The Idea of a establishing an official framework for regional cooperation among South Asian nations was first introduced by the Late Ziaur Rahman former president of Bangladesh through the letter he sent in May 1980 to other Governments of the region. Noting that “current situation in South Asia and its immediate vicinity seems to call for a close consultations and exchange of views and ideas” Zia stressed on an ”urgent need for cooperation among the countries of the area for preserving peace and stability”. While India and Pakistan the two biggest and rival countries of the region initially viewed the proposal with skepticism and considered it to be a ploy for domination by the other side, smaller nations of Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives and Bhutan promptly endorsed the Idea. To tackle the issue, Bangladesh came up with a draft paper sensitive to India’s and Pakistan’s concern that refrained from any references to security and controversial matters and suggested only nonpolitical and non-controversial areas for cooperation. President Ziaur Rahman’s initiative ultimately received approval, though quite far from its original vision, and cemented the foundation for the first ever regional organization in the history of the sub-continent. The first summit meeting of the heads of state or government of the South Asian countries was held at Dhaka on December 7-8, 1985 and declared the creation of the “South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation” (SAARC) with three main fields of economic, social, and technical cooperation high at its agenda.
The newly established association had to solely focus on peace and confidence building measures among the population of its member states. Soon, SAARC Specialized Regional Centers, covering agriculture, tuberculosis, documentation, meteorological research, and human resource development, were established in different SAARC capitals. SAARC Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA) as a completely voluntary arrangement and devoid of commitments on tariff reduction was signed in 1993 and entered into force in 1995. To boost trade between its Member States SAARC introduced the “South Asian Free Trade Areas” (SAFTA) in December 1995 with the target of reducing customs duties of all traded goods to zero by the year 2016. Pursuant to the decision taken in the 14th SAARC Summit of 2007 ” The SAARC Food Bank” was established as an emergency source to tackle food crisis in shortage or a natural disasters. In 2010 SAARC Members recognized the “SAARC development Fund” (SDF) “to promote welfare for the people of the South Asian region, to improve their quality of life, to enhance economic growth, social progress and to reduce poverty”. SAARC Arbitration Council (SARCO) was established in 2005 as another specialized body of SAARS and tasked with providing a legal forum for the South Asian nations for settlement of disputes within the region. The South Asian Regional Standards Organization (SARSO) was set up in 2011 to “deal with trade-related standards, and for greater coordination of such standards to support trade growth in South Asia and universally for SAARC countries”. The South Asian University founded in 2010 and is offering postgraduate and doctoral programmes in several disciplines. SAARC has also managed to create situations and forums for Heads of State and Governments to engage in much needed talks on matters of mutual concern beyond the framework of SAARC itself. On security front, the “1987 SAARC Regional convention on Suppression of Terrorism” speaks of the resolve of member states “to take effective measures that perpetrators of terroristic acts do not escape prosecution and punishment by providing for their extradition or prosecution.”
Notwithstanding all the said achievements of SAARC in the rough route towards convergence, some challenges and shortcomings have been holding SAARC back from arriving at its desired destination and accomplishing the ultimate objective of closer integration among member countries. Despite the historic, social, economic and cultural ties, with Afghanistan joining in 2007, the eight member countries of the SAARC are still at a distance from forming an economic grouping where trade among members is only about 5 percent of their total foreign trade. During the past 35 years political differences, conflicts and unfavorable economic state of some member nations have slowed the pace of regional cooperation. SAARC Charter mandates that decisions, at all levels are of multilateral issues, and issues are included in the agenda of SAARC summit meetings based on unanimity. Bilateral and contentious issues shall be excluded from the deliberations.
Tensions and rivalry between India and Pakistan to a great extent have affected South Asian cooperation adversely. So far SAARC has failed to hold 18 of its annual summits (out of 35) for political reasons, both at the bilateral and internal levels. The Nineteenth summit of SAARC leaders was scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November 2016 but India cancelled its participation in the summit, alleging Pakistan's involvement in a terror attack, forcing other participants to pull out of the summit. Despite the laps of 5 years, the organization has not been able to convene its 19th summit for “lack of a conducive environment needed to ensure the participation of all member states”. Until recently, India despite being the largest and most powerful member of SAARC has exhibited less interest on the Regional Association as compared to the enthusiasm of the smaller member states. Some quarters in India strongly believe that SAARC offers an unfair opportunity to smaller member, arguing that these states have used SAARC to shape a united front against India and move closer to China. On the other hand China, currently an observer member of SAARC with its growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region, is a new reality for SAARC nations to consider and they have to face division towards treating China in the future. China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” may call active participation from SAARC members leading to China’s attempt to influence smaller countries through heavy investments, which in turn antagonizes India further.
South Asia is also faced with many unsettled border and maritime issues. These unresolved disputes coupled with problems of terrorism, smuggling, narcotics trafficking and refugee crisis continue to impair cooperative relations. Despite adopting and formulating a number of strategies and mechanisms on bilateral and multilateral levels, SAARC has yet to evolve a common and comprehensive approach to counter-terrorism.
Regionalism has emerged as an important agenda in the global politics and economy and South Asia in pressing need for stability and local progress may not afford to ignore SAARC as an established cooperative platform promoting regional integration. Though the level of success of SAARC is less encouraging compared to those of dynamic regional arrangements such as the European Union, but survival and routine functioning of this South Asian grouping, against all the odds, deserve appreciation and credit. SAARC is not capable or intended to settle bilateral differences between member states but success in realization of its initial vision may generate the political will and provide the favorable atmosphere needed for positive engagements towards the path of peaceful settlement of chronic disputes.
Hossein Ebrahim Khani
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)