Challenges of Regional Integration in South Asia through institutions such as SAARC


Regional Integration is processes by which two or more nation states agree to co- operate and work closely together to achieve peace, stability and wealth. In addition to the global economic regime based on the GATT, and IMF systems which has sustained the world economies since World War II, regionalism, through which neighbouring countries seek to strengthen their economies by entering into some form of “regional integration” has become a major trend. This trend was triggered by EU market integration. In both developed and developing countries, customs, unions and free trade areas (FTAs) continue to increase and expand. There are so many institutions like World Bank, USA Canada Water Commission, SAARC, BIMSTECH, and SASEC working for regional integrity on international level. Here, we are going to discuss the problem in regional integrity which is hampering the working of SAARC.

SAARC was a historic effort to build relationship amongst equals. President Zia ur Rehman of Bangladesh visited all the South Asian countries in the late 1970s to advocate the setting up of a regional economic organisation. In November 1980 he sent a “Working Paper on Regional Co- operation in South Asia to various South Asian Countries. Further clarifications, of the working paper were made in a letter from the Bangladesh foreign ministry to the Indian and South Asian governments. The Bangladesh proposal was clear about the objectives of the forum to be evolved in South Asia. The institutional framework was based on the fact that the participating states should be committed to non- alignment. The proposal exhibited an awareness of the pressing bilateral problems in the region. It therefore sought to take the incrementalist course of action. The areas identified for cooperation were non – political and non – security in nature; they were to include issues like telecommunications, tourism, agriculture, transport, meteorology etc. The core issue was the political implications of the proposal. The existing asymmetry of power had to be addressed. There was a need to avoid hegemony of one power, or other small powers ganging against one power. The proposal also did not aim at regionalizing bilateral issues. The proposal sought to identify areas of cooperation that were truly regional in character. The key word governing the process was to be mutual benefit. The decision on the proposal was to be based on a consensus. Bangladesh believed that once the climate for trust and cooperation was created, it would be easier to resolve bilateral problems bilaterally, as demonstrated by ASEAN. A series of meetings followed the proposal in countries like India and so on. The objectives kept the boundaries of co- operation to non- political and non- security field. Finally, in 1985 at the first summit at Dhaka, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was created. The SAARC secretariat is located in Kathmandu, Nepal. The secretariat is headed by a secretary general. Apart from its eight members i.e. India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Maldives, and Nepal; Australia, the People’s Republic of China the European Union, Iran, Japan, The Republic of Korea, Mauritius, Myanmar and the United States have joined SAARC as observers.

The South Asian region consisting of the eight SAARC countries, i.e. India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Maldives, and Nepal are a homogenous group in the sense that Contori and Spiegel define a subordinate system or a region. Contori and Spiegel describe the interaction of the region in three spheres: core sector, periphery sector and an intrusive system. The core sector consists of a shared social, political, economic or organisational background or activity among the group of states which produces a central focus of international politics in that region. The peripheral sector includes all those states which are alienated from the core sector in some degree by economic, organizational, social or political factors. The intrusive sector consists of the extra regional intervention in the international relations of the region. The compactness of South Asia makes the Contori and Speigel model applicable in a limited sense. The basic characteristics of the South Asian regional state system are that; Firstly, India by virtue of its geographic size and location, economic and industrial base and military strength occupies a pivotal position in the region. The Indian aspirations for leadership, dominance or hegemony are a product of these geopolitical conditions of the region. Secondly, South Asia, minus India, has two kinds of powers. Pakistan is one major power that can limit Indian hegemonic aspirations. Pakistan’s own limitation comes from its geographic location and economic and military potentials.  Unlike the pre 1971 Pakistan, the present Pakistan without its eastern linkages lies, on the border of South Asia. It shares close ideological affinity with the Islamic West Asian system. Pakistan may be described as a major power of the region and classified as a “bargainer” or a “partner” in the South Asian state system. Pakistan does not have the ability to substitute India as a leader of the region, yet it can bargain with India for partnership in the decision-making of the region. Thirdly, the other type of countries would include the smaller countries like Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh; Sri Lanka bid Maldives who can pose problems to the core power through extra regional intervention, or their own internal stability. They can also legitimise the dominance of the core power by acceptance of the balance of power in the region. The major and most active power relationships in South Asia are affected by the intrusive powers. Fourthly, these extra regional powers, like the United States, Russia (formerly USSR), China and others have influenced policies of the region. All the South Asian countries, including India, have sought to use the extra regional powers’ ability to influence their advantage.

