..amidst differences and lack of trust

Tshering Dorji 

As the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) turned 35, leaders from the member states renewed their commitments to further enhance integration.

The leaders have sent messages of hope and optimism to take SAARC to newer heights on the 35th SAARC Charter day on December 8.

However, after the 19th SAARC summit, which was scheduled to be held in Pakistan was called off by four countries (India, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan), observers in the region are already declaring the regional association as ‘dead.’

In the last 35 years, little did it achieve its objectives. For instance, numerous agreements have been signed and institutional mechanisms have been in place but they have not been adequately implemented.

Despite the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) coming into effect as early as 2006, the intra-regional trade continues to be at a meagre five percent.

In one of its studies, an Indian-based think tank, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), pointed out that in the many failures of SAARC, lack of trust among the member countries has been the most significant factor between India and Pakistan.

SAARC, the paper stated has also faced obstacles in the area of security cooperation. A major hindrance in this regard has been  cross-border terrorism.

“The asymmetry between India and other member countries in terms of geography, economy, military strength and influence in the global arena make the smaller countries apprehensive,” the paper stated. Smaller nations’ also perceive India as “Big Brother” and fear that it might use the SAARC to pursue hegemony in the region. “The smaller neighbouring countries, therefore, have been reluctant to implement various agreements under SAARC,” the study pointed out.

ORF also pointed out that SAARC does not have any arrangement for resolving disputes or mediating conflicts, thus slowing down the decision-making process.

Given SAARC’s failures, the paper mentioned that member countries have turned to bilateralism, which in turn has adversely affected the organisation and decreasing the countries’ dependence on SAARC.

SAARC also faces a shortage of resources, and countries have been reluctant to increase their contributions.

However, considering the differences that exist among the members, particularly between India and Pakistan, ORF indicated that SAARC’s future is bleak. “Until the member countries resolve their issues, the future of SAARC remains uncertain.”

A renewed  commitment? 

While there are issues, on the SAARC Charter Day a number of leaders have conveyed their messages renewing their commitment to build a stronger SAARC.

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering in his message wrote that it is an opportune moment for the member countries to renew their commitment to further strengthen the bond of friendship and cooperation to promote peace, prosperity and stability in South Asia.

On Bhutan’s part, he wrote that the country reaffirms its commitment and support to SAARC process and will work closely with other member states.

Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi in his message stated that SAARC has made progress, but more needs to be done. “Our effort for greater collaboration have repeatedly been challenged with threats and act of terrorism,” he wrote. Further, he also urged all member countries to take effective steps to defeat the scourge of terrorism and forces that support it. “This will generate greater trust and confidence to build a stronger SAARC.”

Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan in his official Facebook page has also shared his message on the SAARC Charter Day. Pakistan, he wrote is a firm believer in the strength and potential of regional cooperation for individual, national and regional development. Effective and result-oriented regional cooperation, he wrote, can be achieved only by adhering to the cardinal principles of sovereign equality and mutual respect as enshrined in the SAARC Charter.

Reiterating Pakistan’s commitment to the SAARC process, he also expressed hope that the hiatus created in its continuous progression would be removed, thus enabling the SAARC nations to forge a path of regional cooperation for development.

Similarly, Bangladeshi foreign minister, A K Abdul Momen also conveyed the message of Bangladeshi Prime Minister’s commitment to strengthen SAARC. However, he said that overall achievement is still below the expectations and huge potential remain unexploited.

The President of Sri Lanka also reiterated his commitment to foster peace, stability and economic prosperity in the region. He also announced that Sri Lanka will host the SAARC culture center to build closer cultural linkages. The region, he stated has much to share with the world in terms of art, culture, philosophy and religion.

Despite progress, he highlighted on the issues like food security, poverty and terrorism, which continue to affect the wellbeing of the people in the region.

The CEO of SAARC Development Fund (SDF), Dr Sunil Motiwal also assured his commitment to promote regional integration and economic cooperation among the SAARC Member States through project funding and collaboration.

A press release from the SDF stated that it continues to undertake a number of initiatives for the strategic growth of the SAARC region, such as forging relationships with partners for taking up joint initiatives and co-funding of projects.

Foreign Minister Dr. Tandi Dorji also said that SAARC has seen substantial progress but there have also been a lot of challenges. “The vision of SAARC to foster cooperation among the countries and to work towards prosperity and wellbeing of the people, all the eight SAARC countries have been working hard towards this vision,” he said.