Both EU and ASEAN are the examples of regional connectivity, coexistence and the aim of a shared future. Despite the economic benefits of such platforms, SAARC and its member states are yet to accrue such benefits, owing to India’s hegemonic ambitions.
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established with the signing of the SAARC Charter in Dhaka on December 8, 1985. SAARC comprises eight member states: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The setting up of SAARC as a regional organization should not have sprung a surprise on the people of the member states of the region. Rather, the question should have been asked as to why it had taken so long for these states to agree to cooperate in the spirit of regional coexistence. Numerous historical, cultural, social, and religious commonalities among the member states bring them together. The objective of the SAARC Charter is similar to the United Nations Charter: respect for the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, non-use of force and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, and peaceful settlement of all disputes, as that shall contribute to the promotion of friendship and understanding among the people of the member states.
Discussion on Bilateral and Contentious Issues: A No Go Area, A Lament
A closer look at the SAARC Charter highlights, “Bilateral and contentious issues shall be excluded from the deliberations”. Was excluding the discussion on bilateral and contentious issues done by design or otherwise and raises the question as to why was this article inserted? Dynamism is a vital component of any regional organization and SAARC should not have been an exception; the reason is embedded in the historical fact that stagnation sinks any organization or institution. A lesson can be learned from the EU and the ASEAN composed of member states who had been at war, and then they took the courageous plunge in the larger interest of their people to throw the dirty rags of their tainted history in the bin and moved forward. EU has France and Germany, and ASEAN has Indonesia and Malaysia, once bitter foes, who now pride themselves as partners and are moving forward in the spirit of peaceful coexistence. Nishchal Pandey, a known Nepali voice on SAARC, hit the nail in his critique on excluding bilateral and contentious issues from the SAARC deliberations, Little did the leaders fancy that bilateral and contentious issues would in the years ahead hinder the healthy growth of the regional organization. It was India that did not agree to accept the suggestion made at the New Delhi 8th SAARC Summit to include bilateral issues.
During the EU and ASEAN Summit sideline meetings, the heads of states and governments used these effortless opportunities to gradually iron out their differences, leading to ways to foster cooperation in diverse sectors. Since 2016, SAARC member countries have been waiting for a cloud burst to end the Pakistan-India incommunicado dry spell. This miracle has happened in the not-so-distant past; in 2004, the then President Musharraf of Pakistan and Prime Minister of India Mr. Vajpayee held a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the 12th SAARC Summit in Islamabad which broke the impasse on discussing bilateral issues. Subsequently, the Indian premier did what was considered a taboo by earlier Indian governments, and the Jammu and Kashmir dispute and the related subject matters were discussed threadbare, though away from the prying eyes of the media and the public. This exercise aimed to find a peaceful solution to a dispute over which several wars were fought between the two neighbouring states. This courageous quantum jump that could have contributed to ending decades of mistrust turned out to be a one-off.
Economic, Trade and Social Cooperation: A Tale of Moving Forward and Stalled by Misgivings
Trade: A Perplexing Journey
As compared to the EU and the ASEAN, who have consolidated their gains and marched forward, SAARC’s journey as a regional organization is an account of its voyage as a combination of marching forward, stalling, and lurching backward. SAARC countries' consumers number about two billion people with comparatively cheap labour. The potential for intra-regional trade is far more in the region. Unlike the EU or ASEAN, however, trade between the seven SAARC states has remained limited even though all are positioned within the proximity of one another and are a part of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
SAARC is to be credited with a fair amount of success in the economic sectors. Cooperation in trade, commerce, and finance led to the landmark agreement of SAFTA, that has led to the abolition of double taxation, free movement of certain commodities across the borders, and preferential treatment to regional trade over trade outside the region. SAFTA has the potential to ultimately lead to an economic union. SAARC could claim that it had made strides in the other sectors, but the agriculture and rural development, backbone of the South Asian economy, has benefitted the most and so have the health and population sectors. SAARC has reached out to the other regions, also established in collaboration with the United Nations specialised agencies and gave observer status to some states outside the region. SAFTA has provided trade concessions to two categories of countries – the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and non-LDCs. However, non-tariff barriers and custom requirements, a sensitive list of trade, and the South Asia Preferential Trading Agreement (SAPTA) of April 1993, are challenging to overcome.
The current regional trade which stands at approximately 5 percent of the total trade is dismal and lower than the neighboring ASEAN countries whose intra-regional trade accounts for nearly 32 percent of the trade balance. The trade promotion in the region is subservient to and dependent upon better bilateral relations among member countries, especially India and Pakistan. While India has to take the blame for the incommunicado state of Pakistan-India relations, the ill-advised decision on Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) was a massive blunder.
