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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Has regionalism failed in South Asia?

Politics and the economy of South Asia is dominated by India; smaller states fear an Indian hegemonic design in the region. New Delhi’s aspirations for being a regional power stand in contrast with its conflicts with its SAARC neighbors. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and now Afghanistan, all these SAARC countries either have political or territorial conflicts with India.

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It is a foregone conclusion that regionalism in South Asia has failed spectacularly. The primary instrument to promote regional integration is theSouth Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The last SAARC Summit was held in 2014, the 19th SAARC Summit to be held in Islamabad in 2016 was canceled after SAARC member states refused to attend the Summit. Indian government’s decision to miss this summit prompted the remaining members to follow suit. In conclusion, holding the 19th SAARC Summit is difficult at least in the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, the multilateral forum has lost its vitality and has been reduced to a mere diplomatic show without any substantive results or consequences for the region. The question here is why SAARC failed to enable regional integration and achieve regionalism in South Asia? The answer lies in the history of nation-states in South Asia, the prevailing politics andSAARC’s flawed design. States in South Asia, particularly India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, despite having years of shared history and culture, manifest feelings of distrust and resentments towards each other.

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This is a gloomy time for SAARC

These sentiments and notions then inform the policymaking with regards to each other, both bilaterally and multilaterally. The cross-cutting theme in the establishment of these states was “separatism”, communal differences in the case of India and Pakistan, while ethnic differences in the case of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Hence the history and nature of nation-states are characterized by separatism which, when combined with various border conflicts, enables an environment where cooperation and regional integration does not become a policy option despite being extremely advantageous for the whole region.SAARC became a victim of these factors and conditions.

Politics and the economy of South Asia is dominated by India; smaller states fear an Indian hegemonic design in the region. New Delhi’s aspirations for being a regional power stand in contrast with its conflicts with its SAARC neighbors. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and now Afghanistan, all these SAARC countries either have political or territorial conflicts with India. The geopolitical rivalry between India and Pakistan is perhaps one of the biggest impediments to SAARC’s success. Both countries have fought several wars over the disputed territory of Kashmir, while in the last two decades cross border terrorism has emerged as another thorn in the bilateral relationship.

The 19th SAARC Summit was canceled because of Pakistan’s alleged involvement in a cross-border terrorist incident in Indian Occupied Kashmir. SAARC Summit could have served as a forum for dialogue between the two neighbors; unfortunately, New Delhi decided to hold SAARC hostage and derailed joint meetings of all South Asian countries. India was initially wary of the idea of a regional framework because the possibility existed that smaller states might gang up on New Delhi and attempt to counter its influence using the institutional framework.

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Though this possibility could never have materialized because the very design of SAARC was flawed and prevented such an event. The framework stated that SAARC would never intervene in bilateral issues while the principle of unanimity will be applied to all decisions and resolutions. This effectively ended any role for SAARC, as the core issues behind a lack of regional integration and regionalism were and still are the territorial conflicts between SAARC members. By eliminating dialogue or jurisdiction over the many political and territorial conflicts, the founding members effectively made SAARC irrelevant.

Some might argue that both EU and ASEAN rely on primarily economic integration and interdependence for regionalism, and yet both organizations have succeeded in achieving their objectives. The key difference here is again the differing geopolitical contexts in which these organizations were formed and evolved and the primary reason behind the establishment of these organizations.EU was formed, first and foremost, to prevent another war from engulfing the continent after the devastating World Wars. Having witnessed the massive destructions and tragedies of World War I and II, regional countries developed a realization that war and military conflict can only bring misery.

Europeapprehended that no matter who began the conflict or who ended it, the human tragedy and material cost was the same for everyone involved. War fatigue led to the formation of these European experiments where economic dependency and integration were used to leverage over each other and to resolve bilateral conflicts through economic interdependence. This shared sense of loss and experience compelled the member states to fully engage in the EU project despite historical rivalries with each other. South Asia has no shared experiences or tragedies; regional actors primarily view each other through the prism of security.

The Indo-Pak wars concerning the World Wars were small both in terms of scale and misery; hence the consciousness that Europeans achieved does not exist in this region. Many would say that experiencing a series of military conflicts and World Wars is not a prerequisite for regionalism to succeed, as ASEANachieved it. The answer here is the conditions in which ASEAN was formed and the objectives it sought to achieve. East Asian nations established this institutional framework to counter the growing threat of communism.

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The presence of a common external threat played an important role 

Inter-state disagreements were set aside to contain a common foe.SAARC countries, in contrast, had no common foe and still do not share a common threat.ASEAN’s establishment was motivated by threats to the sovereignty and integrity of member states, while SAARC was formed to promote the welfare of its inhabitants and promote collaboration among member states. In light of historical and geopolitical divisions, SAARC’s core agenda falls short of encouraging a substantive role for the organization. Regional politics places security and geopolitics above the economic collaboration or welfare ofSouth Asia’s inhabitants.

The notion of an organization formed to promote the welfare of the region’s inhabitants seems more like a charade than an actual effort towards regionalism. Both EU and ASEAN had security as the core objective to seek regional economic integration; one wanted to prevent another war, the other desired to repel an external threat. SAARC, despite ground realities where security overrides any other dimensions of interstate relations, chose to base its function around human welfare. The result is that SAARC has not managed to make any substantial change in the region’s economic or political dynamic.

SAARC cannot succeed as a regional organization until it includes the resolution of security and political conflict into its institutional framework. For South Asia, resolution and dialogue on interstate bilateral conflicts, including cross-border terrorism and territorial conflicts, are necessary for any regional integration to occur. As long as SAARC turns a blind eye to bilateral conflicts, it can not achieve regionalism.


The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. He can be reached at op-ed@hafeezkhan.com. The views expressed by the writers do not necessarily represent Global Village Space’s editorial policy