Time for a new SAARC Summit? By Syed Mohammad Ali

Time for a new SAARC Summit? By Syed Mohammad Ali

Under India’s leadership, the African Union has been given membership to the prominent grouping of twenty countries known as the G20. Last month, the BRICS grouping — comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — has expanded its membership to include six other countries, viz Saudi Arabia, Iran, Ethiopia, the UAE, Argentina and Egypt. What will come out of these expanding networks remains to be seen. However, the diversity of membership of such groupings illustrates how geoeconomic imperatives are fast becoming a more compelling glue to forge alliances between different nations than ideological, religious or ethnic similarities. Yet, the broader South Asian region remains one of the least integrated regions of an increasingly interconnected world.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was formed in the mid-1980s, with aspirations to become the European Union for South Asia. Yet, SAARC has faced persistent stumbling blocks largely due to the protracted rivalry between its two largest states — India and Pakistan. Despite lackluster progress, SAARC has established some affiliated entities such as a development fund, a regional university, a joint arbitration council and a regional standards organisation.

However, the dearth of funding and political will have not enabled any of these institutions to achieve their stated aims. In fact, SAARC countries have not even convened a physical summit since 2014. A few SAARC declarations have expressed concern about regional climate change and its associated security risks, but most of these efforts are yet to be ratified, much less operationalised.

In 2020, India spearheaded efforts to hold a virtual SAARC summit during the height of the Covid-19 scare. India and other member states pledged nearly $20 million for a regional emergency fund. However, besides some modest information-sharing, no significant progress was made to contend with the pandemic at the regional level. The willingness of regional countries to pledge some funds and to come together during the pandemic is, however, indicative that the desire for regional cooperation has not dissipated entirely.

While difficult, it is not impossible to turn impending transboundary environmental challenges facing the region into an opportunity for enhanced cooperation, rather than allowing climate induced stresses to become a source of further friction. Climate change and population induced pressures will continue to stress the quantity and quality of vital resources such as freshwater. It is thus vital that neighbouring states like India and Pakistan; Pakistan and Afghanistan; India and Bangladesh; and India and Nepal create mutually beneficial and sustainable transborder water management strategies. As bilateral cooperation remains difficult due to the lingering animosity between the larger neighbouring states, regional efforts to enable this cooperation assumes even greater significance.

The problems faced by India and Pakistan and the smaller regional states are not unsolvable, and solutions attempted in other parts of the world can help manage and conserve shared water resources, and to deal with other shared challenges such as cross-border air pollution. There are some precedents within the region for such cooperation, such as the hydropower development and water management agreement between Bhutan and India back in the 1980s. European and North America also established a transborder air quality convention to initially curb the phenomenon of acid rains but was then broadened to address other pollutants, providing precedents for putting in place cross-border technical collaboration strategies. European countries are signatories to a water convention for sustainable transborder water management which could also be adapted to the South Asian context.

It may be a while before SAARC gains the leverage to enable resolution of lingering regional territorial disputes. However, climate change and increased trade provide the two least controversial yet vital areas for cooperation and much-needed confidence building. Perhaps a long overdue physical meeting of regional leaders would help materialise such possibilities.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 22nd, 2023.

Time for a new SAARC Summit? By Syed Mohammad Ali

Source: https://tribune.com.pk/story/2437055/time-for-a-new-saarc-summit

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