On February 15, 2019, the Indian government withdrew the Most Favoured Nation or MFN status it had accorded to Pakistan under SAFTA. Regretfully, this decision was taken by India without sharing with Pakistan any proof of its involvement in the killing of its paramilitary forces in Pulwama, IIOJK and it remained mere allegations.
Connectivity: The Peoples’s Bridge – A Distant Dream
A citizen of SAARC holding proper documents should have the right to travel for business or pleasure from his home country to another member state without hindrance. This bridge was scuttled right after it was conceived. The 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu renewed their commitment to substantially enhance regional connectivity seamlessly. The SAARC leaders emphasized the need for linking South Asia with contiguous regions, including Central Asia, and beyond by all modes of connectivity and directed relevant authorities to initiate national, regional, and sub-regional measures and necessary arrangements. The regret: This resolve has ended in bluster and so far, no progress has been made.
Islamabad, which provides Kabul with the shortest and most cost-effective land route for global trade has, for decades, facilitated Afghan trade through its seaports in line with their recently renegotiated Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA), which also gives Pakistan access to trade with Afghanistan’s neighbors. Although the bilateral transit trade agreement, APTTA, does not involve transit to and from India, Pakistan continues to allow transit of Afghan fruit to India through Wagah as a special gesture. Moreover, a shipment of humanitarian food aid from India was allowed in February 2022 to cross the land border into Pakistan on its way to Afghanistan; a rare gesture between the two countries that suspended transit trade three years ago over heightened tensions. The SAARC member states, especially India, must loosen its rigidity over transit trade in the larger interest of the people and trade.
SAARC Arbitration Council: Disputes Peacefully Resolved
Islamabad-based SAARC Arbitration Council (SARCO) is one of the specialized bodies of SAARC. It is an inter-governmental institution with a mandate to support the fair and efficient settlement of disputes. As the premier arbitration and conciliation institution in South Asia, SARCO has its mandate to provide a legal framework within the region for a fair and efficient settlement through conciliation and arbitration of commercial, investment, and other such disputes may be referred to the Council by agreement. SARCO has developed its own rules of arbitration and conciliation for parties that wish to utilise their dispute resolution services. SARCO remains an important resource for the region as a dispute resolution institution for other kinds of disputes.
COVID-19 Crisis: Efforts in Containing the Pandemic
At India’s initiative, the SAARC COVID Summit (virtual) chaired by Indian Prime Minister Modi culminated in a workable solution for a fundamental problem in the long-drawn-out fight against COVID-19. India announced a $10 million contribution. Other SAARC member states also committed to the COVID-19 Emergency Fund. Afghanistan, facing myriad challenges, managed to commit $1 million. Pakistan extended worth USD 3 million in anti-pandemic medical and financial assistance to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Nepal. This assistance was among other initiatives that Pakistan took for a collaborative action for mobilizing development financing, especially in the post-COVID-19 scenario. The joint willingness of SAARC member states to fight the pandemic was commendable. The Indian initiative of the SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund was a good gesture. However, by using the nomenclature of SAARC, India provided financial and health-related COVID-19 pandemic assistance to the South Asian countries on the bilateral level, excluding the SAARC Secretariat from all its processes.
The Summit Imbroglio
The holding of summits is an uphill and challenging task for any host country, but no member state stonewalls its convening. SAARC has the rare distinction where India continues to obstruct the holding of the SAARC Summit; it is Pakistan’s turn to host the summit and has been waiting since 2016. It is India’s hegemonic arrogance which is reflected in its oft-repeated feeble explanations not to attend the summit. There is still no consensus that would permit holding of the summit. Foreign policy professionals around the globe are at a wit's end trying to understand the reasons for SAARC’s stagnation which had the promise of maturing into a tall cider tree, reflecting dynamism, but instead, it turned out to be a bonsai tree in a pot; it has resigned not to grow and remain small. SAARC growing into a model regional organization remains a dream. In sweeping the past lies the mystique of rejuvenating this regional organisation. Ambassador Javaid Husain, a seasoned diplomacy practitioner, must have been quite disappointed at the stagnating SAARC, when he commented, “Unfortunately, in South Asia, barring geographical proximity, none of the other necessary conditions for the success of regional economic integration are fulfilled”. Pakistan, being the founding member of SAARC, attaches great importance to SAARC and has always played a proactive role to make SAARC a useful organization for regional cooperation, based on the principle of sovereign equality. Pakistan hosted the 4th and 12th SAARC Summits in 1988 and 2004 respectively. SAARC summit process has been compromised when India and on India’s instigation other South Asian members declined to participate in the 19th SAARC Summit. The postponement of the SAARC Summit has established the longest gap (between the two Summits) in the history of SAARC. Pakistan has a strong position that it is committed to hosting the SAARC Summit when artificial obstacles created in its way are removed. Member State Nepal, the current chair of SAARC, has been advocating the early convening of the SAARC Summit. There is much frustration among all member states on the matter of SAARC Summit as many important issues await the decision of the SAARC leadership.
