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The transformation of SAARC
K Subrahmanyam
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March 29, 2007

On April 3, when the 14th Summit of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is inaugurated, the organisation will undergo a transformation.

After more than two decades since its founding at the initiative of General Zia-ur-Rahman, then President of Bangladesh, the number of members is being increased from seven to eight. And for the first time a member with no common border with India -- Afghanistan -- will join SAARC. Also China, Japan, US, South Korea and the European Union will be attending the Summit as observers. It is only logical that in the not very distant future Russia too will be added to the list of observers.

SAARC was conceived as an organisation to promote regional economic and technological cooperation. It was expected that such cooperation, if it is sustained will lead to increased political and security cooperation. Both in the case of European Union and ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) the countries concerned had a shared perception of their security challenges. This did not happen in case of SAARC. There was a war between two members of the SAARC in 1999 and a military confrontation in 2002. Therefore nurturing SAARC as a regional organisation has been a far more challenging task than those faced by organisations like the European Union and the ASEAN.

In fact one member of SAARC (Pakistan) refuses to extend the normal most favoured nation treatment to its neighbour (India) though this is a basic prerequisite under the World Trade Organisation regulations.

Though there has been a formal agreement to convert the SAARC region into a free trade area, Pakistan and Bangladesh have been reluctant to move towards the fulfillment of that objective. In reality SAARC is largely a name board with annual rituals, not always regularly observed.

While in other parts of the world, the trend is towards countries coming together to form larger markets, in South Asia this sentiment prevails only among Sri Lanka, Bhutan and India. Pakistan and Bangladesh do not contribute to the world-wide wisdom that countries coming together to form larger markets is a mutually beneficially proposition.  

In Europe countries like Germany and France got over their centuries old animosity: This happened when countries like Germany, Italy, Spain discarded their authoritarian regimes and became democracies. In ASEAN too Indonesia and Malaysia concluded peace after years of confrontation. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia who fought long wars with the US, which was supported by other ASEAN countries have now become economic and political partners of countries which helped to wage war against them.

Unfortunately such radical transformation has not taken place in South Asia. There are reasons to believe that underlying this difference in development may be that religion-based identity exercises greater dominance in some countries of South Asia than nationalism-based identity.

In admitting a number of successful economic powers as observers to the SAARC, the expectation is that such interaction may help to convert the mindset of the countries which still resist regional economic cooperation and integration in a world which is rapidly globalising. India has attempted to get Bangladesh into a BIMSTECH arrangement consisting of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Such a change in mindset is a time-consuming process and therefore there should not be exaggerated expectations with the new beginning with entry of Afghanistan into SAARC and five new observers.

The future of SAARC appears to be brighter because in the past.  SAARC was buffeted by Cold War tensions and Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh were attempting to exploit the differences between India and China and India and the US. Recent changes in the orientation of US policy and the Washington perception about the need to have a balance of power in Asia and consequent need to enhance Indo-US relations have had a radical impact on India's relations with China and South East Asia.  

Increasingly India is referred to as one of the six balancers of power in the emerging international system. India today has a strategic partnership with Russia, the US and the European Union and a strategic dialogue with China and Japan.  

The visits of Premier Wen Jia Bao of China, President Vladamir Putin of Russia, Prime Junichiro Minister Koizumi of Japan and President Bush to India and invitation to India along with China to attend the G-8 summit of advanced industrial powers has helped to transform the situation in the SAARC region towards increasing cooperation.  

There is now better realisation that neither India-China nor India-US relations can be exploited by other nations as happened during the Cold War.

In the SAARC region democracy is gaining ground. Afghanistan has an elected government for the first time. Recent developments in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, though yet to result in full blown democracy are moving in a positive direction. In Bhutan monarchy is voluntarily transforming itself into a democracy.

Some Pakistani intellectuals argue that the factor that stands in the way of regional cooperation and integration in South Asia is the overwhelming dominance of India which constitutes more than 70 per cent of the population, resources and industrial and agricultural production of the region. It is therefore difficult to compare the evolution of SAARC with that of European Union or ASEAN. In a sense it could be argued that India itself with its multi-culturalism, multilingual, multiethnic and multi religious composition is like a further integrated European Union.

Political evolution within India has made it inevitable that India will be federally governed by coalitions of all-India and regional parties with regional autonomy and aspirations fully accommodated. This development is bound to have its impact on the rest of the SAARC region. So will India's rapid economic development, its aspirations to become a knowledge based

society, its secular values and democracy.

There were people in India's neighbourhood who thought Indian unity would not survive. This conviction persuaded them not to invest in the evolution of SAARC over the last two decades. That situation is changing.

Though it is unrealistic to expect any immediate radical changes in the attitudes of Pakistan and even Bangladesh towards SAARC there is no doubt that a new era of increasing integration is beginning, because of the forces of globalisation and emergence of an international balance of power.

K Subrahmanyam
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