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Is the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation still relevant?

South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)
Syed Munir Khasru
April 19, 2023


For nearly a quarter of its existence, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has not held a summit. When the term of its last secretary general ended last February, confusion reigned over his replacement.

It was Afghanistan’s turn to put forth a candidate but none of the other SAARC members recognise the Taliban. In the end, it was decided that Bangladesh (the turns are carried out in alphabetical order) would put forth a candidate.

Formed in 1985, the regional trade association – whose other members are Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – has become moribund even though it started out with so many advantages. SAARC covers a larger land area than the European Union and Asean combined, and has a bigger population.

With 25 per cent of the global population and a gross domestic product of more than US$2.9 trillion, SAARC has been around for almost 40 years. But it has neither the clout nor economic leverage of other regional organisations such as the EU, African Union or Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Although created to boost regional integration through trade, just 5 per cent of SAARC trade happens within the region.

Political divides across South Asia have frustrated efforts to strengthen collaboration in non-political areas. Obstacles include the enmity between the two regional giants of India and Pakistan, and the asymmetry in the Indocentric region that forms a threat perception among the smaller countries.

Earlier this year, Pakistan expressed its willingness to host a SAARC summit – an event that has not taken place since 2014. Pakistan was originally due to host the 19th summit in 2016 but this was cancelled after India refused to participate, calling Pakistan “a terrorist state” after militants attacked an army base in Indian-administered Kashmir. In a sign of unresolved tensions, an Indian official spokesman responded to Pakistan’s latest invitation by saying there has been “no material change in the situation” and therefore, “no consensus” on the holding of the next summit.

The situation in Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power is another factor keeping things in limbo. It would be challenging to organise a SAARC summit where, with the exception of Pakistan, none of the members may feel comfortable sitting at the same table with the Taliban. India’s diplomatic stance also suggests a realignment in its attitude towards regional integration – and the declining relevance of SAARC as an institution. Under its “neighbourhood first” policy, India has increased its bilateral interactions with its South Asian neighbours. It has also grown its bilateral and multilateral interactions outside South Asia, such as with the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), in BRICS and most recently in the G20, where India currently holds the presidency.

With the India-Central Asia Dialogue and “Act East” policy, India has signalled its intent to increase its influence in Central and Southeast Asia respectively. But a strategic dilemma for India is China’s advances into South Asia, which have been eased by the absence of a robust regional institutional system. China’s expanding economic and strategic involvement throughout South Asia is making regional integration a futile exercise, given the historical Sino-India hostility and Sino-Pakistan proximity. Meanwhile, the region’s actors are seeking alternatives due to SAARC’s failure to foster collaboration in South Asia. Members of BIMSTEC, for example, have expanded to include five of the eight SAARC members – India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan – as well as Thailand and Myanmar. The BIMSTEC framework allows smaller states to take advantage of the markets in Thailand and India, and work together to create a shared space for peace and development.

Like Asean, SAARC operates on the basis of unanimity. But while the guiding principles and goals are similar, SAARC’s failure to meet its objectives means it has stagnated while Asean grows from strength to strength. Through increased intraregional commerce and connectivity, Asean members have become more integrated, whereas SAARC countries have fallen further apart from each other. By amicably resolving disagreements and finding peaceful methods to moderate conflicting claims, Asean has steered towards vitality and sustainability. The formation of SAARC was supposed to be a turning point in South Asia, an impoverished region despite being rich in natural and human resources. But with no arrangement for settling disagreements or mediating conflicts, SAARC’s progress has been hampered by the never-ending conflict between India and Pakistan.

Acts of collaboration and engagement are still viewed by many with suspicion. For SAARC to find peace and achieve economic integration would require South Asian leaders to find the political will and proactive approach that have been largely absent from its nearly four decades of existence. AARC holds the economic potential of a large market of 1.8 billion people – four times as much as the EU’s and nearly three times that of Asean. But the failure of the region’s political leadership has made this organisation infructuous.

When no summit has been held for nearly a decade and with no light apparent at the end of the tunnel, the inevitable question is whether to continue funding the SAARC secretariat and its affiliated bodies when the organisation’s ability to deliver is crippled in the fractured South Asian political landscape – or to dissolve it.

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