The hidden costs of sidelining SAARC

Published On: June 19, 2024 08:55 AM NPT By: Dinesh Bhattarai

Dinesh Bhattarai

Dinesh Bhattarai

Dinesh Bhattarai, former diplomat and foreign policy expert, has served as the foreign affairs adviser of former prime ministers Sher Bahadur Deuba and Sushil Koirala.

South Asia faces an uncertain future without substantial regional cooperation.

No nation, however powerful, can face contemporary challenges alone and remain unscathed in today’s chaotic and turbulent world. Emerging trends are towards cooperation and interdependence. We cannot coexist with the rest of the world unless we learn to coexist harmoniously with our neighbors. The region needs to come together.

Regional Cooperation has long been a striking feature of international relations. Nations come together based on shared institutional ties, geographical proximity, cultural bonds, collective self-reliance principles, with common interests of fostering peace, security, and development. They collaborate to pursue economic complementarities, and synergies through regional arrangements, which are seen as fundamental components of the UN's multilateral framework.

Regional arrangements that are aligned with the principles and purposes of the UN Charter, (UN Charter Articles 52. 53) are regarded as building blocks of the United Nations’ multilateral framework.  South Asia was a late comer to the fold of regional cooperation drawing inspiration from established models such as the European Union, African Union, Arab League, and Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). While regional cooperation is not intended to substitute bilateral or multilateral efforts, it can serve as a valuable complement to them. To strengthen these foundational elements, closer partnerships with regional and sub-regional organizations are desirable.

Regionalism can be a confidence-building measure to produce a common resolve to navigate common challenges. Amidst calls from Nepal in 1977 for harnessing the Himalayan water resources for the “common benefit” and Bangladesh in 1980 suggesting for a summit meeting at the height of the Cold War among South Asian leaders to “explore the possibilities of establishing a framework for regional cooperation,” the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was formally established on December 8, 1985 in Dhaka by a summit meeting of  leaders of South Asian nations—namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The SAARC Charter  commits itself to  “promoting peace, stability, amity and progress in the region through strict adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter and Non-Alignment, particularly respect for the   principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, national independence, non-use of force and non-interference in the internal affairs of other States and peaceful settlement of all disputes.” Afghanistan was added to the group in 2007. SAARC’s founding objectives, among others include “to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve their quality of life,” and “to contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems.”

Given the diversity of the South Asian region marked by ethnic restiveness,  cultural, and religious tensions and rivalries,  long-standing mistrusts, unresolved territorial disputes, and ongoing trans-border criminal and subversive activities, alongside complex differences and proliferating transnational challenges, the proposal  for a regional cooperation framework in South Asia was viewed as both imaginative and inspiring.   It was a step by step approach, characterized by a cautious, incremental strategy rather than boldness, as exemplified by  Article 10 of the SAARC Charter which provides that “decisions at all levels shall be taken on the basis of unanimity, and bilateral contentious issues shall be excluded from the deliberations.”

The Charter provision stipulates that Heads of State or Government shall meet once a year or more often as and when considered necessary. However, Foreign Ministers gathered in Male preceding the 2014 summit meeting recommended to hold summit meetings once every two years. As the summit requires the presence of all leaders, due to the recurring tensions especially between SAARC big member-states- India and Pakistan, SAARC leaders have only convened eighteen times in nearly four decades of its journey.

State of regional cooperation in South Asia

In May 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited SAARC leaders to his swearing in ceremony. The prime minister described their personal presence as good wishes of one–fourth of humanity and talked of the future he dreamt for India as the future he wished for the “entire region.” The move was seen as a significant diplomatic event, signaling hope for closer ties and increased cooperation among SAARC members. The then Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar termed his familiarizing tour of the region as SAARC Yatra.  This generated much expectations, enthusiasm and excitement.

Nepal hosted the eighteenth SAARC summit in Kathmandu, in November 2014 with the theme “Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity.” The nineteenth summit scheduled to be held in 2016, in Islamabad is yet to take place. Just months before the scheduled Summit meeting, India expressed its reluctance to attend the SAARC summit, citing terrorist attacks in Uri as the reason. 

