t a time when South Asian regional cooperation is all but forgotten, a symposium was held Tuesday at the BMICH in Colombo, highlighting the importance of South Asian cooperation for peace, progress and prosperity.
This article was based on my presentation at the seminar organised by the Pakistan High Commission. The seminar was also addressed by Islamabad-based Centre for Global and Security Studies’ president Syed Khalid Amir Jaffery, and Pakistan High Commissioner Dr. Shahid Ahmad Hashmat.
We see hardly any headlines or topics related to South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in the media nowadays. If some five years ago, a Google news search had produced hundreds of articles published within a week, today such an exercise churns out only about five.
South Asian cooperation was conceived in 1981 in a bid to uplift the living standards of its teeming millions living in abject poverty. It bloomed as SAARC in 1985.
But today, South Asian leaders believe that there are avenues other than SAARC to achieve the main goal of SAARC.
This is largely because the global and internal factors today are different from what existed in the 1980s when SAARC was being formed. It was a bipolar global order then; today it is multipolar. Regional cooperation was seen as a way forward for rapid development then. Today, Brexit and the rift among the Gulf Cooperation Council countries point towards a tendency for regional disintegration, underscoring what is paramount in international politics is the individual self-centred interest of the nation state. Today multilateralism is being seen by some big powers as an impediment to achieve national interest goals. The United States President, Donald Trump, has undermined multilateralism, by withdrawing from several international treaties and UN bodies and warning International Criminal Court judges of severe consequences if they try US soldiers for war crimes.
With the conditions today being different, SAARC needs to change to keep up with the times. ASEAN, while maintaining its identity, has moved forward and become a powerful voice in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).
Instead of looking at SAARC’s past 34-year journey as largely a failure, let’s learn from our past mistakes and chart a new course that will help us to achieve our unfulfilled goals.
Basically, the progress of SAARC was stymied by three factors:
- Inter-member state disputes
- Internal political underdevelopment
- Geopolitical realities
Now let us go into detail on each of these factors.Inter-member state disputes are many: Kashmir, India-Lanka disputes, the Nepal-Bhutan refugee issue and the India-Nepal border blockade, to name a few. Most SAARC analysts blame the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir for SAARC’s slow progress. Some pin the blame on the asymmetrical structure of SAARC, with India’s dominance in regional affairs being overwhelming. Yet SAARC has weathered the turbulent sea and reached many a port.
But the present deadlock is the longest and it is a cause for worry. Since 2014, SAARC has not met at summit level.
The 2016 summit to be held in Islamabad has been put off indefinitely, following India’s decision to boycott the SAARC summit after it accused Pakistan of having links with the terrorists who attacked an Indian military base in Indian-administered Kashmir. Three India-friendly SAARC nations -- Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan – also announced a boycott of the summit. Sri Lanka was more diplomatic and called for a postponement of the summit.
Differences between India and Sri Lanka over the presence of Indian peace keeping forces in Sri Lanka saw the sixth summit being hit by India’s unofficial boycott. The summit scheduled to be held in 1989 was finally held in 1991 after two postponements, following behind-the-scenes peace moves by other member-states.
But with regard to the present impasse, there appears to be little effort by member states to persuade India and Pakistan to put their disputes aside and allow the summit to be held.
Perhaps, the member-states have lost faith in SAARC. After all, intra-regional trade among SAARC members is still an abysmal 5 percent of the global trade despite all the big talk about South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA), bilateral Free Trade Agreements and South Asia being home to more than one fifth of the world’s population. We do not have much SAARCness. Do we have a SAARC passport? Mercosur which was set up as a Latin American regional cooperation body, years after SAARC was set up, has one. Mercosur took bold moves and within years intra-Mercosur trade rose by ten fold.
Sad to say, SAARC nations are still politically underdeveloped. True, there’s democracy, but the word democracy has a wider connotation. Have we overcome racism, communalism and bigotry? Have we achieved gender equality? The deficiency in our sociopolitical development has led to internal conflicts which have sapped our energy and eaten into our scarce resources, denied us development and made us debtor nations and underprepared for regional cooperation. Basically, it’s our lack of political maturity that is preventing us from overcoming mutual suspicions and embracing regional cooperation wholesale. Instead, we prefer a cautious approach. This has been a negative SAARC feature since inception.
