By: Khushbu Ahlawat, Research Analyst, GSDN
The role of regional organizations has indeed increased in the era of globalization as the interdependence among nations has grown. SAARC, or the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, is a regional inter-governmental organization established in 1985 with eight member states including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Maldives. It aims to promote peace, prosperity, and regional integration in South Asia. SAARC has a secretariat in Nepal and maintains observer status at the United Nations. It represents 21% of the world’s population despite occupying only 3% of the world’s area. Extra-regional countries like China, Japan, European Union, and USA also hold observer status at SAARC.
MAJOR ACHIEVEMENTS OF SAARC IN THE CONTEXT OF REGIONAL COOPERATION
SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) has dramatically grown and developed over the last 26 years through increasing interaction and cooperative efforts among its member states. SAARC’s recent accomplishments can be summarised as follows:
- IMPROVED COOPERATION
SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) has seen greater cooperation among member nations since its creation in 1985, emphasizing improving living standards, cultural and regional economic growth, and cooperation with other regions. Recognizing the significance of regional cooperation and development, SAARC members have focused on the practical implementation of plans and policies to transform the region into a developed one. This has resulted in the establishment and launch of several mutually beneficial programs and forums, including the South Asian University, SAARC International College, agreements on judicial cooperation in counter-terrorism, the establishment of a food bank and development funds, a telemedicine network, the SAARC Writers and Literature Foundation, and the South Asia Foundation. Furthermore, associated centers focus on the environment, policy studies, women’s empowerment, and other topics.
- EXPANDED TRADE AND ECONOMIC INTEGRATION
Economic and trade cooperation is critical to the success of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) and South Asia’s growth. Economic cooperation discussions within SAARC formed the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA), which superseded the Preferential Trading Area (SAPTA) in the 1990s. SAFTA includes a tariff reduction plan, with Pakistan and India promising to lower tariffs on all commodities to 20% within two years, and the remaining member nations committed to 30% reductions within three years. In the second phase, Pakistan and India committed to lower tariffs on imports to 0-5% within five years, and the rest of the members pledged to do so within seven years. While implementing free trade in the region has been difficult, member nations are nevertheless moving forward with initiatives to boost regional prosperity and collaboration.
- COOPERATION WITH OBSERVERS
SAARC countries recognize that, as a relatively poor region, they require help and assistance in numerous aspects of their economies, including capital, resources, education, and technology. In recent years, developed and advanced countries such as the United States, Japan, China, South Korea, Iran, and the European Union have shown a growing interest in assisting in social and economic spheres. SAARC has actively engaged in making agreements and memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with various regional and international organizations, including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), International Telecommunications Union (ITU), United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), United Nations Drug Control Programme (UNDCP), Asia Pacific Telecommunity (APT), and United Nations International Children Education Fund (UNICEF). These agreements and MOUs signify SAARC’s commitment to cooperating with these organizations in areas such as development, telecommunications, trade, drug control, and education for the betterment of the region.
- PEOPLE-TO-PEOPLE CONTACT
SAARC recognizes that developing people-to-people relations is an essential goal of regional cooperation. Despite the constraints of building a climate conducive to open social connection due to the massive institutional structure, SAARC has undertaken several initiatives to promote people-to-people connectedness throughout South Asia. South Asian Festivals, Association of SAARC Speakers and Parliamentarians, SAARC Law, Cooperation of Non-Governmental Organisations, SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry, SAARC Scheme for Promotion of Organised Tourism, and SAARC Documentation Centre are among the initiatives. Civil society in member nations also plays a vital role in establishing communication networks among intellectuals, writers, journalists, academics, and retired civil and military personnel. This goal of people-to-people connectivity influences the success of Track II diplomacy between Pakistan and India. Former Indian Prime Minister I. K. Gujral described SAARC’s development in creating people-to-people contacts within South Asia as a “New Regionalism” enveloping the entire South Asian area.
