atmosphere conducive to peace and harmony, build cooperation among the countries of the region in the economic, social, cultural, scientific and technological field, accelerate the process of cooperation with other countries of the world as well as with other regional and international organisations of the world, to safeguard the interests of the South Asian Region.

In the early years of SAARC, all bilateral and contentious issues were excluded and the countries mostly gathered to talk on non-controversial issues. However, this has been modified over the years.

The primary objective of SAARC is to utilize cooperation amongst its eight member states for achieving cohesive development in the economic, cultural and socio-political lives of the citizens living in this region. SAARC intended to promote the development of regional and economic integration. Myriad initiatives were taken over the years some of which were successful and some partially successful.

The formation of a Network of Researchers on Global Financial and Economic Issues to aid SAARC in dealing with macroeconomic concerns is a notable development. SAARC launched the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) in 2006 which calls for trade liberalization in the region through reduction of trade barriers. It aims to reduce custom duties on all traded goods to zero by the year 2016. This agreement has been an important step in the direction of fostering regional trade opportunities. However the existence of more favorable trade terms such as India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement and India’s FTAs with South East and East Asian nations impacts negatively upon state’s commitment to SAFTA’s target. SAFTA covered trade in goods and not in services; therefore the implementation of SATIS (SAARC trade in services) in 2010 was a good initiative towards promoting growth of services by these countries.

The SAARC Social Charter signed in 2004 at the 12th SAARC summit in Islamabad is another success. It outlines a regional plan of action for the organization, setting general targets in the areas of poverty alleviation, population stabilization, the empowerment of women and protection of children, the promotion of health and nutrition and youth mobilization. The Social Charter is inclusive because along with governments it also includes civil society to voice their opinions. Another two partial successes of SAARC includes the establishment of SAARC Energy Centre in Islamabad in 2006. This agreement focused on electricity supply in the region. Another one is the establishment of South Asian University in New Delhi. However, such limited successes remain overshadowed by a history of inaction and inefficiency which are disproportionate to the length of the organisation’s existence.

The organisation has also come up with Visa exemption scheme for a specific category of dignitaries. There are also regional railways development scheme, motor vehicle scheme etc. going on in the organization. There is also a plan of launching SAARC regional satellite.

In terms of fostering social solidarity initiatives like South Asian Festivals, SAARC Youth Volunteer Scheme, SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industries and so on are some notable examples.

The overall development of South Asia is one of the greatest challenges for the region today. Even though the countries share a common background and potential for promoting, strengthening and sustaining cooperation on myriad issues, regional cooperation has not progressed at a desired pace. There are numerous pressing issues where the SAARC countries should work together. With regards to issues like climate change and energy security, a regional outlook can meaningfully address it rather than a single country’s initiative. Economic cooperation between these countries is extremely important today than ever before. The global pandemic has reversed decades of progress. Although the South Asian region is plagued with issues like poverty, human trafficking, child labour, gender inequality, terrorism and other social evils, over time countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh being in extreme poverty, were able to uplift the conditions of a large portion of their population. However this development took a reverse turn during the pandemic as economies were in shatters all over the world. Economic cooperation is where countries need to cooperate now than ever before.

It is important to note that huge complexities are inherently present in the South Asian societies. The residues of painful partitions are still felt between the countries which hampers peaceful cooperation. The huge diversity also makes it complex arriving at a mutual consensus at a regional level. Most of the SAARC countries are comparatively young democracies and still haven’t completely achieved political stability. The domestic situations do not allow countries to cooperate beyond national borders. At the same time regional cooperation are premised upon a partial surrender of sovereignty which the countries do not seem to be eager about. India being the dominant country and playing the role of a big brother is something the neighbouring countries cannot seem to accept, especially India’s rival Pakistan. Regional cooperation to them seems like reinforcing India’s hegemonic position in the region.

Regional cooperation has not progressed accounting to various other reasons. Regional cooperation among the SAARC countries doesn’t reach the provincial governments rather remain limited to the national capitals. In the public domain, there is minimal awareness about benefits of regional cooperation. Due to this there is no pressure on the leaders to push forward the agenda of regional cooperation. In addition, regional cooperation does not contribute to better electoral outcome which results in lack of attention to this cause. Provincial governments and civil society missing from the discussion on regional cooperation is a huge factor in the unsatisfactory growth of SAARC.