Countries come together to form regional groupings mainly with the aim of improving their economies and the living standards of their peoples. They suppress their political differences to make progress on the economic front. The European Union and ASEAN have succeeded because they worked within such a framework. But SAARC lacks the political will to take this bold step.
Sri Lanka had, since independence, wanted regional cooperation. In the late 1970s, it wanted to become a member of ASEAN. But India applied pressure on ASEAN to reject Sri Lanka’s application.
With little option left, the then Sri Lanka President J.R. Jayewardene decided to team up with General Hussain Muhammad Ershad’s Bangladesh and other South Asian nations to form a South Asian regional grouping. More than economic cooperation, the hidden objective of the move was to check India, which had by then been aggressively pursuing its policeman role in South Asia.
Named the Indira doctrine, the policy called on India’s neighbours to first consult India before they invited an outside power to solve an internal problem.
By pointing out the negatives, I am not trying to undermine SAARC’s positives. The summit has provided an opportunity for détente between member nations, although SAARC charter prohibits open discussion of bilateral disputes. Examples were many. The Rajiv Gandhi-Benazir Bhutto dialogue and the India-Pakistan handshake following the Kargil crisis, which took South Asia to the brink of nuclear war, were peace moves connected to SAARC.
The way forward
The 2014 SAARC Summit in Kathmandu was held amid the undercurrents of India-Pakistan one-upmanship. It took place just months after India’s prime minister Narendra Modi revived the hopes for SAARC unity by inviting all South Asian leaders to his inauguration. At the summit, there were two key proposals from India and Pakistan. India proposed South Asian connectivity via a network of roads and a common power grid. Pakistan’s proposal was to make China a full member of SAARC.
Both these proposals could have given the South Asian regional grouping the much-needed boost to move forward. Unfortunately Pakistan and India opposed each other’s proposal. Later Pakistan agreed to India’s pproposal after talks between the two leaders.
The move to promote China’s entry as a full member was seen by Indian analysts as an attempt to challenge India’s dominance within SAARC. Pakistan fully supported the move. Of course, Sri Lanka, too, appeared supportive of the proposal then.
However, for China to enter SAARC, the consensus of all member states is required. If India can work with China within BRICS and become a partner in the China-led Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank, there is no reason other than India’s ambitions to be South Asia’s big brother for it to oppose China’s membership.
SAARC could benefit from China’s economic growth and the grouping could extend its trade links to Central Asia and the Asia Pacific region via China, especially in view of China’s Belt-and-Road initiative and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Also if China is given full membership, the India-Pakistan issues that stymie SAARC’s growth can be overlooked and the South Asian grouping could make progress. Its potential will be humongous.
We need to restructure SAARC. That’s the need of the hour and the way forward.
From peace to political stability and prosperity
The panellists and the section of the audience at the seminar on Tuesday
Maj. Gen. (R) Syed Khalid Amir Jaffery, while speaking on the occasion, noted that the Kashmir issue is not just a dispute between Pakistan and India but it was a regional as well as an international issue pertaining to right of self-determination of many million Kashmiris. The adverse effects of non-resolution of Kashmir dispute are felt regionally and internationally. He said the Kashmiris are suffering for last seven decades. The International Community must respond to this humanitarian crisis with full responsibility.
High Commissioner of Pakistan, Dr. Shahid Ahmad Hashmat, in his concluding remarks, said that integration of regional economies is the best way for peace, prosperity and economic growth in this age of globalisation. ASEAN and EU are good role models for other regions to achieve accelerated economic growth and social progress. SAARC, if made more effective could become an engine of growth for South Asia, which will be possible only after the resolution of all disputes in the region including the Kashmir Dispute. The High Commissioner also asserted that Pakistan is seeking peaceful resolution of the Kashmir Dispute through meaningful and comprehensive dialogue with India. The resolution of disputes can be attained through bilateral negotiations and regional and international mediation. If there is no peace, there will be no political stability, and if there is no stability, no economic progress can take place, he underscored.