- FINANCIAL COOPERATION
SAARC Finance Ministers Meetings are an essential part of the SAARC agenda, with four meetings held so far in Pakistan, India, the Maldives, and Bhutan. The First SAARC Finance Ministers Meeting formed an Inter-Governmental Expert Group on Financial Matters to prepare a path for realizing the South Asian Economic Union (SAEU) in stages. Member countries are exchanging concept papers in the financial sector, and a SAARC Expert Group on the Development of Capital Markets in South Asia was also convened. The Sixth Inter-Governmental Expert Group on Financial Issues met in April 2013, followed by the Seventh Informal Meeting of SAARC Finance Ministers in New Delhi in May 2013, which discussed financial cooperation progress and explored new opportunities.
- COOPERATION ON SECURITY AND TERRORISM
Under UN Security Council Resolution 1373, SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) signed the SAARC Convention on Terrorism Suppression in 1987, followed by the Additional Protocol on Terrorism in 2005. Despite these critical texts, member countries have shown little enthusiasm or collaboration on issues of terrorist violence and funding. The establishment of the SAARC Terrorist Offences Monitoring Desk (STOMD) and SAARC Drug Offences Monitoring Desk (SDOMD) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, demonstrates that cooperation has been mostly limited to bilateral projects.
- INTEGRATED PROGRAM OF ACTION
The IPA is an important program within the SAARC process, consisting of 12 areas of cooperation, each supervised by a specific Technical Committee. The Secretary-General reports to the Standing Committee on the status of IPA enforcement, which also analyses the operation of the Technical Committees, their mandates, and the Secretariat’s activities. Agriculture, communications, education, culture and sports, environment, health, population activities and child welfare, meteorology, prevention of drug trafficking and drug abuse, rural development, science and technology, tourism, transportation, and women in development are just a few of the topics covered by IPA’s various committees.
- POVERTY ERADICATION
As one of the world’s poorest regions, poverty eradication is a primary goal for SAARC. With over 1.6 billion people in its eight member countries and almost 40% of the population living in poverty, combating poverty is a huge concern. The Independent South Asian Commission on Poverty Alleviation (ISACPA), which conducts in-depth studies on member states’ experiences, was enhanced at the Seventeenth SAARC Summit in 2011. Social mobilization, access to education, safe drinking water, health services, nutrition, agricultural development, labor-intensive industrialization, and human resource development are all strategies for poverty alleviation.
SHORTCOMINGS OF SAARC
- INTER-STATE DISPUTES
Mistrust, mutual security concerns, and hatred are barriers to SAARC member cooperation. Member countries perceive neighboring countries as threatening in various ways, including politically, economically, and territorially. Historical conflicts of colonial control and disagreements following colonial masters’ departure, such as loss of property, lives, identities, and communal violence, continue to impact relationships. There is always the possibility that the community and terrorist threats will impede efforts to cooperate.
- FEAR OF INDIAN DOMINATION
Fear of India’s perceived hegemonic influence in the region is one of the primary reasons behind SAARC’s failure. Concerns have been made by neighboring nations such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh about India’s intention to lead and participate in decision-making processes.
- CIVILIZATIONS CLASH
Professor Samuel Huntington’s book “The Clash of Civilizations” suggests that SAARC has been a failure due to cultural differences among member countries, particularly India and Pakistan, which have a history of hostility and violence. Disagreements over minor concerns are common, and member countries lack a sense of belonging. The deteriorating India-Pakistan ties have raised concerns about SAARC’s future prospects, with the 19th SAARC summit in 2016 being indefinitely cancelled. There is growing fear that India may prioritize alternative regional cooperation platforms like BIMSTEC, as seen from its diplomatic investment in BIMSTEC through summits, ministerial meetings, and disaster management exercises. This aligns with India’s strategy of isolating Pakistan and advancing regional integration without their participation.
The China-Pakistan axis is strengthening, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is helping Pakistan overcome its geopolitical isolation in South Asia. The “clash of civilizations” is deepening, with religion, culture, and civilization becoming primary markers of identity in the post-cold war world. These factors do not bode well for the future prospects of India-Pakistan relations and SAARC.
