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SAARC at 25: Time to Reflect

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow (SS) at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 07, 2010

    Is this SAARC summit different from earlier summits? This is one question that prominently comes to mind as the Summit concluded its 25 years of existence in picturesque Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. While for Bhutan it was a special occasion as this was the first SAARC summit it hosted since the organization came into existence, to other member countries it was a time to ponder and reflect on the achievement of the SAARC on its 25th anniversary. For the first time member countries expressed their frustration with its sluggish progress. The Prime Minister of India expressed his disappointment by saying that “the glass of regional cooperation, regional development and regional integration is half empty” and emphasized that “the region must be better connected, empowered, fed and educated” to achieve comparable success with other regional organizations. President Nashid of Maldives was candid when he said that India and Pakistan need to “compartmentalise the differences and move forward on common ground” to make cooperation a success. The Prime Minister of Bhutan remarked that over 200 meetings a year and proliferation of areas of cooperation had added to the sluggish progress of SAARC. These statements show that SAARC needs to move beyond rhetorical posturing to concrete cooperation. Hence, it continues to elude the imagination of the people of South Asia and has not received the media attention it deserves, which is important in familiarizing SAARC and building stakes.

    Unfortunately, India-Pakistan talks on the sidelines of SAARC have always diverted the focus of the media. Consequently, the regional organization has not got the media attention that is necessary to popularize the concept of SAARC in a region that is divided by history and where the scars of partition have provided fertile ground for mistrust and suspicion to grow. Pakistan has linked the issue of SAFTA to Kashmir and India has entered into various other multilateral regional organizational arrangements like BIMSTEC and Kunming initiative to advance its diverse interests. The smaller countries also have entered into bilateral arrangements with India. While regional trade between the countries of the region has remained stagnant at 5 per cent of their global trade, India’s bilateral trade with the neighbouring countries has grown manifold over the years.

    While SAARC has not been able to create regional synergy, some non regional countries have become observers to have greater interaction with the region as well as to play a greater role in the region. The role of the observer is not defined in the SAARC charter. China’s entry in 2004 as an observer is having certain impacts. China has proposed several things to elevate their ‘friendly and cooperative ties to a new level’. It proposes to invite senior diplomats from South Asian nations to China in 2011; it plans to host the Third South Asian countries commodity fair and China-SAARC senior officials’ meeting and also the fifth China-South Asia business forum. China has already announced a contribution of US$300 million for funding of various developmental projects in the region under the SAARC Development Fund (SDF) which has three windows, economic, social and infrastructure. The Chinese contribution to the SAARC Development fund is important. It will not only give China a say on the manner in which these funds would be utilized but would also allow China to play a greater role in South Asia thus denting India’s role. Of course India will have a greater say in regional affairs because it is a member country. It has already made a voluntary contribution of US$100m to the SDF and US$38.47 million which is its share of SDF’s social window. However, one cannot discount how India’s neighbours may play the China card as a bargaining tool. In the past various undemocratic regimes have played with India’s apprehensions regarding China to garner India’s support and blunt India’s probable help to those who oppose the regime. Given the Chinese interest it would not be preposterous to suggest that China would use its influence to gain entry into SAARC as its member. This would make progress in SAARC a far more complicated affair. The India-China contest within SAARC will seal its fate as SAARC is already reeling under the pressure of India-Pakistan tension. The politicization of SAARC will take the focus of regional cooperation from socio-economic development to global power politics.

    A number of initiatives nevertheless have been agreed upon by the member countries in the sixteenth SAARC summit. The proposal for public-private partnership for greater intra-SAARC investment promotion efforts is important since countries lack funds. A need was also felt to develop a vision statement for SAARC to give it future direction. It was also realised that effective communication and public diplomacy is essential to reach out to students, youth, private media, think tanks, civil society and institutions for economic development. This would be important to popularize the concept of regional cooperation and generate an interest among the people of the region on the activities of SAARC. It would essentially build the image of the organization which many consider as a dead horse. An ambitious vision has been adopted. For example: 2010-2020 has been declared “Decade of Intra-regional Connectivity in SAARC” when member countries themselves are hesitant to provide even bilateral connectivity. On the positive side, the SAARC Development Fund (SDF) was ratified and its secretariat was inaugurated in Thimpu. It will finance regional and sub-regional projects. The signing of the SAARC Agreement on Trade and Services is important and would compliment the process of SAFTA. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s proposal for developing a SAARC Market for Electricity trading assumes importance as the region is reeling under power shortages.

    It needs to be emphasized that the smaller countries of the region have great expectation from SAARC. It gives them greater visibility in regional affairs and makes them an equal partner in the region which is Indo-centric in nature. Pakistan initially was not interested to join SAARC as it felt that it would increasingly get sucked into the South Asia identity when it was striving to connect with the Middle East and establish its cultural core based on an Islamic identity. For India also SAARC has had a limited value. With or without SAARC India enjoys a central position in the economic and foreign policies of the neighbouring countries and conducts its relations bilaterally. It has the geographical advantage to shape bilateral policy without involvement of any third country. Not just on the issue of trade but bilaterally it has engaged the neighbouring countries to deal with the issue of terrorism which has not been possible within the SAARC framework. India’s cooperation with Bhutan and Bangladesh to deal with insurgents hiding in these countries illustrates this point. Similarly India and Pakistan have agreed on a joint counter terror mechanism to address the issue of terrorism bilaterally though without much success. Even if there is a SAARC mechanism to address the issue of terrorism, the bilateral mechanism has been less complicated and has involved the interested parties. However very little has happened to address trade and other related issues like connectivity which have not received the kind of attention they deserve given the fact that Pakistan is least interested on these two issues. Very often SAARC summits have been postponed due to India-Pakistan tensions. Therefore, it is not surprising that the smaller countries have blamed India and Pakistan for the failure of SAARC to achieve its potential.

    SAARC has adopted and essentially tried to keep itself relevant to the changing international environment, while at the same time it has tried to balance the regional aspirations of its members with their global need. For example: the organization, from the beginning, has strived to evolve a South Asian identity by suggesting that the member states need to take a common position on global issues that affect the region. Since its inception SAARC has tried to evolve a regional outlook on issues of trade, terrorism, poverty, environment and connectivity. Though SAFTA is facing initial hitches, it is poised to take off soon as members have agreed to establish a regional standard institute that would help to overcome problems arising out of the Rule of Origin. The institution will help resolve difficulties in complying with the regional standard that often graduate into trade disputes. However, the failure to implement these resolutions has reflected badly on the performance of SAARC. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, the challenge is “to translate institutions into activities, conventions into programmes, official statements into popular sentiments. Declarations at summits and official level meetings do not amount to regional cooperation or integration.” Instead of taking up new areas in its summit declarations, SAARC should focus on trade, connectivity and security and the need to develop a regional identity. Only a regional identity will generate a regional approach and not the other way around.