Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Success of SAARC After 25 Years of Establishment

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit is often described as being a mere photo opportunity for south Asian leaders who should actually be using the comatose organization to reinvent regional cooperation in a globalize world. Such pessimism is inevitable if one takes stock of the progress that SAARC has made over the period of time. There exists a SAARC convention to deal with all issues that have a certain salience in the regional context. Yet, even 25 years after its inception the organization is found wanting both in terms of forming a regional identity and of forging any sense of a regional belongingness. This is where the problem lies. Contested national identities constructed by member states have not encouraged an identity based on common socio-cultural heritage to take root.
South Asian countries engage readily and often with powerful states in the international system, yet when it comes to regional engagement, their bilateral relations have remained strained, and are characterized by mistrust and suspicion thus making regional cooperation hostage to bilateral politics.
Gaining Strategic Space
At present, consisting of eight members, SAARC has the potential to expand its membership to include Myanmar. What has been intriguing in the recent past is that while many in South Asia have written the obituary of SAARC as a vehicle for fostering regional cooperation, there are countries who are vying with each other to become part of it as observers. One of the observers aspiring for membership is campaigning for it through its regional proxies. It is too early to say whether SAARC, which could not inculcate a sense of regional solidarity within its membership, will be able to deal with observer countries who are more interested in gaining strategic space rather than in regional cooperation.
The organization has yet not delineated the possible role of the observer countries. In this context it is not clear whether their engagement will benefit the SAARC countries. Some member countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have expressed hopes that the observers would play a positive role. AARC has progressively addressed 'hard' issues that confront the region more than 'soft' issues. If one compares the agenda of the organization when it was formed with its current goals then SAARC can be seen to be slowly moving towards regional integration in the real sense. This integration is beyond having just a common approach to issues like poverty, telecommunication, weather, sports, culture, etc., as was envisaged in the beginning. The translation of its agenda into a meaningful cooperation has also not been possible due to the declaratory approach the leadership has taken and endorsed without having any real commitment towards these goals. The reason could be that the leaders perhaps feel compelled to demonstrate to the people of the region that they are committed to the process of regional cooperation without appearing to be spoilers. There exists popular support for regional cooperation. The people want less rigid visa controls and free exchange of goods and ideas, while keeping the current borders intact. Regional cooperation is a reality. An economic raison d'ĂȘtre is a prerequisite for regional politics in a globalized world where regional cooperation is the only option. The transnational character of problems relating to terrorism, drug trafficking or climate change cannot be addressed individually by countries which share porous and, many a time, un-demarcated and contested borders. The countries of the region realized this but are yet to shed their securitized state-centric mindsets. Regional cooperation without regional commitment Regional engagement among south Asian countries has been minimal compared to their engagement with Western countries. Whether it is security or economics, SAARC countries are more integrated with the global order than with their regional arrangement. There are no underlying economic compulsions that bind the countries of the region as was the case with the European Economic Community (EEC). The countries of south Asia do not have common security concerns to unite them. Threats are mostly seen arising from within the region rather than from the outside. Therefore the problem is: how can the countries of South Asia cooperate with each other when they perceive each other as being responsible for their instability? Because of this mistrust, many of the conventions--such as the Additional Protocol of the SAARC Convention on Terrorism--have become defunct. Each country faces the challenge of terrorism yet South Asian countries have not been able to devise a common approach to it. They neither share intelligence nor is there any commitment to stop cross-border support to terrorist groups. If one analyses the various clauses of the Additional Protocol of Terrorism which criminalised the collection or acquisition of funds for the purpose of committing terrorist acts, it becomes amply clear how the very purpose of dealing with the issue has been defeated because of the double standards prevailing among states in the region. Though SAARC has a Terrorism Monitoring Desk in Colombo it has not yet come out with any report. The SAARC interior ministers' meeting has also not made any concrete suggestions on how best to cooperate. The issue of