- UNSTABLE FINANCIAL POSITION
The organization’s future is doubtful due to SAARC member countries’ poor financial standing. Members’ trade imbalances reflect their economic underdevelopment. Most member nations export comparable items, with India playing a significant role, encouraging aid demands/arrangements and extra-regional commerce rather than regional economic integration. South Asia has limited intra-regional trade, and member nations compete rather than complement one another, hampering SAARC’s goal.
- LACK OF ECONOMIC INTEGRATION
Despite establishing SAFTA in 2006, SAARC’s lack of economic integration might be linked to persistent tensions and strained relations between India and Pakistan. Despite having a combined nominal GDP of approximately US $3.31 trillion, making it one of the world’s emerging development regions, SAARC nations have been unable to meet the enormous market demand across a variety of sectors, including industry, services, agriculture, and health, due to a lack of interdependence. This has resulted in market exploitation by China and other global players, as their proactive approach, bulk production, consistent supply, lower prices, and infrastructure development in countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka have harmed India’s economic standing in the South Asian region.
- LACK OF TRUST BETWEEN MEMBER STATES
A considerable lack of trust among SAARC member states impedes the regional organization’s future development. Historical rivalry and mistrust have done significant harm, and elites in member nations do not trust one another because of nationalistic feelings, entrenched interests, and inter-state disputes. Such issues make it difficult to grow SAARC on a solid foundation.
- EXCLUSION OF CONTENTIOUS ISSUES FROM THE SAARC CHARTER
SAARC’s charter has self-imposed peculiarities, such as the prohibition on discussing contentious and bilateral problems. While it encourages greater cooperation and exchanges, it avoids negotiating such disagreements. Furthermore, the requirement for majority decision-making makes reaching a consensus harder. These issues indicate an unstable inter-state relationship and impede South Asian citizens’ equal involvement in policymaking. This weakens the organization’s fundamental goal and jeopardizes its long-term development.
- DIFFERENT POLITICAL SYSTEMS
South Asian countries’ different political systems, from democracy in India to transitional democracy in Pakistan, kingship in Nepal, and a presidential system in Sri Lanka, have contributed to SAARC’s failure. Many countries in the region have experienced insecurity due to weak democratic governance. The Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India has stopped them from cooperating and putting aside their disagreements inside the SAARC conference. Furthermore, India has disagreements with other SAARC members, such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal, which has hampered achieving SAARC’s goals.
- ASYMMETRY BETWEEN INDIA AND OTHER MEMBER STATES
The economic, technological, and demographic disparities between India and the other SAARC member countries have aided India’s dominance. India has a substantial advantage because of its bigger size, economy, and technological infrastructure, accounting for the majority of regional GDP and worldwide exports. However, smaller South Asian nations are concerned about their commercial relations with India because of the current tariff structure, despite the fact that India has a substantial trade surplus with its neighbors and a significant volume of informal trade. India’s core geographical location within the area also makes it a vital link for the region’s other member countries.
- RECENT DEVELOPMENTS IN AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN
Recent developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan include PM Narendra Modi’s proposal at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to reject the Taliban regime in Afghanistan due to concerns about terrorism, illegal activities, and potential humanitarian crises. SAARC nations agreed to exclude Afghanistan from SAARC activities. Pakistan’s economic crisis, FATF grey listing, and limited financial support may exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, leading to hunger, lack of medicines, poverty, and misery.
SAARC’s failure can be attributed to a lack of visionary leadership, inadequate cost-benefit analysis, bureaucratic obstacles, unnecessary formality, political will, unanimous decision-making, and a lack of cohesive vision. These factors have hampered the organization’s efficiency and ability in addressing globalization concerns, border skirmishes, infiltration, terrorism, and water disputes among member countries, potentially exacerbating interstate rivalries and worsening relations.
