How will SAARC re-emerge?

In its official press released on 08th December 2020, from Kathmandu, where the SAARC secretariat is located, while celebrating the 36th Charter Day,  the Prime Minister of Nepal, K. P. Sharma, asked the member states, ‘to move forward with concrete action in the ground with needed political will and commitment. Giving a fresh impetus to the stalled SAARC process …to rekindle hope among our people and provide ground to move forward’. How far, his wishful desire, ‘of concrete action and political will’ will be carried forward by the SAARC as a whole, only time will tell, however, the given circumstances nullify such ‘desire’.

Since, 2016, SAARC is almost dead, and the opportunity provided by the pandemic was swallowed again by the controversies caused by bilateral disputes. SAARC, with its 3% world’s area and 21% world’s population was established in 1985, by seven states including, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. Afghanistan joined in 2008. This association was formed with large expectations. Its prime motive was, ‘to promote peace, harmony, and economic growth through the cooperation of South Asian states, by sharing the available resources and to build trust among parties and also by facilitating collaboration and regular contact between leaders.’ Cooperation in agriculture, education, culture and sports, health, population, environment, rural development, tourism, transport, science and technology, connectivity, women development, and prevention of drug abuse were set as goals.

Looking at its report card one has to conclude that it has not been able to come up to the expectations of its large population, who are caught in extreme poverty, diseases, malnutrition, violence, displacement, etc. Till now, due to bilateral or internal political reasons, its annual meetings have been postponed about eleven times. The agreements of trade liberalization like SAFTA, have not yielded any fruits, due to its exclusion of trade in services, poor levels of regional connectivity, the existence of Non-Tariff Barriers, the delayed flow of goods due to poor border infrastructure etc. The organization is no comparison with similar other organizations. For instance, the Intra-SAARC trade amounts to 1% of its GDP in comparison with ASEAN’s Intra-block trade of 10%. Similarly, the EU, has been successful in creating a ‘sense of integration’, not only in economic terms but also in politics, among the people, who had fought two devastative World Wars in past. That unfortunately has not been possible through it here even after 40 years of its birth. The excessive nationalism; bilateral conflicts; fear of dominance by big states among smaller states; perennial controversies between two of its big players; external dictations from neo-colonial forces, all have contributed to the dismal functioning of this association.

The trust deficit, its slow growth, and the arrogant attitude of some of the member states within SAARC are forcing smaller states to mend their fences with big players outside the region, as an alternative. The deep-pocketed Dragon has already mend closer her fences with Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and now also with Bhutan. Smaller does not mean inferior that has to be realized. The big players of SAARC have to accept that regional cooperation involves sacrifice. Sacrifice comes from those with a big heart.

How will SAARC re-emerge?

Firstly, all the member states must go back to its very charter, by respecting its principles in letter and spirit. Article 10 (2) of the SAARC charter excludes bilateral and contentious issues from any discussion. This article has tremendous significance in building SAARC again. Most of the SAARC programs have met an ill fate by bringing bilateral controversies to the forefront. Keeping bilateral issues at bay does not mean no progress for their resolution. The peaceful and compromising resolutions of such issues has a greater connection with the progress of SAARC as a whole.  Secondly, SAARC has to revisit her progress card in comparison to its very nearer neighbors-ASEAN or even BIMSTEC for that purpose. ASEAN countries have never tried to hijack the platform for their bilateral issues. They have even engaged big players like China, Japan, and India without losing an inch. The unilateral approach has to be shunned. The sense of regional integration as it exists either in Europe or South East Asia is missing here. BIMSTEC, formed in 1997, viewed by critics as the alternative to SAARC, as it keeps away only three states of later like, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Maldives into it, is, however, emerging as a natural platform for cooperation in South Asia and a jointer for southeast Asia. Further, in all the SAARC nations, the domestic excessive nationalistic jingoist media houses should be kept at bay, they need not influence every foreign policy decision. To satisfy their domestic constituency at the cost of the regional integration is proving suicidal for SAARC. With this, it is also, imperative to focus more on intra-regional connectivity programs. If China can think of connecting the whole world through OBOR, can’t the statesmen in the SAARC region think of connecting this region by SRI (SAARC Road Initiative)? Furthermore, we should not lose sight of new unfolding realities. The superpower gambling is already in vogue in this region, from Europe to West Asia, now this region is becoming the battleground for a tussle between major groups, this is a challenging time for all the nations here to either again become a protectorate of big powers like many acted during the Cold War era or act independently. Will they?  Finally, we have to bring again the logic of Spillover of neo functionalist theory (propounded by David Mitrany and Earnest Hass) which was thought greater attraction for the European Integration, which notes that integration in one area provides conditions and incentives for integration in another policy related area. When people see the benefits of such integration their loyalty is shifted from parochial to regional to global. Will that be possible here? Let’s hope so.

The author works as Assistant Professor Political Science, at, HKM, GDC, Bnadipora.