The open hostility in the relations between India and Pakistan has caused immense tensions in SAARC and hampered regional cooperation. Mistrust, restrictive trade and investments, hate speeches and blame game among the leadership of both the countries exacerbated by media exaggeration characterize the bilateral relations between both the countries. This often seems to spill over to other countries during the decisions making process, often portraying biased treatment either to Delhi or Islamabad. To supplement this, frequent border disputes, river disputes, religious animosity and ethnic conflicts affects the process of integration.

Social evils are very much prevalent the South Asian countries. What has been overlooked here is the fact that there is a chasm between the youth aspirations and what the countries can actually offer. Young people due to lack of employment in the South Asian countries are turning to illegal activities such as human trafficking, terrorism etc. Presence of states like Pakistan and Afghanistan gives opportunities to the terrorist organizations for safe haven to move forward with their activities and to disrupt the harmony in the SAARC region. Regional cooperation focusing on employment generation is another need of the hour.

South Asia is a contemporary term for the region which was earlier known as Indian Subcontinent. India occupies a dominant position in the region. It has economic and geostrategic advantage in the region as well. Going with the saying that with greater position comes greater responsibility implying India has a big role to play in regional cooperation. However, India’s stance towards SAARC has been slow and hostile being more in alliance with the West. Also, India has been interfering in the domestic politics of the SAARC countries. Nepal, owing to this considers India a threat to its sovereignty. However India’s stance towards her neighbourhood is changing. India seems to be prioritizing the other SAARC nations. This can be understood through the priority given to the Neighbourhood First policy. The change in India’s attitude towards regional cooperation also has to do with the rise of China and its generous attitude towards the South Asian nations. As increase in Chinese influence can threaten India’s hegemonic position in South Asia.

Also, the South Asian nations are finding other alternative in bilateral and multilateral modes. India has tilted towards Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) forum for sub-regional cooperation in the eastern subcontinent. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is another forum which has come to the forefront now.

Relevance of SAARC in the contemporary period

The portrait of SAARC’s past doesn’t need to follow that its future should be painted in a similar way. Major changes are taking place around the world and in Asia. SAARC can play a major role in regional cooperation in South Asia. But to revive SAARC as a relevant organization to the common people of South Asia it needs to rethink the existing system and reorganize itself. Several issues have emerged over the years that require more of a regional approach rather than a national approach. To combat these challenges a deeper regional integration is needed. These include awareness regarding the threat posed by climate change, food security in times of surging global prices, regional migration and the steady influx of internally displaced persons in South Asia. SAARC has made progress through a common attitude adopted towards climate issues such as coastal erosion and the melting of the Himalayan glaciers at the 2009 UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen. Infrastructure development is another area where SAARC countries need to pay attention.

Also helping countries like Afghanistan can help achieve the larger goal of bringing stability in the region. The India Pakistan nexus needs to be dealt with diplomacy for greater results in fostering peace between them as well as for better regional cooperation. The cancellation of the 19th SAARC summit which was to be held at Islamabad in the year 2016 has undoubtedly affected the progress of the organization.

“Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity” which was the theme for 18th SAARC Summit is possible when cooperation goes beyond the needs of regional elites and corporate and allows people of South Asia to build their regional identity. Projects on the ground that is beneficial for the public needs to be undertaken. This will help in strengthening the political will among the South Asian nations. India’s change in critical stance towards SAARC is also a positive tone. In 2014, Indian PM Narendra Modi, announced the Neighbourhood First policy of his government to prioritize relations with other SAARC countries. This foreign policy actively focuses on improving ties with India’s immediate neighbours.

At present, SAARC can play a significant role in bringing normalcy and stability in the region dealing with a deadly pandemic. Even though the organization was lying dormant for a while, the leaders from all the eight SAARC countries met for the first time in eight years in 2020. Prime Minister of India proposed to set up a South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Emergency Fund and formation of a Rapid Response Team in order to combat Covid-19 emergency. The Covid-19 pandemic offers an opportunity for India to demonstrate its compassionate face to secure a region at peace with itself. This emergency fund is a step towards reviving SAARC which has been lying dormant till now, and a reiteration of India’s prompt and decisive support to the neighbours at the time of facing hazards.

Therefore, we can say that SAARC is still relevant and will continue to be in the future as well if it can utilize the regional politics to its advantage. There is no doubt that within the realm of neorealist politics, the effective functioning of any multilateral organization is difficult. However if SAARC countries can see it less as an obstacle and more as an opportunity, it will be able to use it to its advantage.

* (Author: Dr. Santhosh Mathew is Assistant Professor, Centre For South Asian Studies,
Pondicherry Central University, India. Pin: 605 014)

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