NEED FOR REFORMS
- POLITICAL REFORMS
Policy actions at both the government and non-government levels, together with South Asian leaders’ dedication and mutual confidence, can assist in stabilizing and building the region. Among the suggested projects and policy actions are: For regional stability and collaboration, India should approach neighboring South Asian countries with a cooperative and equal partnership rather than a domineering “big brother” attitude. The significance of SAARC has grown in response to shifting global and regional dynamics, and India should be aware of this. Because most problems in South Asia revolve around India, using a low-key approach can help develop trust among smaller neighboring countries.
CCGs (Conflict Coordination Groups) can be formed within SAARC to address bilateral disputes if all parties involved agree to seek SAARC’s assistance. To maintain impartiality, these panels can include members from both parties in dispute as well as other member states. CCGs can also address concerns such as the exploitation of women and children or other challenges that countries in the region agree to address.
To recover the trust of its neighbors, Indian leaders should emphasize the phrase “Dependable India” rather than hard force. The COVID-19 pandemic has given India a chance to demonstrate its proactive attitude under PM Narendra Modi’s leadership, such as bringing all SAARC states together on a shared video platform, providing a glimmer of hope for the resurrection of SAARC. Despite the fact that public health has not traditionally been a strength of SAARC members, India’s initiative is admirable. It has positioned itself as a leader amid the global crisis, demonstrating the spirit of SAARC for regional collaboration.
The SAARC Charter should include provisions for member country leaders to debate international concerns such as peace, security, trade, the environment, and technological transfers. The current system does not allow for such discussions because summit statements are drafted by bureaucrats ahead of time, preventing leaders from exchanging views on regional issues. During the CTBT negotiations in Geneva, for example, India and Pakistan had comparable concerns but did not collaborate, reducing collective strength. SAARC could also explore provisions for the peaceful resolution of bilateral conflicts and relaxation of the necessity for unanimous decision-making on all issues, including bilateral ones. However, geographical sovereignty, political independence, and non-interference must be upheld.
Individual governments from all eight member nations play a critical role in strengthening SAARC. Trust and earnest efforts are required to overcome the lack of development in the organization. With constructive thinking and a cooperative vision, SAARC has the potential to exceed the European Union (EU) in regional integration. To address issues such as cross-border violations and detentions, a SAARC fact-finding team, in partnership with the International Red Cross, may be constituted to investigate claims by visiting jails and incarceration centers.
The suggestion is that the sudden US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 has created a vacuum that various terrorist and extremist forces could fill. As an alternative, the proposal of a joint UN Peacekeeping Force (UNPKF) from the SAARC region, under the United Nations auspices, is presented as an option to be considered.
- ECONOMIC REFORMS
Regional policy changes must be monitored to effectively respond to globalization’s difficulties, such as trade liberalization, tariffs, and price controls. All member countries would gain from establishing a shared identity for South Asia regarding quality, brand names, standards, and investment regimes. Sub-regional cooperation can promote development between West Bengal, Bangladesh, and Bangladesh-India-Nepal. Improving road, rail, and air transit infrastructure is critical for improved engagement among South Asian communities. Joint venture ventures in the service and education sectors can transcend cultural divides and encourage people-to-people collaboration. India should be trustworthy and accommodating to foster trust among smaller neighbors. Economic policy coordination, learning from triumphs and failures, the construction of free trade zones, the free flow of physical and financial resources, and targeted development are all vital for developing South Asia’s regional economic integration.
The idea is that economic integration is critical for tackling SAARC’s difficulties and that economic and social factors must take precedence over security concerns. During the COVID-19 epidemic, India’s outreach, such as delivering vaccines to SAARC members, including Pakistan, and humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka, could serve as accelerators for restoring commercial and market-related activity within SAARC. India’s activities and goals should be supported to stimulate regional economic activity, increase competitiveness and interdependence, and pave the road for a self-sufficient SAARC (“Atmanirbhar SAARC”).
