SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) is the regional intergovernmental organization and geopolitical union of nations in South Asia. Its member states include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. SAARC comprises 3% of the world’s area, 21% of the world’s population and 9.12% of the global economy, as of 2015. South Asia, being a fragile area having trust deficit and restricted trade issues required a multilateral platform for regional cooperation. To fill this void, SAARC was formed in 1985 at Dhaka. Its Secretariat is based in Kathmandu.
- There is a mutual hostility and lack of trust amongst the members which jeopardises every initiative that it tries to score through multilateral negotiations.
- It is arguably spread too thin, it faces problems of delivery, it is prone to obstructionism by individual member states, and it lacks a brand identity.
- Engagement between elites in South Asia is not enough, nor are there enough contacts between public policy institutes and think tanks of the member countries.
- Pakistan, in particular, has obstructed important initiatives, including stalling on issues of integration and connectivity, often not showing up for necessary meetings.
- Sri Lanka holding back the third round of SAFTA negotiations.
- As such, there has been a lot of criticism of SAARC as a useless or moribund organisation. Alternatives, such as BIMSTEC and IORA have gained in salience, particularly following Myanmar’s opening and the recent BRICS-BIMSTEC summit.
- Transport arrangements with Bangladesh, tabled in the 1970s, are today a reality.
- Intra-SAARC trade has grown significantly and official figures understate the reality of integration.
- SAARC also plays a useful role in collaboration on such issues as providing weather information and the South Asian University in New Delhi is a little-appreciated success story.
- The SAARC Satellite is an example of countries advancing an initiative despite opposition from one-member state.
- At the very least, SAARC is necessary to ensure that the South Asian countries remain a diplomatic priority for one another.
- A new reality in the region is China’s role, which now involves economic, military, and political involvement in several South Asian states.
- The capacity of smaller countries to stand up to China has decreased, as a result of their political fragility.
- India must be clear in communicating its red lines as to what kind of behaviour or activities compromise its interest.
- It must also be more selective in promising projects that are feasible and achieve desired results, focus on connectivity, retain its role as a first responder during crises, ensure that South Asia remains a diplomatic priority, and coordinate with third actors in the region – such as Japan, Singapore, and the United States.
Opportunities for Future Cooperation
- A lot can possibly still be done to strengthen SAARC, such as consolidating its activities to a few key issues, exploring sub-regional options such as BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal), focusing on concrete deliverables with individual countries taking the lead, and investing further in the SAARC Secretariat.
- In India, states need to be roped in as stakeholders, more work needs to be done to involve parties in opposition, and India could refrain from micromanaging the internal affairs of its smaller neighbours.
- For SAARC, lowering criteria for projects can help address obstructionism, and focusing only on issues that cannot be addressed bilaterally can streamline SAARC’s agenda.
The member states of SAARC should understand the intricacies involved with this project of cooperation. Until or unless there is a strong initiative to cooperate on regional and international issues, the aspiration of realising a strong union of states would stay in doldrums. The nations should shed obstructionism to pave the way for group action. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s quote suits best for the SAARC – “You can change friends, not neighbours.”
For India, it is good that we are investing a lot of capital to revive the SAARC from the atmosphere of repugnancy. But in case, the obstructionism continues from the sole member state, determined to circumscribe every cooperation initiative, India should not shy away from airlifting the members to the club of BIMSTEC and IORA.