Pakistan, recently in a statement, stated that Islamabad was ready to host the long delayed summit of South Asian Association for Regional cooperation (SAARC). The statement came after Pakistan’s wish for change of relationships with India. The intention of Islamabad has always been a dubious one. Now ,we have already tried to simplify the recent change of heart of Pakistan. This post, however, will be focused on SAARC. Also it’s relevance regarding South Asia’s development will be discussed. And SAARC’s worth for India is going to get the focus as well.
SAARC came into existence as an intergovernmental union of South Asian nations. This happened with the signing of it’s charter on 8th December 1985. Eight countries namely;Afghanistan ,India ,Nepal ,Bhutan ,Maldives ,Sri Lanka ,Bangladesh & Pakistan are it’s members. The SAARC’s summit is held biennially. It is hosted by member nations in alphabetical order. But, no summit has taken place ever since it’s suspension in 2016. Pakistan, at the time, was supposed to host the summit. But due to boycott by New Delhi as a consequence of the cowardly Uri attack on 18th September, the summit was suspended. Afghanistan, Bangladesh & Bhutan also shared the same sentiments against Pakistan.
But last year,it was India who took the initiative to call upon the member nations to tackle COVID crisis. New Delhi, even contributed $10 million to an emergency COVID -19 fund . But, as always Pakistan tried to use the forum to forward another agenda. Not showing worry about the pandemic, Islamabad raised underlying bilateral issues with India. So, is it even viable for India to pursuit true multilateralism in South Asia when a notorious element is present in the group?
SAARC was envisaged to be a regional cohesion. The aim being advancement of the economic & social welfare of South Asian nations. An integrated regional economy that can accelerate growth by taking advantage of geographical proximity was the core concept. Such a bloc also provides for a stabilizing cushion from destabilizing fluctuations of global economy. Subsequently, the economic synergy, often leads to solution of disputes including political conflicts. Emergence of such blocs in South East Asia, Europe and America are the evidence of the stated facts.
Until now, India has enthusiastically participated in the SAARC. When New Delhi chaired SAARC in 2007, the summit was arguably the most productive in the bloc’s history. With initiatives like :
- Launching of negotiations for South Asia Free Trade Area[SAFTA].
- Unilateral granting of zero duty access by India to SAARC’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs).
- Formal induction Afghanistan into SAARC.
- Setting up of South Asian University.
- Creation of SAARC food bank.
- Setting up of Development Fund.
But even after taking steps in the right direction, SAARC never made any meaningful strides. The main stress on trade as an incentive for regional cooperation has been the crux of such blocs. But, there are compatibility issues. And unlike EU and ASEAN , countries in South Asia are relatively less industrialized. As a result intra- regional trade is primarily either agri-commodities or relatively lower valued manufactured goods. Also, SAARC lacks the essential complimentary demand & supply chain on which stronger & sustainable trading relationship depends. This has dampened SAARC’s vigor for trade in the region. The intra-regional trade among SAARC nations is below 5% as compared to 35% of ASEAN nations. However, ASEAN is smaller than SAARC in terms of the size of the economy . South Asia remains one of the least economically integrated region even after 36 years since SAARC’S inception.
On the occasion of 36th charter day of SAARC (Dec 8,2020) New Delhi released a statement. In this, Prime Minister Modi said that the full potential of SAARC can only be realised in an atmosphere free of terror & violence. Also, the added lack of political will & trust deficit has prevented any meaningful progress. The member nations have more focus on bilateral relationship with china rather than the multilateral stage of SAARC. Pakistani-Chinese partnership is infamous . Nepal is moving closer to China for idealistic materialistic reasons jeopardising relationship with India. Bangladesh is getting favors from China ;offering heavy tarrif exemptions on Bangladeshi products. Sri Lanka and Maldives are getting heavy investment from China as part of the Belt and Road initiative to “bolster economic ties”. Coupled with instability in Afghanistan (mineral rich country )has only added more to the list of woes.
Future Of The Bloc
The challenges are many, but the obligation for SAARC ‘s success rests on all its member nations. The bloc is also necessary for the “Neighborhood first policy” & “Act East Policy “of New Delhi. It can further help in linking the South Asian economies with South East Asia.SAARC reflects the South Asian identity and cultures of the member nations . Now, to realise SAARC’s full potential; stability, peace and most importantly trust needs to be maintained. In the end, every South Asian member needs to realize the responsibilities. Each member must put their best foot forward towards multilateral progression of South Asia or else the bloc will just turn into an afterthought, rendering it useless