- SOCIAL REFORMS
To facilitate dialogues and exchanges, people-oriented organizations such as civic, political, professional, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should cooperate to foster regional cooperation in South Asia. Building a South Asian identity based on shared norms rooted in cultural, historical, social, ethnic, and civilizational traditions is critical, and the state should prioritize civil society. Greater exchanges of academics, poets, and cultural circles across South Asian countries and simple access to each other’s TV and electronic programs can boost mutual collaboration and trust-building activities. Media actions, particularly electronic media, have the potential to bring South Asians closer together. Another potential approach is establishing a SAARC Joint Commission comprising notable historians from member nations to help document the region’s history and eliminate historical misconceptions.
- INSTITUTIONAL REFORMS
Institutional adjustments are required to increase the SAARC Secretariat’s responsiveness and effectiveness, including raising the Secretariat’s size to deal with the IPA’s wide range of challenges. Member nations should also contribute additional funds, such as 1% of their defense budgets, to support the Secretariat’s expanded activities. To improve contact among member nations, the Secretariat should plan at least three summit meetings of Foreign Ministers and leaders of states each year and more frequent meetings of ministers in other portfolios. With the nations’ permission, the Secretariat should also be given more leeway in preparing position papers on multilateral matters. Furthermore, the establishment of a SAARC Parliament or Assembly with deliberative functions could help to achieve a well-integrated economic community. Coordination with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should also be improved to expand economic and infrastructure aid.
SUGGESTIONS TO IMPROVE INDIA-PAKISTAN RELATIONS FOR BETTER FUNCTIONING OF SAARC
The suggestion acknowledges the significance of SAARC meetings in promoting regional cooperation and re-engaging with neighboring countries. It emphasizes India’s leadership role in revitalizing SAARC through a soft power approach. It also highlights that the provision of holding meetings as per the SAARC Charter is often not followed. The suggestion emphasizes the need for proactive efforts from Pakistan in calling for SAARC meetings, despite existing tensions, and suggests virtual meetings as a possible solution to logistical challenges.
Including Pakistan in India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ Policy could have potential benefits, such as promoting cooperation, dispelling notions of hegemony, and addressing regional challenges like terrorism and better functioning of SAARC. However, it’s important to consider the complexities of the India-Pakistan relationship and broader geopolitical dynamics in South Asia.
Efforts to improve trade relations between India and Pakistan would require careful consideration of complexities, diplomatic efforts, confidence-building measures, and sustained dialogue. Addressing mutual concerns, building trust, and addressing relevant factors like infrastructure, regulatory frameworks, and trade facilitation measures would be crucial for smooth functioning of SAARC.
Pakistan and India in the SCO might potentially improve their relationship by providing a platform for the growth of friendship and addressing unresolved issues. Attending SCO gatherings can also help overcome the SAARC impasse brought on by tensions between India and Pakistan, which might eventually improve SAARC performance.
Cultural diplomacy involves diverse exchanges like art, music, dance, theatre, sports, and artists, beyond performing arts. These bilateral exchanges can alleviate political tension and promote stability and peace in bilateral relations, ultimately contributing to the improved functioning of organizations like SAARC. For example, sports events like cricket can be a part of cultural diplomacy efforts to foster better relations between countries.
Initiation of bilateral dialogue between India and Pakistan based on the “UFA” agreement aims to address issues like terrorism, humanitarian concerns, and people-to-people exchanges, signaling willingness for cooperation and potential for new dimensions in diplomatic engagements. Success hinges on commitment, sincerity, and overcoming challenges, and could have a positive impact on SAARC’s functioning.
The quote by Nelson Mandela “If you want to make peace with your adversary, you have to cooperate with your opponent, then he joins you as a partner” highlights the potential of SAARC to unite nations through cooperation with adversaries. Despite challenges, the psychological integration of South Asian leaders is seen as a strength of SAARC. Reviving SAARC requires better branding, visibility, and concerted efforts at all levels. SAARC is likely to continue existing in its current form, with meetings, discussions, disagreements, and cancellations. SAARC is not just an organization, but also an idea that promotes harmony and integration among nations, and its vision of regional peace, prosperity, and integration will persist despite challenges.