Retrieving SAARC From the Ashes : Problems and Prospects of Regional Integration in South Asia

Wholeness is not achieved by cutting off a portion of one’s being but by integration of the contraries.” – Carl Jung

South Asia comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. The correlation is plagued by a number of issues including inter-state disputes on border demarcation and river water sharing, political issues, security issues along with deep rooted historical differences are to mention a few. From all appearances in South Asia the antagonism and differences among nations take precedence over development. The regional trade among SAARC nations is dejectedly lower in comparison to other regional blocs like European Union, ASEAN or the Gulf Cooperation Council. The present day scenario in South Asia is more of a unilateral capitalist order being commenced by China. China with its policy of Pax Sinica (a historiographical term referring to periods of peace and stability in Northeast and Southeast Asia led by China) is trying hard to establish its predominance in the region. However China’s diplomacy being responsible for the economic befall of Sri Lanka gave a sign that regional integration should be the pressing priority for the development of the region. Multilateralism is an important aspect of regional integration but due to the functional weaknesses of SAARC efforts at multilateralism are becoming gridlock by power politics rendering the organization dysfunctional.

Prospects of regional integration:

According to Ernest Haas, ‘Integration is a process whereby political actors in several distinct national settings are persuaded to shift their loyalties, expectations and political activities towards a new center, whose institution demands jurisdiction over the preexisting national states. Karl Deutsch referred to integration as a process leading to a condition in which a group of people attain within a territory a sense of community and of institutions, practices strong enough to ensure for a longer period of time, dependency of expectations for a peaceful change among its population. Since World War II, the world has seen a growing impetus towards regionalism. Creation of regional blocs and groupings has progressively become a significant feature of contemporary world politics. Neighboring countries seek to strengthen their economies by entering into some form of “regional integration”, seeking to enhance their ties with other countries. Regional integration generally involves a complex web of cooperation between countries within a given geographical area, it involves harmonizing policies in sectors such as trade, investment, infrastructure, as well as fiscal or monetary policies. When the treaty on European Union, the Maastricht treaty took effect in November,1993, the European Union (EU) came into being. In September, 1993 with the signing of the side agreements, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) launched the free trade agreement in North America in January, 1994. Furthermore, in Latin America the Southern Common Market Treaty (MERCOSUR) was initiated in January,1995. The signing of the ASEAN Declaration, led to the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN , on 8 August,1967.  Since then, these agreements continued to expand their range of items covered and aimed at accelerating the integration process.

Barriers of regional integration

South Asia hosts around a quarter of the world population yet the intra-regional trade is the lowest globally. The stability and prosperity of South Asian nations is impaired by a multiplicity of causes, ranging from hampered bilateral relations, trade barriers, terrorism and security issues, ethnic-tribal issues along with rising insurgencies and separatist tendencies.

Relations among nations, paralyzed by disputes:  If we come to the bilateral ties among SAARC countries, India and Pakistan have still not been able to move ahead burying their hatchets over the territory of Kashmir. The deadlock between two big regional powers had perhaps been the vital bar in the functioning of SAARC as an effective coherent unit. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Uri in 2016, India pledged to isolate Pakistan over perpetuating Terrorism. Presently, India and China also have a quasi-adversarial relationship. Nepal’s relation with China is of a close proximity which Nepal has been tactically using to alter the image of India in the region as a big brother. This relation is evident with China’s recent 15 billion of assistance to Nepal to invest in various projects. India-Sri Lanka relations have remained affected to some extent with India seeking political solution to the Tamil issue. Though the bilateral relations have taken a positive turn with India being the biggest provider of aid to its southern neighbor which is going through its worst economic crisis. India and Bangladesh also have unresolved issues regarding illegal migration to India from the Chittagong hill tracts and the Rohingya crisis.

Political and Economic Instability:  In the post pandemic period,  economic distress and slump is weighing down South Asia as there is a looming debt burden on several nations.  The distressing impacts of the Covid crisis and consequent inflation owing to the ongoing war in Ukraine took its toll on Sri Lanka, increasing its debts, resulting in depleted foreign reserves. The devastating floods in Pakistan that submerged one third of the country, also resulting in high commodity prices that created external imbalances in the country. Pakistan is going through its worst economic crisis. Other South Asian actors like  Afghanistan are also facing political and economic instabilities, on October 25th, 2021 a report from the UN mentioned that Afghanistan is on the brink of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Since the military coup 2 years ago in Myanmar, hundreds have been killed and detained led by a genocidal war crime. The persistence of  political and economic instability among the South Asian nations is having a degrading impact at the efforts of cooperation.