The Reasoning: Let the Ember Glow
The success of the EU and ASEAN is indeed a model of success and worth emulating. SAARC trails far behind.
On August 5, 2019, Indian Prime Minister Modi’s government made the ill-advised revocation of Articles 370 and 35-A from the country’s constitution, which annulled the decades-old grant of the state to IIOJK. This shooting in the foot by India dealt a severe blow to the promise by the UN to hold a plebiscite in the IIOJK and aggravated the already tense India-Pakistan relations and heightened violence in the region. Pakistan’s flip flop policy to rescind its decision in April 2021 to allow a partial resumption of trade was followed by Pakistan allowing India to send humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. These mixed signals are of little help and clarity for the long term is the sine quo non for the Pakistan-India relationship. Quaid-e-Azam understood the significance of Pakistan and India living in peace and advised that some nations have killed millions of each other’s and yet, an enemy is a friend of tomorrow. That is history.
Multiple reasons contribute to forstalling SAARC to be a robust organization. These include rigid economic policies of the individual SAARC member states, and Indian politics in the SAARC region. As India has the advantage of sharing borders with all other South Asian states, it enjoys a strategically inspired political advantage at regional and multilateral fora regarding all other countries. Since the other member states do not share borders, the geographical gap translates into political limitations. This is one of the primary reasons for a dysfunctional SAARC, where the Indian desire to dominate its neighbors coupled with the absence of a robust dispute resolution mechanism has impaired the organizational potential of enhanced cooperation.
The idea of SAARC is to promote peace, harmony, and economic growth through the cooperation of South Asian states by sharing the available resources to build trust among parties and also by facilitating collaboration and regular contact between political leaders. The lingering Jammu and Kashmir dispute has remained a great hurdle in the process of progress and cooperation. Indian academician Vandana Mohla’s prognosis on what ails SAARC is, “The most chronic problem that persists is that of Kashmir between Pakistan and India, the solution of which alone can lead to the smooth functioning of SAARC.” It is tough and challenging that the subcontinent can carve out its destiny following its genius if foreign powers permit it and if the two nations take the initiative to look within, not without.
As compared to the EU and the ASEAN, who have consolidated their gains and marched forward, SAARC’s journey as a regional organization is an account of its voyage as combination of marching forward, stalling, and lurching backward.
Indian hegemonic designs, mistrust, and a mix of negative and aggressive attitude towards the smaller states of South Asia hamper all the efforts for greater regional integration. Nepal and Bhutan continue to feel the dominating heat from India and they share it in their diplomatic exchanges with major powers. Sri Lanka continues to elicit support from countries outside the region for India’s intervention in its internal affairs. India’s 1998 military intervention in the Maldives continues to be a cause of serious unease among SAARC member states. This state of misgivings and mistrust has to end and end now if SAARC has to grow from a Bonsai to a Cedar. Now and then, member states share ideas, even though they are workable for connectivity and trade, but they miss out on connecting or trading with each other, and the bane of the problem is exactly what member states are forgetting; trade and connectivity touch the common folk, who are the harbingers of goodwill and their bridge can convince the most naysayers to walk on it.
SAARC has the potential to provide a shade against the heat of poverty and suffering of the teeming millions living in its member states; their candle of hope needs to be protected by the cover of courage to ward off the gust of cynicism. There is a glimmer of hope over the lengthening shadows over SAARC and the greatest achievement of SAARC is that, for the first time, it brought together those nations who distrust each other the most, which are politically the most explosive and are at different levels of development. The counteracting forces were prominently controlling the situation, but it was a strong desire for collective benefits and an acute feeling of coming together that prevailed, and SAARC was born.
SAARC, unfettered, can accelerate its progress by establishing its linkages with other regional organisations like the EU and ASEAN. Determined and sustained efforts would be needed to let SAARC grow and that can only happen if regional disputes which are vitiating the SAARC environment are discussed among member states behind closed doors. For SAARC to bloom, borrowing Mao's “Let a hundred flowers blossom” may be the right step. SAARC has the potential to emulate the successes of the EU and ASEAN and beseeches to be allowed to be given an honest opportunity to remain in the learning curve.
The writer holds a Masters in Political Science (Punjab University) and Masters in Diplomatic Studies (UK). He has served in various capacities in Pakistan’s missions abroad and as an Ambassador to Vietnam and High Commissioner to Malaysia. He is on the visiting faculty of four mainstream public universities in Islamabad and Adviser to the India Centre at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad.
E-mail: [email protected]
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