SAARC LOSING ITS RELEVANCE
When SAARC was formed in 1985, an international news agency described it as a union of the world’s seven poorest countries. It was formed with the main objective of tackling the social and economic challenges of the region collectively. Almost 30 years down the line, the SAARC has not made as much progress as envisaged.
Suggestions for a Free Trade Area, for setting up of a Customs Union and an Economic Union visualised some years ago at the SAARC summit have failed to exploit their potential as they are now overshadowed by the many other global forums such as G20 and BRICS as far as international economics is concerned. When some member countries were frustrated with the slow progress of SAARC, Bimstec came into being. But Bimstec too has become a victim of a slow regional approach. The major problem has been periodic conflicts between the two largest members of SAARC ~ India and Pakistan.
The 18th Saarc meeting in Kathmandu this week is a classic example of how the members are not able to come together on many issues including regional connectivity and trade-related matters. The theme for the summit was “deeper integration for peace and prosperity”, which highlights the issues of terrorism and national security faced by all members. The meeting was important because many countries within SAARC like India, the Maldives and Bangladesh have just gone through elections and have elected stable governments. This should have infused a new vitality to the grouping.
Overall, there were no major breakthroughs at the summit and no significant move on fighting terrorism, which was presented as a main concern by most of the SAARC leaders. Also, there were no important decisions on flow of investments and financial arrangements. High hopes were pinned on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to promote the agenda of increased connectivity but it became more of rhetoric than anything concrete when the summit talked of forming a regional economic community.
Mr Modi’s message to SAARC leaders on Wednesday was that he wants to strengthen regional ties through more trade and better connectivity. “As SAARC, we have failed to move with the speed that our people expect and want from us,” he argued. “Is it because we are stuck behind the walls of our differences and hesitant to move out of the shadows of the past?”
The summit failed largely due to the reluctance of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to cooperate. The meeting was almost about to collapse as Pakistan was not willing to come on board on signing of the three agreements. The Indian and Pakistani premiers did not even acknowledge each other at the summit except a last minute handshake. The tension between India and Pakistan has cast a shadow on previous SAARC meetings too.
Mr Modi’s frustration came in his speech at the summit when he said, “The bonds will grow through SAARC or outside it. Among us or some of us. We can all choose our path to destinations. But when we join hands and walk in step, the path becomes easier, the journey quicker and destination closer.”
Ultimately, except one on energy cooperation, the other two major agreements on rail and road connectivity could not be signed. As a result India’s long time objective of connectivity with Afghanistan will remain unfulfilled. This speaks volumes that even after three decades, there is no synergy or commonality of goals within SAARC.
Another factor for the failure of the summit was Pakistan and Nepal’s push for expanding China’s role in the SAARC region. Ever since it was admitted in SAARC as an observer in 2006, China has vastly improved its economic and political engagement with SAARC countries. New Delhi is apprehensive about the growing clout of China in the region while India is seen as a bullying big brother.
Why is not SAARC a success story? There are inherent contradictions and problems within the group.
First, India accounts for 60 per cent of SAARC’s population and often bilateral relations between India and Pakistan have overshadowed SAARC summits.
Secondly, connectivity within the region continues to be poor. This could not be tackled even in the Nepal summit.
Thirdly, the threat of terrorism within the region is a problem.
Fourthly, the SAARC summits are being limited to formal gatherings and issue of declarations that have not been implemented. Big promises are made in SAARC but implementation has always remained a problem. Finally, the China angle is also an irritant in SAARC. China has support from many of India’s neighbors while New Delhi is opposed to it.
SAARC could be effective only if there is political will. The Nepal prime minister noted this when he said the achievements of SAARC have fallen short of expectations.
Cross-border trade among the eight SAARC nations ~ Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka ~accounts for less than five per cent of total commerce in a region where many remain living in poverty. Even SAFTA has not been effective, and intra-regional trade is still less than five per cent. The potential needs to be fully exploited
SAARC has a lot of potential but there are also a lot of problems. It’s the same old game of a positive-sounding declaration followed by violence or a breakdown in talks. Whether it concerns trade or terrorism, unless you translate statements into action, there is little point in holding the summit.
One way to empower SAARC is to amend its Charter. In its 29 years, its organisational structure, its working style and the attitudes of member states have not changed. This requires to be done because so many years after its formation, member states are capable of discussing issues directly responsible for derailing the process of regional cooperation. There is a need for a relook at the regional cooperation in view of the changed scenario
NOVEMBER 30, 2014