Whither Regional Cooperation in South Asia?

Putting sensitive bilateral issues out of the SAARC mandate has not yielded any positive results. Instead, the forum has been held hostage to bilateral disputes [largely between India and Pakistan]. The requirement of consensus has prevented SAARC from making any headway on desirable proposals on regional integration.

[Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra]

India under Modi’s leadership – with a ‘neighborhood first’ thrust in foreign policy – took up a leading role in the deliberations of the 18th SAARC Summit held in Kathmandu in November, 2015 in order to strengthen the regional integration process, something that was in cold storage for longtime.

With an objective to push ahead regional trade and connectivity, India came up with proposals for three agreements on road, rail and power.

It is no surprise that these connectivity proposals did not find any breakthroughs due to Pakistan’s resistance. The only successful outcome of the summit was the signing of the Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation, with the courtesy of the palpable interest in and persistent persuasion by most of the SAARC members mobilizing consensus on the proposal.

Most of the times, the SAARC Summits were held hostage to India-Pakistan standoff on allegations and counter-allegations on issues pertaining to Kashmir and cross-border terrorism. SAARC was built on two fundamental principles. First, contentious bilateral disputes cannot be brought to the forum for discussions. Second, all proposals need consensual approval in order to become operational. There is no gainsaying the fact that putting sensitive bilateral issues out of the SAARC mandate has not yielded any positive results. Instead, the forum has been held hostage to bilateral disputes. The requirement of consensus has prevented SAARC from making any headway on desirable proposals on regional integration.

Surprisingly, informal meetings and private discussions on the sidelines of SAARC summits have been more effective than summit meetings.

However, there are a few high-sounding – but less significant – achievements to SAARC credit. For instance, the SAARC members agreed to sign an agreement and launch South Asian Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA) in 1995 as a stepping stone to South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA). A Committee of Experts was set up as per the decision taken during the 10th SAARC Summit in 1998 to draft the agreement on SAFTA, which was eventually signed by the SAARC members on January 6, 2004 during the 12th SAARC Summit in Islamabad.

Notwithstanding, these token positive gestures and visible efforts towards developing consensus and signing free trading arrangements, no headway could be made at the level of practice in raising the level of intra-regional trade, which remained as low as 5% of the total trade of SAARC members.

Even though SAFTA agreement was signed in 2004, the IMF database projected intra-regional trade was pegged at as low as 4.78 % of total trade in 2006, showing lack of enthusiasm for intra-regional trade from the beginning.

Considering Pakistan as the major stumbling block in the way towards regional integration, India sought to go ahead with sub-regional cooperation bypassing Pakistan.

For instance, Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) was launched in 1997 comprising members such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Another initiative, BBIN, was formalized in 1997 among Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal with the objectives of forging cooperation on connectivity of power, transport and infrastructure.

BCIM initiative was launched in 1999 in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province of China to establish an economic corridor among Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar.

However, these sub-regional initiatives have not been able to take off due to lack of leadership, resources and institutionalization. The progress of these initiatives has been marred by other factors as well. These not only represented uneven economies with differing interests, absence of China, the biggest Asian economy, from two of the aforesaid three initiatives also dampened their progress due to lack of investments.

Besides, sub-regional initiatives were not considered a priority among the foreign policy objectives for some of the members. For instance, BCIM remained a Track II initiative for India till 2013, while Bangladesh made it a Track I initiative much earlier than India.

Moreover, there was a visible lack of institutionalization in these initiatives. For instance, it took 17 years for BIMSTEC to establish a permanent secretariat in Dhaka in 2014.

Similarly, BBIN initiative was activated following India’s failure under Modi’s leadership to push through the Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) in the SAARC Summit held in Kathmandu. It also proved being a fledgling experiment as Bhutan failed to endorse India’s connectivity plans and eventually withdrew from the agreement.

After China has launched its ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) project [now known as Belt and Road Initiative or BRI], the scope for sub-regional cooperation within South Asia has shrunk further, as small powers within the region have not only indicated their growing interests towards Chinese sponsored projects of infrastructure development and connectivity, but also are getting involved in these projects.

If the South Asian countries want prospect, these countries must break away from their patterned behavior that prioritizes political and territorial security issues over economic, cultural and technological cooperation. This can only be possible if political and territorial disputes between two or more regional countries could be seen separately from the cooperation in other areas between these countries.

SAARC can emulate the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which came into existence in 1994 and facilitates discussions and consultations on regional security issues. SAARC can provide an overarching framework within which political and territorial security issues can be discussed and their relative unimportance to economic and cultural integration can be deliberated on the basis of shifting trends and achievements made in other parts of the world.

SAARC can no more afford to be pushed aside and lag behind other regional organizations as other parts of the world are getting integrated at the levels of economy, politics and culture at a much faster pace. Sensitive bilateral security issue should no more serve as a byword to stall the progress of the regional forum.

Author Avatar | Oped Column SyndicationDr. Manoj Kumar Mishra, Lecturer in Political Science, S.V.M. Autonomous College, Odisha, India. Previously worked as the Programme Coordinator, School of International Studies, Ravenshaw University, Odisha, India.

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