terrorism has rather been addressed bilaterally. If one studies the speeches of the heads of states at the recently concluded 16th SAARC summit it will be seen that they devoted much time to expounding their countries' achievements in dealing with various socio-economic and terrorism-related problems. Some of these speeches were prescriptive in nature when what was required was how their countries had promoted regional cooperation. The leaders reiterated the importance of regional cooperation without specifying how to take this cooperation forward. The president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, in his speech put greater emphasis on terrorism and said: 'Until all members of SAARC, without exception or reservation, commit not to allow their territories to be used directly or indirectly to shelter, arm or train terrorist groups . . . the wild fire of terrorism will not discriminate in choosing its target'.1 He also stressed that with current bottlenecks, expeditious overland movement of goods and benefits of a modern transport infrastructure would not be felt. Maldivian president, Mohamed Nashid called for a 'comprehensive review of the on-the-ground effectiveness of SAARC'. He asked for greater dialogue between India and Pakistan and expressed the frustration of the smaller countries of south Asia who have often found themselves hostage to the Indo-Pak conflict. The president said that the 'neighbours can find ways to compartmentalise pending differences, while finding areas on which they can move forward'.2 Bhutan felt that SAARC was losing its focus because of the requirement of close to 200 meetings per year. It therefore suggested a substantial reduction of activities and meetings to ensure focus.3 The Indian prime minister said that the countries of south Asia need to accept that the glass of regional cooperation is half empty and the institutions are not empowered sufficiently to be proactive.4 The Bangladesh prime minister rejected anyone using the cloak of Islam or any other religion to perpetuate violence and categorically stated that Bangladesh will not let its territory be used for launching terrorism elsewhere.5 Pakistan's prime minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, said that SAARC has not made much progress due to historical legacies, differences and disputes while the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, said: 'We often tend to provide priority to our engagements with extra regional actors, without devoting sufficient attention to further developing and strengthening the links within our own regional organisation'.6 SAARC needs to follow a bottom up approach rather than a top down one. In this context good relations between the countries can help regional cooperation rather than the other way round. Moreover, even though there is a people's SAARC at the civil society level, attempts should be made to build synergy between the official SAARC and the people. The reason is that SAARC is yet to connect with people and its agreements and commendable conventions have not touched the lives of the people on whose behalf these declarations have been made. Moreover, issues like terrorism are addressed at a bilateral level. This shows that the countries do not have much faith in the regional approach. Even though there exists a convention on terrorism and an additional protocol, Bangladesh has put forward a proposal for forming a regional task force. India, which has been a victim of terrorism and shares its borders with many South Asian countries, has taken up the issue of terrorism bilaterally. Some issues where bilateralism is adopted even though relevant SAARC conventions exist are as follows. The previous Bangladesh National Party government provided shelter to Indian insurgent groups as strategic assets in violation of the SAARC convention. They were arrested and handed over to India only after the Awami League government came to power in Dhaka. This was largely the result of a bilateral initiative. Bhutan's decision to flush out Indian insurgent groups who took shelter in southern Bhutan is again a bilateral initiative. Similarly, the issue of cross-border terrorism originating in Pakistan was decided in 2004 on the sidelines of the Islamabad SAARC summit. The now defunct Indo-Pak Joint Terror mechanism is yet another bilateral initiative. Both India and Afghanistan have approached the United States a number of times to resolve the issue of terrorism emanating from Pakistan. This is in spite of the fact that Pakistan has been a frontline state and a crucial player in the global war against terror but it has been reluctant to cooperate either with India or Afghanistan. Post-Mumbai, Pakistan could have taken action under Article 7 of the Additional Protocol to confiscate funds of the Jamaat-ul-Dawa. However, this was only done following a UN resolution and under pressure from China and the US. This establishes that the regional approach to terrorism has been a non-starter. SAARC speaks of regional connectivity, but Bangladesh's offer to provide transit facilities to India and the use of its ports to India, Nepal and Bhutan has been entirely a Bangladeshi initiative. In the regional context Pakistan has not allowed Afghan trucks to carry Indian goods from Wagah. They go back empty. India also has been using Iran for its trade with Afghanistan. The concept of the South Asia Growth Quadrangle was another way to carry forward