Carrying On, Regardless
Has SAARC achieved any of the objectives that it set out to meet when it was established three decades back?
As the host nation, Nepal has adopted the theme of ‘Deeper Integration for Peace, Progress and Prosperity’ for the 18th SAARC Summit. The organization was created with the aim to accelerate intraregional trade, strengthen international economic linkages, promote public welfare and maintain regional peace. Unfortunately, SAARC has failed as a regional group and one of the key reasons for this failure is poor economic cooperation and negligible intraregional trade among South Asian countries.
With SAARC in its third decade, the time is ripe for emphasizing the significance of economic collaboration in the region for prosperity and holistic growth.
In this globalized world, a vibrant economy and trade are essential for national and regional growth. An isolated economy cannot sustain in today’s interdependent world. Therefore, economic cooperation between nations is necessary. This requires nations to be united and promote peace, amity and regional integration. Against this background, the formation of SAARC is a remarkable milestone for South Asia as the organization’s primary goal is to build a congenial platform for all member nations to interact and fortify economic relations by harnessing the resources available in the region.
Nevertheless, even after three decades of its establishment, SAARC has not been able to push forward the process of regional peace and cooperation in trade and economy. Today, the bilateral trade of SAARC member states is much higher with countries outside the region than with those within the region despite the fact that they are geographically interconnected. Instead of giving priority to intraregional trade, the member nations look beyond South Asia with the result that mutual trade among SAARC countries is only five percent, with India having the largest share.
The lack of trust and confidence among SAARC member states is another factor that makes regional cooperation and economic integration a distant dream. In spite of several meetings in the last three decades, SAARC member countries have failed to develop effective confidence building measures. In today’s highly competitive world, all nations struggle for their survival which demands close cooperation in trade and economy with
other nations. Promotion of trade and economy is possible even if relations among nations are not stable. The best example in this regard is that of India and China. Despite territorial disputes and frequent border skirmishes, both countries have strengthened their trade relations over the years. The disputes between SAARC members, particularly between India and Pakistan, can be reduced through mutual trade as trade dependency promotes cooperation and friendship. If the goal is prosperity of South Asia, then all SAARC member states should prefer regionalism over nationalism to promote collective growth.
The structure of SAARC often makes regional cooperation difficult. Thomas Thornton argues that in regional organizations, it is difficult for “countries to establish balanced relations when one state has a significant advantage in power over the other states.” In the case of SAARC, India is the most powerful country in terms of economic might, military power and global influence. Its presence as the regional big brother gives SAARC a unique dynamism since South Asia is an Indo-centric region.
The never ending Indo-Pak conflict affects all SAARC countries. Bangladesh regularly complains about India exploiting its geographical position to manipulate water flow into Bangladesh which is vital to Bangladesh’s agricultural production. Nepal and Bhutan often show concern about India’s control over their international trade and transit links as their landlocked geographical position makes them dependent on India. Such disputes between India and its neighbors have directly affected and undermined SAARC’s efforts to promote regional trade and cooperation.
In this era of changing global realities, India should show responsible behaviour and take a lead in the region. After the Gujral Doctrine, India has once more attempted to improve its relationship with the rest of South Asia. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given significant importance to the country’s immediate neighbors. His first bilateral visit after coming to power was to Bhutan and the second to Nepal. India’s wish to develop healthy socio-political and economic relationships with other South Asian states is a positive sign.
SAARC should invest in the field of education for sustainable cooperation in South Asia. Establishment of regional educational institutions will cultivate the seed of cooperation in due course. Today’s youth is much more vibrant, less rigid and believes in peaceful coexistence. The abhorrence of war and the desire for regional harmony is visible in the youth. SAARC should create educational platforms where students from all member countries can study and spend time together.
These regional educational institutions should be a hub of academic learning and should also offer opportunities for cultural exchange. At present, South Asian Studies is being taught in renowned universities all over the world but ironically and unfortunately there are very few universities in South Asia which offer this course. There is only one South Asian University (SAU) which is yet to become fully functional. Currently, it does not even have a vice chancellor. If SAARC envisages a peaceful and prosperous South Asia, it should establish educational institutions in all member countries and encourage student exchange. Investment in the field of education today will ensure a peaceful and progressive future for South Asia tomorrow.
When an Afghan students will get the opportunity to celebrate Durga Puja and Dipawali with a Nepali Hindu in an educational institution in Karachi, and when a Buddhist Bhutanese will be able to learn Pashto and Dari languages from an Afghan student in a Colombobased educational institution, then the dream of bringing together the youth of the region will come true. This, in the long run, will drive the South Asian youth towards regional cooperation.
Over the past three decades, SAARC’s slow progress and modest achievements have drawn plenty of reactions and criticism. The critics term SAARC as a talking shop famous for its hollow commitments for peace, development and cooperation. On the other hand, for some, SAARC offers a silver lining in the otherwise bleak regional picture. SAARC might not be the panacea for all the problems of South Asia but its presence has definitely provided a stable platform for policymakers, think tanks and regional experts to meet at regular intervals and hold dialogue on relevant issues.
South Asian states may be weak and imperfect, but they are certainly not indifferent when it comes to initiating and guiding regional cooperation policies and promoting economic interdependence. Economic integration, expansion of intraregional trade and investing in youth through education is the need of the hour and a practical way to make the dream of regional cooperation in SAARC come true.