Over the years, SAARC has developed a dense network of linkages, mechanisms, and institutions including the establishment of the South Asian University which is managed by its member states. These networks have made significant contributions to the development of civil society and track-two initiatives and promoted people to people contacts. Early on, the third SAARC summit in 1987 in Kathmandu adopted a SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism and updated the 2004 summit with the signing of an Additional Protocol to the Convention. These instruments demonstrate the collective commitment to rid the region of terror and promote regional peace, stability, and prosperity.  Given the existence of various cross-border terrorist groups in the region, persistent recurrence of transnational threats and subversive activities challenging regional and global security,    member-states need to remain engaged to get rid of these forces and infrastructures.  After all, one of the noble objectives of SAARC as mentioned earlier is “to contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems.” It all needs firm and honest commitment of member-states to make SAARC deliver and become effective.

The Group of Eminent Persons (GEP) formed by the ninth summit in 1997 produced a SAARC vision Beyond the Year 2000 to be executed in a phased and planned process leading to the establishment of a South Asian Economic Union.   Early on in 2003, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee mooted the idea of single currency in South Asia. 

SAARC summits provide a unique, informal window—retreat—for leaders to meet without aides and chart future courses of action. The coming together of leaders, even at the height of tensions, in a region fraught with deep-seated suspicions, misunderstandings, and hostility underscores a vital strength of SAARC that cannot be overlooked.

Sideline meetings significantly contribute to building confidence, as recently exemplified by the four-hour Xi-Biden meeting on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit meeting in November last year in San Francisco, which  agreed to reopen communication between their militaries, direct contacts which, President Biden said was “to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict.”  President Xi told the doors to talks between the “two superpowers cannot be closed again.” This demonstrates the role of regional forums in fostering rapprochements between nations at times of tensions and intense global contest for domination.  SAARC exemplifies such a forum in a region laden with deep-seated distrust and misunderstandings.

Though the SAARC has been silenced since 2014, its significance, relevance, acceptability and legitimacy of the SAARC seal remain pivotal, as demonstrated by the virtual meeting of SAARC leaders convened by the Indian Prime Minister on March 15, 2020 to discuss measures to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.   SAARC benefits from a stable region and so do the individual member states.  SAARC can act as a regional resilience also. Given an opportunity to work, SAARC can play geopolitical balancing games between superpowers without being squeezed.

Human Development Report in South Asia 1997 characterized the region as the least integrated, the poorest, the most illiterate, the most malnourished, the least gender sensitive, indeed the most deprived region in the world. Yet it continues to make more investment in arms than in the education and health of its people. In the past 27 years, SAARC has been made largely ineffective in promoting regional economic integration.

Post-2014 summit, regional cooperation has received little attention.  Nepal, the longest serving SAARC Chair, seems to have abdicated its responsibility of taking any initiatives to keep it active. SAARC deems to have virtually disappeared from government agendas, and neither the Prime Minister, nor the Foreign Minister seem to dedicate any time to this crucial  component of foreign policy from their internal power struggle preoccupation. 

Though the SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu is functional and official-level meetings are hosted, SAARC’s slow progress indicates poor commitment of member states, particularly bigger member states. Without their coming forward, the cooperative framework remains far too short of expectations of the people of the region as a whole.  Intellectual voices too have largely ignored SAARC going into oblivion. Not much enthusiasm, not informed and enlightened public opinions are worth noting. Foreign policies of South Asian countries are seen drifting from regional to extra-regional orientation leading to utter disorientation on regional cooperation. It is harming the consolidation of South Asian identity, honor and character, SAARC once envisaged.

Asia on the spotlight

There was a time when Asia was a dominant global power, serving as the world’s center of gravity. It has been a seat of global civilization. Of late, Eurasia has become a strategic chessboard where the global contest for primacy continues to be played. External interest in Asia has never been stronger. The region looms large in Asia and beyond.  In recent years, South Asia has become a theater of intense geopolitical rivalries. 

The covid-19 pandemic heightened existing global geopolitical tensions, emphasizing urgent need to promote equal opportunities and minimize conflicts both within and between nations by ensuring development for all.  At a time, when South Asia is at the forefront of shifting geopolitics and hailed as "the world's brightest spot," offering extraordinary and unparalleled commercial opportunities for the 21st century, the SAARC faces existential threats like never before.

South Asian nations share a bond of friendship extending beyond the government’s structures. People to people contacts and exchanges are deep- rooted in many areas including education, culture and business. To make optimal use of the opportunities available in South Asia, South Asian nations need to come together as they have a long way to go together in addressing contemporary challenges.  We live in an increasingly interdependent and interconnected world where nations’ destinies remain intertwined. No nation, however powerful, can face contemporary challenges alone and remain unscathed in today’s chaotic and turbulent world. Emerging trends are towards cooperation and interdependence. We cannot coexist with the rest of the world unless we learn to coexist harmoniously with our neighbors. The region needs to come together. It must choose cooperation over domination, coexistence over subordination, mutual understanding and humility over arrogance, openness over seclusion, dialogue over confrontation, and tolerance and harmony over deliberate discord for the larger interests of humanity.

