Car­ry­ing On, Re­gard­less

Has SAARC achieved any of the ob­jec­tives that it set out to meet when it was es­tab­lished three decades back?

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Ma­hesh Bhatta The writer is a re­search of­fi­cer at the Cen­tre for South Asian Stud­ies (CSAS) in Kathmandu.

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.

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