NEW DELHI–Last month, as Indian voters began streaming to the polls to elect a new Parliament and prime minister, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party released its long-awaited election platform . Predictably, the document criticized the record of the ruling Congress Party, while stressing the need for greater economic growth and good governance. But buried on page 40 of 42–after the BJP’s evolving stance on nuclear weapons but before their sacred commitment to the “Cow and its Progeny”–was the single, unexpected line, “We will work towards strengthening regional forums like SAARC and ASEAN.”
Though SAARC–the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation –is comprised of eight nations collectively containing over 1.6 billion people, it’s unsurprising that the organization would merit a mere passing mention in the political platform of what is likely to be India’s next ruling party. Founded in 1985 to promote regional cultural and economic integration, SAARC quickly acquired a reputation for “much talk and no action.” For one thing, decisions among its members–India, Pakistan, Afghanitan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, and the Maldives–must be unanimous. For another, its two biggest members, India and Pakistan, treat each other with the thinly-veiled contempt born of half a century of enmity.
SAARC “is not a shining model of regional cooperation,” an Indian columnist recently commented . “It is seen as a talking shop–of a region that accounts for the largest population of the poor–with lofty goals, high-sounding resolutions, ringing declarations and little by way of achievement.” Paul B. Stares, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, spoke for many when he dismissively noted, “there is this organization called SAARC, but, frankly, you know, nobody takes it seriously.”
But if member states finally decided to take SAARC seriously, it could be a game-changer for the Asian subcontinent – and the best model for moving forward might just be in their backyard.
In many respects, it’s not hard to understand the dismissiveness. Despite initiating a much-hyped South Asian Free Trade Agreement in 2006, intra-regional trade, which has grown to $2 billion, makes up just 5 percent of South Asia’s total trade–compared to 22 percent between Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries and 55 percent within the European Union. In 2012, the combined tourism revenue of all SAARC countries was less than that of Malaysia.
Meanwhile, within an organization ostensibly dedicated to mutual trust and cooperation, India and Pakistan trade barbs and mortar rounds over the status of Kashmir A well-known educator here tells me, “”Pakistan doesn’t want SAARC to have two functions. Anything that lures normalization, especially economic, with previous British India would lessen their whole legitimacy especially on defense and security. It would take the rug out from underneath them.”
At the same time, relations between Nepal and Bhutan remain strained over the issue of refugee resettlement, and in December, tensions between Pakistan and Bangladesh over the latter’s execution of a militant led protestors to burn the Pakistani flag and demand that Dhaka sever diplomatic ties with Islamabad. No wonder a senior Bangladeshi diplomat tells me “SAARC is not taking off in my lifetime, I don’t think.”
At the same time, SAARC’s very inclusion in the BJP platform hints at the strides SAARC has made–and the growing geopolitical significance of the Indian Ocean region, which the scholar Robert Kaplan alternatively calls “the globe’s busiest and most important interstate” and the “new Great Game in geopolitics” as well as “the future of American power.”
Despite the sluggish increase in trade, India has dramatically reduced its tariffs–and Pakistan has insisted that tensions with India will “not halt trade among and between the members” of SAARC. Recent summits have addressed issues from electricity-sharing to counterterrorism with increasing seriousness . Students from SAARC nations can now pursue degrees in law or computer science at SAARC’s South Asian University in New Delhi. There’s even been discussion of a SAARC anthem, possibly adapted from a poem by Indian poet-diplomat Abhay K.
The scholar Kishore C. Dash writes that at several points, SAARC “has enabled the South Asian political leaders to meet regularly and carry on informal discussion to address their mutual problems.” He adds, “This is no mean achievement given South Asia’s past history and low level of interaction among South Asian countries since their independence.”
Recognizing SAARC’s momentum, the U.S., EU, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Iran, Myanmar, and Mauritius have all requested and been granted observer status, leading to the amusing situation of observer countries outnumbering full members at SAARC summits. With the monsoon winds at the organization’s back, a headline in a Tokyo-based publication asks, “Can SAARC be South Asia’s EU?”
It remains an open question, though South Asians will tell you they have no interest in surrendering their sovereignty as completely as that. But as SAARC seeks greater integration–they hope to create an economic union and common currency by 2020 — they would do well to look east to ASEAN, which was similarly derided as a talk shop not long ago and has since progressed towards an increasingly effective model of regional cooperation.
The ASEAN example emphasizes three significant benefits to regional cooperation.
First, unity is critical when it comes to the region’s increasingly assertive 800-pound gorilla, China. A country like the Maldives — whose population of 400,000 could fit into Beijing 50 times over — has no chance of resisting Chinese encroachment on its own. But ASEAN may demonstrate, as it bands together to push back against China’s aggression in the South China Sea, that “a bundle of sticks cannot be broken.” SAARC would do well to understand the same thing.
Second, some issues can only be solved regionally. For ASEAN, that issue is the South China Sea. For SAARC, it could be water scarcity and climate change. From the Indus to the Mekong, South Asia boasts several of the world’s great rivers and its most irrigated land — but its farmers are also pumping out groundwater 70 percent faster than in the 1990’s. Meanwhile, the Asia-Pacific bears the brunt of 70 percent of the world’s natural disasters. And a mere three-foot rise in sea levels by the end of the century would submerge a fifth of Bangladesh — and goodbye to the Maldives.
“Water will be a serious problem and India saw that in the late 1980s,” the Bangladeshi diplomat says to me. “Rivers of connectivity have been rivers of contention. We need to manage the water and collaborate. We can train the river and create jobs and get villages linked and have commerce starting. From roads to rivers it is beginning to happen.” Right now, South Asia is experiencing all the downsides of regionalism (i.e. ongoing tensions between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan) without any of the upside. SAARC offers a chance to change that.
Third, with economic integration comes global clout. It’s no coincidence that in the past two years, President Obama has visited Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Brunei — half of ASEAN’s ten member countries — with several of those trips marking the first an American president has made in half a century (or, in Myanmar’s case, ever). As the U.S. makes its well-publicized “pivot” to Asia, it is eager to engage regional partners as counterweights to China’s rise. With just a bit more institutionalization and integration, SAARC is perfectly poised to become the most important regional organization nobody has ever heard of.
Speaking at a SAARC conference not long ago, Indian National Security Advisor Shivshanker Menon declared, “We have a moment in history which we should seize if we wish to transform South Asia.”
Seizing that moment won’t be easy — at a minimum, it will mean easing half a century of Indian-Pakistani hostilities — but it is necessary. The eight nations of SAARC have a critical choice to make. Hopefully they will choose to move forward, in the words of SAARC’s potential anthem, “From the Himalaya to Hind, Naga Hills to Hindukush/Mahaweli to Ganga, Sindhu to Brahmputra/Lakshadweep, Andamans, Everest, Adam’s Peak/Kabul to Thimphu, Male to Kathmandu/Dilli to Dhaka, Colombo, Islamabad/Every step in harmony.”