South Asia faces an uncertain future without substantial regional cooperation. The decision to revive and empower SAARC is crucial for collective progress and navigate complex and complicated challenges.  Intra-regional trade stands at the lowest (around 5%) in South Asia because of high trade costs, non-tariff barriers and barriers at borders and lack of complementarities and trade openness. Enhancing economic cooperation among SAARC member states by dismantling trade barriers is crucial. As trade barriers are eased, trade is likely to flourish. Tourism would also profit. This initiative will reduce over-reliance on external countries, thereby minimizing external interference and intervention.  The region looks to its bigger members India and Pakistan to take proactive steps to foster regional cooperation and integration.

If there is no communication and cooperation, there is growing mistrust, and this brings nothing, but instability, violence and even wars. If talks do not produce any breakthrough, they may at least create momentum for change. The region needs to shift toward sustained and predictable regional cooperation.  We must learn from the past which tells us that external forces have disrupted the intra-Asian unity and commercial networks, and sown the seeds of conflict in the region.

Allowing SAARC to become dysfunctional and irrelevant greatly distorts our ability to address the realities and mounting challenges. If South Asian nations fail to collaborate on transnational challenges such as climate crisis, pandemics, catastrophic cross-border terrorism, South Asia will likely descend into a perilous theater of discord and become a serious drain in scarce resources and political capital. Extremist elements will occupy the space created by SAARC absence and place the entire region in turmoil. SAARC is needed as an institutional umbrella to allow for the diplomacy and coordination that is needed between member states in order to adequately address numerous threats and challenges the region faces.

The prospects of regional progress in combating climate change are not encouraging. Agriculture in South Asia suffers from severely rising temperatures. Climate change, poverty and pandemics could be dealt with more effectively through greater cooperation. Such cooperation will remain elusive unless we stop viewing with suspicion. The loss of Himalayan glaciers will cause major disruption to the river system upon which over 800 million lives depend. One estimate indicates climate change will cause a 30-40% drop in India’s agricultural output by 2080. (The Economist, SAARC Chasm, July 30, 2008). The costs and consequences of undermining the regional cooperation framework would continue to multiply.

SAARC has nine observer states, including Australia, China, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Mauritius, Myanmar, South Korea, and the United States. This diverse group of observers highlights the increasing interest of both rising and ruling global powers in SAARC. China's geographical proximity to most SAARC countries, combined with its significant economic influence as the world's second-largest economy, the largest manufacturing and trading country is well-placed to help emerging economies and developing nations. This underscores the necessity for the SAARC to engage constructively with China. Asia’s share of global GDP is 28%, largely due to China’s remarkable economic growth.  The US and China together account for more than 40% of the world’s GDP and their technological achievements are setting pace for the rest of the world. To benefit from economic dynamism and technological advancements of its observer states, SAARC should develop effective mechanisms to engage them constructively for collaboration and mutual benefit.

South Asia is Indo-centric. India has 76% of the total region, 77% of the total population, and 71% of the GDP.  India is a country of great significance and will continue to matter even more in the future. It has the world’s largest democracy, most populous country, and fifth largest and fastest growing economy. It holds the key to the future of SAARC as the then Sri Lankan President Julius Jayewardene said at the Third SAARC Summit in Kathmandu in 1987. 

Every region has its own unique problems and challenges. South Asia is not the only region that is inflicted with intractable, interminable, complex and complicated challenges.  The member states of the SAARC must demonstrate the resolve to unite, collaborate and rise together to win a brighter future for the region and the world at large.  If South Asia unites in collaboration, given its enormous natural endowments, it would become an immense political and economic powerhouse.  This would send a powerful message of cooperation and reverberate throughout the world, benefitting all.  On the contrary, if they persist in destabilizing tactics and polarizing power plays, that will create a condition for external forces to step in and exploit divisions of all sorts, undermining the region’s potential emergence as a global economic and political power.

If the geopolitical dynamics following World War II could bring the cohesion needed to allow die-hard enemies France and Germany to interface effectively enough to create the European Union, there is no reason why South Asian countries cannot come together and exercise modes of peaceful and cooperative co-existence for much needed economic development and give a decent life to the peoples of South Asia. SAARC’s capacity to bring nations together and create partners out of former foes, must be given an opportunity to work, as Nelson Mandela said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”  


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