The intrinsic problems through institutions like SAARC in South Asia includes, firstly, there is a fear psychosis among the members of SAARC vis-à-vis India due to her extra ordinary achievements in all the spheres like – economic growth rate, military strength, technological advancement, nuclear strength, secular nature of society, democratic traditions and so on and so forth. The countries especially Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh are not very much comfortable with the rise of India as fast growing powers to be reckoned with. Secondly, it’s unfortunate but true that the success of SAARC has remained a prisoner of the Indo-Pak rivalry. Pakistan is insecure and fears of Indian dominance not only in this region but also in the whole world. Pakistan feels suffocated of anything and everything dominated by India. Kashmir is a “Manifestation of Conflict” between India and Pakistan. This fundamental diversity in the views of India and Pakistan manifests on the issue of Kashmir, an issue that has come to be identified by Pakistan as the core of the bilateral divide. Thirdly, there is a crisis of identity among the member countries. All the members prefer to be get aligned to one or more other regional organisations than identifying themselves with SAARC for example Pakistan is more inclined to OIC (Organization of Islamic Countries) and feel more secured and comfortable to be a part of “muslim solidarity regime” likewise, Sri Lanka, Maldives and India are more concerned to identify themselves as the members of ASEAN.

Fourth problem is there are inherent shortcomings in the working of SAARC as it is written down in its charter that no bilateral and conflictual issues would discuss at its platform. Besides this, the method of taking decision is also faulted as it is based on consensus of all the members. Hence, many issues remain unsolved. Fifth problem is the security and political deviations among the members always overshadowed the prospects of economic and socio- cultural conversions. The various conflictual issues among the members are operating as a stumbling block in the way of their cooperation and normalisation. Each member of SAARC is having diverse security threats perception as Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka consider India as the biggest threat to their security. On the other hand, India considered the growing influence and interference of outside powers like USA and China in to this region as the biggest threat to her security. But, all the member states fail to articulate their common threat perceptions like poverty, unemployment, terrorism, environmental degradation etc. Sixthly, there is a failure on the part of the civil society of the South Asian region. Although, there are over One lakh NGOs in this region but these have remained non- effective in nature. The civil society and society central model needs the will of the states to operate effectively but unfortunately it is still operating in the state- centric model which has limited its utility and credibility. Lastly, there is a big failure on the part of the leadership because it has failed to articulate and operationalise the process of regional cooperation. They only meet at SAARC summits, issue formal speeches but fail to articulate and channelize the peace process into the right track. So, it has remained largely as a dysfunctional regional organization. But, still there is a ray of hope for SAARC for becoming a successful regional organization.

Firstly, SAARC would get the maximum dividend from the Indo- Pak peace process and CBMs. The need of the time is to address the complicated issues between both the countries in order to make SAARC a success in the real sense of the term. Secondly, India should address the genuine concerns of the SAARC members. India being the leading country of the region should try to address the power differential of the region in order to gain the trust of SAARC members. Infact, India has taken some steps to lessen the power differential by solving the contentious issues of “Kachathivu” with Sri Lanka and of Teen Bhiga with Bangladesh and by adopting the Gujral doctrine in 1997 for increasing the trust-surplus and for accommodating the concerns of the SAARC members. Thirdly, the SAARC Charter needs to be amended. The bilateral conflictual issues should be discussed at the SAARC platform because only an effective dispute-redress mechanism could help in shrinking the areas of conflict and expanding the areas of trust and cooperation. Further, the operational principle of consensus voting should be replaced by extra ordinary majority. Fourthly, the SAARC members should change their security perceptions and move on from the conventional threats to non-conventional threats which are more threatening to the existence of these SAARC members. There are crisis of governability, threats of terrorism (an instance of which is the 26/11 Mumbai Attacks in India), poverty, unemployment, economic slowdown, environmental threats, decreasing sex ratio, corruption etc. The SAARC members should try to counter these non- conventional threats collectively from the platform of SAARC. To conclude, it can be said that if European Union, ASEAN, could become successful organizations then why not SAARC? If SAARC members initiate some sincere efforts to make SAARC a strong dispute redress mechanism, it can become a very successful regional organization. The need of the time is that SAARC should come out of the state-centric model and to change the negative mindset of the SAARC countries.