sub-regional cooperation under Article 6 of the SAARC charter. There is an urgent need to reactivate the Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and India cooperation under the Growth Quadrangle. The 16th summit declaration: anything new? As has been the case with past summits, the 16th summit declaration says the leaders 'expressed satisfaction' that SAARC has achieved a number of milestones which are not specified. It is silent on whether these 'milestones' have made any difference to the region. Had that been the case the SAARC leaders would not have lamented the failure of the organisation even 25 years after its establishment. As was pointed out in the summit declaration, SAARC's relevance lies 'in providing a platform for regional cooperation'. However, it is up to the member countries to make the platform effective. It is therefore not surprising that now, after 25 years of existence, the leaders are discovering the need for a vision statement. The declaration further states that the: 'silver jubilee year should be commemorated by making SAARC truly action oriented by fulfilling commitments, implementing declarations and decisions and operationalizing instruments and living up to the hopes and aspirations of one-fifth of humanity'.7 The summit recommended public diplomacy to reach out to different sections of society. Such an aim can only be realized if the countries can implement some of the agreements they have signed and evoke these agreements to resolve problems. For example, in spite of two agreements on terrorism, why is there no cooperation between countries to deal with the menace? The member states reiterated their resolve to cooperate on terrorism and drug trafficking and reaffirmed their commitment to implement relevant regional conventions. Implementation will remain a big challenge as long as state sponsorship of terrorism continues. There are inherent contradictions in what the countries project. While Bhutan speaks of Gross National Happiness (GNH) and promises to hold workshops on GNH in the country, it has denied the right of return to its ethnic Nepalese who fled the kingdom in 1990. Economic cooperation between countries of the region is yet to take off and explains why, in spite of South Asia Free Trade Association (SAFTA) being ratified, regional trade has remained below five per cent. On the issue of energy there is no concrete cooperation for establishing a regional energy grid. India has offered to prepare a roadmap for developing a SAARC market for electricity, which needs enabling markets in the member states. One of the welcome developments has been the establishment of the South Asia Development Fund (SDF) which was envisioned in 2005 by reconstituting the South Asia Development Fund established in 1996.8 To make the SDF viable the countries first need to arrive at a consensus and identify areas where these funds would be used.9 One hopes this would not be bogged down by bilateral and trilateral disputes. The leaders have sagaciously agreed that 'the projects being funded through SDF are demand-driven, time bound and aligned with the developmental priorities of the region'.10 It would, however, take a lot of diplomatic sweating to translate this vision into reality. Perhaps one of the issues that SDF needs to address urgently is to fund infrastructure projects to enhance regional connectivity. The summit also recommended increased public-private partnership for greater intra-SAARC investment promotion efforts. This would help in the speedy implementation of projects as this is an effective way to deal with administrative bottlenecks pertaining to land acquisition, electricity supply and bureaucratic red tape. Intra-SAARC investment for the private sector would also be a welcome development. Given the tardy processes of regional trade and restrictions in foreign investment and long negative lists it will not be easy to attract private capital. To implement the public-private partnership trade it will be important to ensure liberalization, harmonization of standards as well as guarantee that products produced through this partnership would have access to regional markets.
Regional Cooperation
SAARC has already established the South Asia Regional Standard Organization. Efforts should be made to make it operational. Bilateral relations between the countries would be crucial to facilitate such investments as private businessmen are unlikely to invest given an environment of distrust which is not conducive for business. For example, bilateral proposals involving investments have already run into rough weather. Even after the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) announced a liberalized policy for investment by Indian businesses there continues to be resistance to Indian investment. An investment proposal by TATA, for example, got derailed due to Bangladesh's internal politics. A common market for south Asia is still in its infancy because of non-tariff and Para tariff barriers. Therefore, unless the tendency to politicize economics does not end, this vision of the leaders of the region will be added to the list of wishful thinking that the SAARC has accumulated over 25 years. The summit also took a decision to declare 2010-2020 the 'Decade of Intraregional Connectivity in SAARC'. It is important that SAARC leaders take steps to implement regional connectivity in order to drive growth, induce better synergy and give a boost to SAFTA.
