Is SAARC a failure?

Abdul Quader Chowdhury

Formally launched at the first summit of the seven states of South Asia in Dhaka on 7-8 December, 1985, the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) was already a late starter in regionalism when it began its journey about 16 years ago. However, compared with other regional organisations – NAFTA, EU and ASEAN – the SAARC is seen to have been moving very slowly.

There have been much deliberations in the name of poverty alleviation, but this hapless region has a meagre chance of escaping this endemic malady in near future. In South Asia there are various civilisations, castes, religions, values and ethos; and these diversities pose serious challenges. This is a historical fact. Harvard Prof. Samuel Huntington, a controversial Western sociologist, in his book The Clash of Civilisations states that SAARC is a failure. He thinks that unlike the countries that belong to such other associations, like the European Economic Community, for example, the SAARC countries do not belong to one civilisation. According to him the people in the region belong to two main civilisations, namely, Hindu and Islamic. Apart from his view, the diversity can also be seen from the types and forms of political regimes and ideologies. In the region there are monarchies, military regime, democracies, and centralised command structure. These developments originally shaped during the colonial periods continue to dictate the political and security environment of S. Asia. Many of the national boundaries and resources were inherited or shared which came as legacies of the past and still continue to pose potential security threats among states. Consequently these asymmetry leads to insecurity, mistrust, and unpredictability.

Next, the severe inner weakness in SAARC’s policy is its Article-10 (General Provision), which prohibits discussion of ‘bilateral’ and contentious issues. And this weakness has not allowed SAARC to really take off in real sense of the term. This clause was set primarily with a view to avoiding its direct involvement in any bilateral conflicts in this forum. While India thought that SAARC would develop into an anti-Indian forum, Pakistan, on the other hand, suspected that India would use SAARC as a bloc under its leadership.

The legacy of mistrust between India and Pakistan is the prime impediment to peace and cooperation in South Asia. For instance, by imposing the decision of postponement of the 11th Summit, scheduled to be held in November 1999, at the insistence of India, without regard to the feelings of other members, was a gross violation of democratic values of consensus. The argument advanced by India that as ‘democracy’ was toppled in Pakistan, and the Chief Executive, Mr. Musharraf, happened to be a serving General, the situation was not conducive to holding of the Summit, was illogical on several counts. In the first place, it is a semantic issue, whether the ousted government was really ‘democratic’. In the very first session of the SAARC, Pakistan’s participation was through President General Zia-ul-Haq, who was a military ruler, and so was the host — General H. M. Ershad from Bangladesh. Anyway, it goes to the credit of Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who in the 10th SAARC Summit underscored the need for discussing political issues, bilateral/multi-lateral, as they pose attitudinal impediments towards building a climate of cooperation in the region. She insisted that SAARC must sit together even without either one – India or Pakistan – if such a case arises. She opined that without getting contentious issues out of way, or substantially diluting their impact, a whole-hearted commitment to the lofty goals would remain a wishful proposition.

Further, other impediments in the political, economic and global areas also keep the SAARC handicapped. Political impediments:- (i) India by virtue of its natural endowments and wider economic base and capability occupies a predominant role in South Asia. India’s small neighbours, realised that India wants to convert its natural preponderance into political preponderance because of such a perception of Indian domination. These small neighbours seek to balance the "big brother" by developing close ties with other giants (USA, China, Japan etc.) external to the region; and this perception hinders regional cooperation. (ii) Domestic conflicts: Military takeovers in Pakistan and frequent political change in India and Bangladesh fall under the rubric of systemic crisis which derail the process of cooperation in the region.