Excessive poverty and illiteracy:  South Asia comprises almost 40 percent of the world’s poor and accounts for only 3 percent of global domestic product. Between 1990 and 2016, the rate of literacy in South Asia rose remarkably from 46 percent to 72 percent yet the region is home to half of the global illiterate population, with Afghanistan having the lowest literacy rate. As people were forbidden from seeking modern education during the colonial times due to the prevalence of certain cultural norms, India was then branded as an anti-education society. Owing to this, SAARC nations also face a significant dearth of resources that could contribute to its development. Poverty, illiteracy and the resulting underdevelopment remains a challenge to regional prosperity and integration.

Territorial Disputes- a key challenge to regional peace: Territorial disputes have always been a challenge to the peace and stability of the region. The disagreements over territory have even led to multiple armed conflicts among nations. Like the India-Pakistan wars of 1947 and 1965 and a limited war of 1999 as well as the Sino-Indian wars of 1962 and several small border clashes. In recent times India-Nepal also had disagreements over the new Nepalese map claiming India’s territory. 

Lack of a common threat:  Further the lack of a common threat in the region has also curbed the efforts at regional integration unlike the presence of China in southeast Asia which acts as a common threat to small ASEAN nations. The power asymmetry in the region has always laid waste to the efforts of bringing countries together. As different member countries have a distinguished perception of threat, there is a lack of consensus on threat perceptions in the region. For example, cross border terrorism is perceived as a threat for India but it may not be a major concern for other member nation states in the region.

Trade barriers and Protectionism: The tendency of protectionism in trade practices and apprehensions of unequal gains have led South Asian nations to trade little with each other and much with other nations of Europe and Americas. As well as India’s comparative advantage and expertise in a wide range of products has led to asymmetric trade relations within the region.

Power Asymmetry – wiping out efforts of cooperation – The asymmetrical power structure in the region has always wiped out the efforts of cooperation. Power asymmetry is the mother of the logic of the security dilemma, a dictum given by the American political scientist and proponent of defensive realism, Kenneth Waltz, indicates that the weak nations are the most threatened states. The tendency of smaller nations to develop a feeling of apprehension towards a stronger neighbor creates a sense of fear and hinders cooperation. India is a strong military power and is affluent in terms of resources and manpower, this can lead to an increased integration of other SAARC countries, sidelining India. India shares borders with almost all member states except some ( Maldives and Afghanistan). All these factors somehow lead to perceive India as a threat to other SAARC countries.

Ways of Cooperation 

Role of a torchbearer – Ineffective leadership could be a vital component behind the failure of any organizational framework. An efficient leadership provides the organization with the much needed coherence resulting in building harmony among nations. India’s leadership role is long dented because of the insecurities, lack of consensus and faith in India’s leadership role in the South Asian region. India could prove itself an efficient leader by being more open to dialogues with neighboring states. India can garner support of its smaller neighbors by providing them with assistance out of goodwill, without seeking any reciprocity and being committed to non-interference and peaceful resolution of dispute.

Trade cooperation- reducing tariffs and barriers: Trade can promote good ties among a number of states. Such relations will increase efficiencies in the region and make businesses more profitable. Signing of trade agreements will benefit the member countries and foster cooperation among them. The South Asian Free Trade Agreement  SAFTA was signed in 2004 among SAARC nations to increase the level of trade and economic cooperation by reducing trade tariff and barriers and also by providing special preference to Least Developed Countries (LDCs) among the SAARC nations to enhance regional cooperation.  Regional trade would provide larger markets that would make way for multilateral agencies creating vast investment opportunities.

Fostering peace and prosperity among nations: A strong commitment to integration marked by effective economic ties among the member nations would ultimately lead to peaceful resolution of disputes. The SAARC summits have proved themselves effective in improving bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka in 1986. Therefore it is necessary to protect the SAARC institution despite its overall ineffectiveness. Moreover, in contrast to the Chinese exploitative strategies of investment and loans, SAARC could put forth a more sustainable alternative for regional development and prosperity. 

