SAARC: Collateral Damage of Regional Tension By Naghmana A Hashmi

SAARC: Collateral Damage of Regional Tension By Naghmana A Hashmi

AFTER decades of efforts, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was formally launched at the first summit of the seven states of South Asia in Dhaka on 7-8 December 1985. Compared to the other regional organizations like ASEAN, EU, the SAARC was not only a late starter but also a concept riddled with difficulties and hurdles that made its progress and destiny doomed right from inception. The very nature and issues of South Asia did not auger well for its dream of regional connectivity and socio-economic development of the teeming millions who still live under the poverty line having given up their faith in SAARC.

SAARC came into being to promote intraregional connectivity through trade but unfortunately to date intra-SAARC trade stands at a meagre 5%. It has not been able to increase trade between the member states despite the promulgation of the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA). Many of the SAARC members’ largest trade partner is not a fellow South Asian nation but the People’s Republic of China. SAARC has been unable to implement its plans for regional welfare leaving much of the population in adverse socioeconomic conditions. Even though the region accounts for 21% of world population, its share in global GDP is just around 3%. Being one of the poverty ridden areas of the world, there is limited avenues to achieve synergy. Additionally, all the SAARC countries have low ranking on the human development index (HDI). The low HDI ranking is not only a poor reflection on these vital indicators in the region but also on the poor performance of SAARC.

The fast evolving geostrategic and geo-economic developments in the world are changing the realities in South Asia. Tensions between member states leave space for external powers to intervene in South Asian politics. It is therefore, important to take a fresh look at the prospects and challenges for regional economic integration in the region and see whether there is still any possibility of reviving SAARC and propelling it in the right direction of higher growth trajectory. If there is, then is it the right time to provide the needed push and impetus to SAARC enabling it to fulfil the dreams and aspirations of the people to see a peaceful and prosperous South Asia. Under the present unsettled political and strategic environment and particularly in view of the politics of hatred and otherization being promoted by Modi in India, the future of SAARC becoming active and effective in the foreseeable future does not appear to be possible.

There is no arguing the fact that an integrated and developed SAARC region will not only benefit South Asia, but the rest of the world as well. With its large population and markets, it could well become one of the major engines for global growth in coming years. However, this would only be possible if the member states can free themselves of the shackles of various civilizations, castes, religions, values and ethos coupled with serious border, economic and political issues among SAARC members, as these diversities and issues pose serious challenges. Samuel Huddington in his book, Clash of Civilizations declares that SAARC isa failure, as like other regional organizations, South Asian countries have no common strong historical or civilizational bonding particularly in the case of Hinduism and Islam.

Additionally, serious diversity can also be seen in terms of political ideologies and systems. In the region there are monarchies, military regime, democracies, and centralized command structure. The arbitrary demarcation of borders by the British during the colonial period has left the region riddled with problems and conflicts that continue to dictate the political and security environment of South Asia. India the regional hegemony and bully has used its power to forward its hegemonic designs often at the expense of SAARC. The postponement of the Islamabad SAARC conference through Indian machinations is an example of how SAARC has paid the price for Indian ambitions.

Differential development levels and manifest economic inequalities in the region in areas of trade, manufacture and services make it difficult, if not impossible, to carry out a viable economic system out of the inequality. In addition to this, the lack of connectivity among member states is another weakness of the SAARC. This ties in with the lack of a proper infrastructure of member states. This infrastructure deficit in turn leads to reduced connectivity among the SAARC nations. Intra-regional trade among the SAARC countries as a percentage of global trade has been negligible. Restrictive trade policies of the SAARC countries, dominance of foreign capital, competitive behaviour of economies, communication gap and lack of monetary cooperation etc. are the primary reasons for such a low volume of trade among the SAARC countries. In the absence of coordinated approach, the SAARC countries compete for the same foreign markets, offering the same products.

The SAARC countries also hold divergent views at the various multilateral political economic forums because of diverse economic and geopolitical interest. European Union’s cooperation is for example, reinforced internally by alliances among powerful industrial, agricultural, humanitarian and labour interest across borders. But in SAARC there is no example of such cooperative environment which is necessary for getting favourable response at these forums for the common good of the region. in practice. It would not be wrong to say that the biggest hurdle in the way of an effective SAARC is the legacy of mistrust between Pakistan and India. Both doubt the intention of the other for joining the organization. India feels that Pakistan wants to use it to form an Anti-India group while Pakistan feels that India will use the group to further establish its hegemony to influence other members against Pakistan.

With two large countries, that are also nuclear powers, viewing SAARC from such divergent views does not provide the cooperative environment required for regional cooperation. This unremitting hostility and lack of trust between Pakistan and India have greatly undermined the growth of SAARC. With this hostility further aggravated due to the abrogation of article 360 A of Indian Constitution, unilaterally changing the status of Illegally Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK), the prospects of SAARC energizing itself are minimal at best.

Increasing presence of china in the region and China-India tensions is creating roadblocks for SAARC. South Asian security concerns relate to the regions relations with China and Russia on one hand and with the U.S.A and its western allies on the other. The phenomenal rise of China economically, technologically and politically has become the single largest concern to the security-matrix in Southern Asia. Security challenges in South Asia have intensified as a result of economic and political differences and rivalry between China and the U.S.A intensifies. With India now a strategic partner of choice for the U.S.A and Pakistan a strategic partner of China, the possibility of this U.S.-China finally playing out in the Indian Ocean cannot be ruled out, pushing the entire South Asian region into instability.

The incapability of SAARC to provide a platform for conflict resolution has become its greatest weakness. As low politics is a domain exclusive to the SAARC, it is often held hostage by high politics which in turn weakens its performance. Its Article-10 (General Provision), prohibits discussion of ‘bilateral’ and contentious issues. This clause was set primarily with a view to avoiding its direct involvement in any bilateral conflicts in this forum. However this weakness has not allowed SAARC to really take off in real sense of the term.

Today this region is facing many issues like terrorism, poverty, food security, climate change, drug trafficking, extremism, and economic crisis. These core issues cannot be resolved at bilateral level. Joint effort and close coordination among the member countries to solve these threatening issues is essential. SAARC can fulfil its objectives like corruption elimination, acceleration of economic growth, Social and cultural growth and collective self-reliance only if the mutual trust exists among them. Regional and domestic issues can be resolved if the leadership of the countries is serious in favour of public security and concord.

Whatever the flaws of the SAARC so far may be, it is the only platform where the local leaders meet and discuss issues of a region containing 1.6 billion people. It is up to the SAARC leaders to work together for a developed, peaceful and prosperous South. SAARC leaders must seize the opportunity, put egos aside and work towards regionalism based on equal opportunities. India should shun its hegemonic tendencies and negotiate and resolve disputes with its neighbours enhancing the chances of success.

In order to achieve the objectives, SAARC would have to evolve into a full-fledged ‘regional entity’ that can cultivate peace in the region. The realization of durable peace and the future of economic integration through SAARC depend upon the ability and interest of South Asian leaders to resolve domestic as well as long-standing differences through peaceful deliberations. SAARC meeting, physical or virtual, is quintessential. Blocking of SAARC Summit in Pakistan by India is completely unreasonable and should be unacceptable. Economic integration is the key to all the problems. South Asian region must identify economic and social element as priority rather than being marred by the security element and unresolved disputes. “If you want to make peace with your adversary, you have to cooperate with your opponent, then he joins you as a partner”. There is a lot of wisdom in what Mandela said. SAARC nations should draw useful lessons from this statement.

—The writer is former Ambassador, based in Islamabad.


SAARC: Collateral Damage of Regional Tension By Naghmana A Hashmi


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