(iii) Bilateral problems and defence expenditure, chronic in the region, has often led to postponement of SAARC summits which is a big setback. Frequent border skirmishes between India and Bangladesh, the ongoing debate between Bhutan and Nepal over the refugee issue, the irritants in relations between India and Nepal over the open border, disputes between India and Sri Lanka over the Tamil ethnic issue and other sporadic events have constrained the growth of regional cooperation in the region. However, it is the unremitting hostility between India and Pakistan, which has greatly undermined the growth of SAARC. (iv) Most importantly, almost every South Asian country is perpetually plagued by internal conflicts and crises based on narrow considerations of caste, religion, language, community and so on.

Economic Impediments:- (i) Differential development levels and glaring economic inequalities in the region in areas of trade, manufacture and services make it difficult, if not impossible, to carry out a viable economic system out of the unequal. (ii) Intra-regional trade among the SAARC countries as a percentage of global trade has been only 4 per cent. Restrictive trade policies of the SAARC countries, dominance of foreign capital, competitive behaviour of economies, communication gap and lack of monetary cooperation etc. are the primary reasons for such a low volume of trade among the SAARC countries. (iii) In the absence of coordinated approach, the SAARC countries compete for the same foreign markets, offering the same products.For example, Bangladesh, India and Nepal compete for export of jute goods to UK, E.E.C. and US markets. Likewise India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh vie with each other for export of tea to EEC, UK, Japan and Australian markets. Every nation, except Nepal, Maldives and Bhutan, compete for apparel, sea food etc.

(iv) The SAARC countries differed widely at North-South dialogues and GATT negotiations, South-South negotiations, GATT and NAM because of diverse economic and geopolitical interest. Western European co-operation is reinforced, internally by alliances among powerful industrial, agricultural, humanitarian and labour interest across borders. But the SAARC is not in such an environment in practice. (v) WB / IMF design development strategy for the loan / aid recipients of this region most of the time which contradicts the policy of individual country.

In the spirit of cooperation, the principles should be made applicable in different dimensions—bilateral, regional, and global. The nature of security paradigm, both old and new, in the industrialised countries of the West are based on military power. This has significantly influenced the Asian security matrix in conjunction with local conflicts.

External impediments:- (i) South Asian security concerns also relate to the foreign relations of China besides the West and to some extent Russia’s future economic condition. Russia’s future relations with the West are not likely to be smooth as is also true about its relations with China. Similarly, the evolution of China is the single largest concern to the security-matrix in Southern Asia. (ii) In addition, security challenges in South Asia depend largely on how the relations in Asia, or more specifically, relations between some of the bigger states like China, India, Japan and Russia with the major power, such as the US develop.

It appears that the US has started thinking of India as a "counterweight" to China because it is the only country in Asia which can match China in population, trained technical manpower, development of information technology and its potential in developing as a military superpower. The US no longer regards Russia as a threat to its security. China is an ally of Pakistan and helped it in many ways. (iii) Instability in Afghanistan and its unpredictable future have become the most serious security problem for the whole of Central and South Asian region where India and Pakistan virtually play on opposite poles.

(iv) The US is seeking its own strategic equations in South Asia. The US in pursuit of establishing an independent energy supply system intends to act a geopolitical role in this region. The security calculations are also getting linked up with the future supply of resources from Central Asia. In fact, Central Asian security in the coming years will be determined by international competition for exploiting and routing the region’s enormous energy resources. Recent developments of the US military involvement in Afghanistan and Central Asia manifest that the Western powers persuing the geo-politics in Central Asia and South Asia in such a way which is being diluted and saturated in the same matrix.

(v) During the Cold War days India found a natural ally in Soviet Union whereas Pakistan was America’s trump-card against Soviet Union in Afghanistan. As a result, almost perpetual intra-state conflicts and crises have left individual states with little time or resources to work towards regional cooperation. Both India and Iran have criticised Taliban and have expressed concern for a destabilised India, Iran, Russia, and two other Central Asian states have also signed an international convention against cross-border terrorism. The Iranian leaders want to benefit by developing economic ties with India such as oil pipeline to India via Central Asia.

Source: The Daily Independent, Dhaka, December 26, 2001