Observers in SAARC China's growing influence in the region has been a matter of concern for India. China's entry into SAARC in 2005 has been significant and Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan played an important role in facilitating Chinese entry. China's presence is a matter of concern for two reasons. First, there is a growing nexus between China and Pakistan at the heart of which lies the policy to balance India. Its presence therefore cannot be considered neutral. Second, China's presence in SAARC is specifically for gaining strategic space. China has been following a strategy to engage with neighboring countries for defense and economic cooperation. Though China's trade ties with India have seen an upward swing, it has border conflicts with India and Bhutan. The relations between India and China have remained highly suspect. China shares good relations with the neighboring countries whereas India is looked upon with suspicion. In this context China's presence could be a pressure tactic that may be employed on India. A conflicted relationship with China would confine India to the region and prevent it from playing a larger global role. This has been one of the principles of China's engagement in the region. Since SAARC itself has hardly made any progress it is not clear how China can contribute to its progress. Some other observer countries have other interests in the region. For example, Japan is the highest aid donor to the region and the US is heavily engaged in the region to counter terrorism and has a stake in regional peace; Australia has the largest number of immigrants from this region. SAARC will now have to brace for an India-China contest apart from the one between India and Pakistan which was largely blamed for the slow progress of SAARC. The Chinese vice foreign minister said China would 'expand cooperation with SAARC and elevate our friendly and cooperative ties to a new level'.11 It proposes to hold a China-SAARC senior officials meeting. The Myanmar representative said that its geographical proximity, historical and cultural links prompted it to become an observer in SAARC. It also offered to act as a bridge between south and Southeast Asia. However, one has not been able to understand why Myanmar has not applied for membership. The representative of Iran said that Iran's geographical location and extensive transport network enables it to help South Asia in expanding its trade with other parts of the world. Conclusion Regional cooperation in the South Asian region lacks the commitment and dedication that is required to make it a success. Some countries have agreed to cooperate because they do not want to be spoilers while there are others who genuinely believe that this is the way forward. In spite of scathing criticism of SAARC by the leaders of the region on its 25th anniversary, one is not sure whether there would be any fundamental change in the attitude of the countries. Earlier, attempts were made to multi-lateralize bilateral issues but now efforts are being made to resolve some issues like terrorism bilaterally. The countries which do not have bilateral synergy will not be able to make a meaningful contribution to the success of SAARC.
Collective Self-Interest
To quote the Pakistani Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani: 'Only when we refuse to be held hostage to history, only when we sincerely and assiduously work to build trust, resolve disputes, bridge perceptions and see merit in an enlightened collective self-interest, will we be able to unleash our latent potential'.12 The big question that remains is 'When?' It is a tall order to expect regional cooperation between countries who do not see eye to eye even in bilateral matters.
Each country joined SAARC to forward its interests or to avoid getting sidelined, particularly within the Indo-centric region. Pursuing national interests is desirable but to pursue it under the cloak of regionalism is a recipe designed for the failure of SAARC. A regional identity is essential for the success of SAARC.
People-to-People Contact
If the countries try to undermine regional interests for their narrow political advantage then members can resign themselves to this forum becoming a mere talking shop. Even after 25 years it has failed to connect with the masses. Its promotion of people-to-people contact is restricted to judges, diplomats and the parliamentarians.
SAARC needs to get off its elitist pedestal and adopt a subaltern approach. However, the time to write the epitaph of SAARC has not yet come. In spite of all the misgivings, and non-implementation of various agreements and conventions, SAARC provides greater regional visibility to smaller countries and provides them with the opportunity and responsibility to contribute to the region in a meaningful way. For them even a failed SAARC is more attractive as a platform than being restricted to bilateralism in an India-dominated region.

No comments: