In the field of International Relations, ‘regionalism’ is defined as the expression of a common sense of identity and purpose which is achieved by creating institutions which formulate expressions of identity, and mould collective action. It was only in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Cold War was at its peak that the first coherent regional initiatives were discerned, particularly with the establishment of the European community and the US led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). However, the late 1980s onwards, a new spell of regional integration began (which is still continuing). In the course of the last two decades, new political initiatives have been taken across the globe to enhance the prospects of regional development.
The European Union (EU) is an iconic example of such regionalism with a shared regional identity of economic and political integration. Another major regional organization is the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation which was established in 1985. It was established by the Governments of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the first SAARC summit, held in Dhaka, Bangladesh on the 7th-8th of December, 1985. On India’s request, Afghanistan was added to the group on 3rd April, 2007, making the total strength of the organization eight. Australia, China, the EU, Iran, Japan, Mauritius, Myanmar, South Korea and the United States of America have been given the status of observer countries.
SAARC was established for ensuring cooperation among countries. It also aimed at ensuring respect for each other’s sovereign equality, territorial integrity and independence, while upholding the values of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs and shared mutual benefits. However, in practice, the working of SAARC has not quite stood up to its expectations. Its success is pretty much limited to the number of conventions adopted and pioneering breakthroughs, considering the adoption of the SAFTA (South Asian Free Trade Agreement) and the SAPTA (SAARC Preferential Trade Agreement). If one looks into the main obstruction in its smooth working, it can be understood in terms of the political differences among the member states, especially between two of its most important members—India and Pakistan. The ongoing feud between the two countries has led to a rupture in the unity of the organization, which tends to get divided along political lines.
Violent conflict amongst members of a regional group decreases its vitality. Since its inception, the organization has been suffering from the strain in the bilateral relationship between India and Pakistan. India, as a result of its sheer size and relatively better economic growth is seen as a dominant “big brother’ for the smaller countries, who view it with mistrust, suspicion and a threat to their security. India on the other hand, has always strived to maintain a balance and friendly relations with its neighbors, but unfortunately, this perception among the smaller countries has led the external powers such as the US and China to acquire a role in the dynamics. While India resents China’s influence in the region, Pakistan and Nepal view it as a balancer in the group. Since China is a principal trading partner as well as a supplier of arms to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the matter of granting China membership in SAARC is being considered.
The question that arises is this. Is the revival of SAARC from its dormant state possible? An organization can only be successful if it meets and continues to have the potential for meeting the members’ interests. In this case, a fragile structure interspersed with mistrust, misperceptions and conflict among members has impeded it from performing its functions smoothly. The possibility of amending the charter to make the organization more effective is almost futile as all the members are divided on the methods to do so. The chances of resolving the Indo-Pak relationship also seems to be like a distant dream, which has only deteriorated with repeated terrorist attacks since 2016. This might just snowball into either country making an exit from the organization which will only have dire consequences. It will possibly cause SAARC to die an unfortunate death, which is already in a ‘zombie’ state.
Prime Minister Modi has envisaged a ‘new version’ of SAARC, which he is yet to elaborate upon. According to the Foreign Policy experts, the future of the organization is somewhat dependent on PM Modi’s attempts to consolidate closer ties and stronger unity among the members, leading to the crystallization of a strong regional identity. SAARC can become a strong and functional organization once it resolves its leadership question. Additionally, there needs to be a quest for macro-economic stability with equitable development in all member countries to ensure peace in the region.
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