Efforts at Multilateralism: A number of issues in South Asia require cooperative deliberation, issues like terrorism, climate change, food security, intra-region migration, infrastructure and regional security are to mention a few. Moreover SAARC nations can raise their voice to bring reforms in international financial organizations and to demand better labor laws for South Asian laborers around the World. An effective multilateral effort is needed to resolve all these disputes and work together to manage common regional problems.

Dispute settlement mechanism: Most of the countries in South Asia have border and river water issues with their neighbors, like India Bangladesh rift over sharing of river waters of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra river basin. SAARC could play the part of an efficient dispute resolving mechanism where member states can deliberate among themselves in finding viable solutions to their respective problems. 

India and South Asia

If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”- Booker T. Washington

India’s vision for regional integration in South Asia rests upon the regional trade facilitation, investment flows and regional transport and communication links in South Asia. India’s Neighbourhood First Policy ,SAARC, India’s Act East Policy, SAGAR and BIMSTEC are the vital pillars of this process. Although there are a number of cross-sub regional challenges like affected bilateral relations, political and economic instability, high inflation, depleting foreign exchange reserves and domestic unrest that continues to hamper regional development. Countries have always tried to counterbalance India’s influence in the region by developing closer ties with external power like the United States and as of this moment it is by fostering closer ties with China. India’s Neighbourhood First Policy embodies the vision of Vasudeva Kutumbakam (whole world is one family). The Indian government with its diplomacy of  Vaccine Maitri facilitated vaccines to many neighboring and African countries during the Covid 19 pandemic. During the recent Sri Lankan political and economic crisis the Indian government provided an assistance of 4 Billion to Sri Lanka. India aims at building an atmosphere of mutual trust and cooperation among the South Asian nations which will also prove effective in countering the growing Chinese influence in the region. The Indian government has also upgraded its Look East Policy to Act East Policy, which focuses on the development of the Asia-pacific region. The four C’s of Act East Policy- Culture, Commerce, Connectivity and Capacity building aims at strengthening economic integration with the South East Asian and East Asian countries. It also aims at promotion of cultural ties and fostering an enhanced strategic relationship with the Asia-Pacific region, facilitating rapid industrialization and connectivity to India’s North Eastern region with other countries in the neighborhood.  In 2015 the government of India also unveiled its strategic vision of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) for an inclusive, collaborative and international law based Indian Ocean. Moreover, China’s String of Pearls has been a vital strategic challenge for India as Chinese investments in India’s neighborhood are of commercial as well as military nature. With regard to this the SAGAR initiative is of great emphasis in countering such challenges. Further the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) established by the 1997 Bangkok Declaration, focuses on working towards establishing a strengthened connection between South Asia and Southeast Asian nations.

Marked by a labyrinthine pattern of conflicts and crises, the dynamics of the contemporary global order is being defined by political thinkers as a post western world order. The geo-political and geo-strategic significance of South Asia and Indo- Pacific could lie at the core of this budding new world order. Allowing SAARC to become redundant and dysfunctional greatly handicaps our ability to deal with mounting regional challenges. It’s high time that SAARC nations should build bridges for an effective regional integration, transforming their bilateral relations from one of harm to that of harmony. India being seen as the regional hegemon by its neighbors should put more efforts in confidence building measures aimed at facilitating the overall integration. Efforts at regional consolidation will provide better exposure and opportunities, providing access to larger markets and a considerable reduction of cost. With the signing of a free trade agreement with ASEAN India has shown potentials of becoming a bridge between south and East Asia. This trade amalgamation of South and East Asia will invite larger volumes of foreign investments in the region. SAARC should present itself as an effective forum to deliberate common issues and create efficient regional infrastructures that could ultimately lead to the facilitation of prosperity in South Asia. The significance of SAARC also lies in the fact that in 37 years of its existence SAARC has developed an integrated and dense network of institutional linkages and developmental mechanisms , being a vital contributor in facilitating civil society and track-two initiatives among member nations. As it is often said that there are no permanent enemies in politics, SAARC can help build a golden bridge between its member nations.

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