The concept of regional cooperation emerged late in South Asia, and it was only during the seventies that various political and economic factors created a friendly environment. As a result of the lengthy deliberations among the member countries of the region, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) came into existence on 8 December 1985 with its first summit meeting of the Heads of States in Dhaka. The basic aim of it is to accelerate the process of economic and social development in the member states through joint action in certain agreed areas of cooperation. It is a manifestation of the determination of the peoples of South Asia to cooperate regionally, to work together towards finding solutions to their common problems in a spirit of friendship, trust, and understanding and to create an order based on mutual respect, equity and shared benefits. Like other regional bodies of the world, the SAARC has also developed an institutional framework within which different level meetings take place at regular intervals, and within which a wide array of institutions, working groups, and so on, have been set up to discuss the feasibility and modalities of cooperation among the member countries. Over a dozen of summits have been held so far and adhering strictly to its fundamental objectives it has promoted regional cooperation through active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields. However, for enhancing the effectiveness of SAARC attempts at all levels should be made to resolve various bilateral and tri-lateral issues which slow down the processes of regional cooperation in several areas.
The Indian subcontinent or South Asia encompasses today eight very diverse sovereign states of very different sizes: India, Pakistan Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, and Afghanistan. The terms South Asia and India refer, in the first instance, to a vast geographical space stretching from the Himalayan mountain ranges in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south and from the valley of the Indus in the west to the plains of the Brahmaputra in the east. The subcontinent carries the weight not only of its people but also of their ancient history, stretching back five millennia, and a modern history encompassing the experience of British colonialism compressed in tumultuous developments within the past couple of centuries (Bose, 2004). It has 3 percent of the world’s area, 23 percent of its population and 2 percent of its GDP. Within that, India has 72 per cent of the area, 77 percent of the population and 75 per cent of GDP (Koithara, 1999). The geographical boundaries drawn by the highest mountain ranges in the world and encircling seas and oceans set the whole of the subcontinent apart from the rest of the world.
The first initiative for establishing a regional cooperation association was taken in 1977 by Zia-ur-Rahman, the then president of Bangladesh.” It was with the yearning to bring some measure of stability and peace and to improve the subhuman conditions of persistent poverty and misery” of newborn Bangladesh that President had mooted the idea of regional cooperation in the immediate surroundings. Inspired by the concept of the President who had also toured India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka in 1977, the Government of Bangladesh circulated a working paper, in 1980 titled” Regional Cooperation in South Asia” and advocated regional cooperation in economic, technical, scientific, social, cultural and educational fields. It also suggested that meetings at Foreign Secretary-level should examine prospects of regional cooperation (Khanna, 2001). Consultative and preparatory work in this direction was done between 1977-1981 and proposal was formally submitted to the concerned governments in May 1980 by President Rahman. It was officially initiated in April 1981 when a meeting of the foreign secretaries of seven South Asian States was held in Colombo. Six more such meetings took place in other capitals.
The second breakthrough in this regard was made in August 1983 in a Foreign Minister’s meeting in New Delhi. It adopted An Integrated Program of Action, and it was announced through the New Delhi Declaration. The development elevated the process from the official to the political level. It was followed by the Foreign Minister’s meetings held at Male in July 1984, and Thimpu in May 1985. During negotiations, it was agreed that the SAARC would actively try for greater regional cooperation by sovereign equality of States, protection by territorial integrity, and non-interference in the internal affairs of each other. The association was likely to grow in the economic, social and cultural spheres. In the final phase, the Heads of State or Government met at the first SAARC Summit in Dhaka on 7-8 December 1985 and decided to establish the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. It was a historical event and signified the culmination of the process that began as early as 1978-1979 with the consultations of late President Zia-Ur-Rahman of Bangladesh.
Formation of SAARC is an expression of efforts to not only cement ties among the South Asia States in diplomatic, social, economic and other fields but also to promote collective self-reliance and to improve the quality of life for the South Asians. The principles behind this regional organization, as defined in its Charter are: (a) Regional cooperation through SAARC shall be based on mutual respect for the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, non-interference in internal affairs of other states and mutual benefit; (b) Such cooperation shall not be a substitute for bilateral and multilateral cooperation but, shall complement them; and (c) Such cooperation shall not be inconsistent with bilateral and multilateral obligations. As per the principles, several objectives have been enshrined in the Charter of the SAARC. To attain these goals, seven countries of South Asia decided to launch a regional cooperative organization and soon developed an understanding to apply to a step-by-step collaborative approach.
Like other bodies, the SAARC has also established an institutional framework within which different level meetings take place at regular intervals, and within which a wide array of institutions, working groups, and so on, have been set up to discuss the feasibility and modalities of cooperation among the member states. Institutionalization of SAARC would strengthen the regional identity of South Asia and promote community formation. Contacts and transaction envisaged under its programs would also contribute to the development of the South Asian System. Economic developments, which are the heart of the SAARC, would primarily be a step-by-step and incremental process for two reasons. Firstly, the smaller states need to carefully study the impact of extensive economic cooperation with India both on their economic structures as well as on their political autonomy. Secondly, smaller states in the system wish to institutionalize cooperation based on consensus as a principle and guide to their regional economic diplomacy (Rais, 1993).
The institutional involvement of SAARC relies on a direct involvement of heads of states or governments, foreign ministers and foreign secretaries of all the Member-Nations. It has developed among the South Asian countries, mutual understanding, and tolerance. It would also help reduce tensions, and an overall character of the system would emerge in the process. In the first ten years of its formation, the SAARC has made considerable progress regarding institutionalization. Rules governing its working procedures have been laid down systematically, and its various meetings at the levels of expert committees, secretaries, ministers, and summits have taken place fairly regularly. Though an elaborate program of action has been chalked out to advance regional cooperation in various areas, not much has been achieved except in the field of trade.
Initially, the activities of the SAARC were limited to sectors such as health, population, meteorology, telecommunication, sports, culture, etc. A significant development in this field was made at its summit held in December 1988 in Islamabad. It emphasized the need for concrete and result-oriented activities within the framework of SAARC to include trade. Further at its sixth summit held in Colombo in December 1991, Heads of State declared their commitment to the liberalization of commerce in the region through a step-by-step approach in such a manner that countries in the region share benefits of trade expansion equitably. An Agreement on SAARC Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA) was signed in Dhaka in April 1993. It envisaged the creation of a Preferential Trading Area among the SAARC members and also provided a legal framework for liberalization. Some achievements were noticed in 1998 when as a result of the third round of negotiations tariff concessions were offered on 3456 tariff lines. It, however, failed to pick up intra-regional trade in South Asia as done in other regional economic groupings (Ambrose, 2006).
To promote the trade among member-states, the SAARC Council of Ministers met in New Delhi in December 1995 and emphasized that expression of political will by member states was imperative for the realization of South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA). The Framework Agreement on it was signed at the twelfth Summit held in Islamabad. The Government of India, in the last week of December 2005, approved the SAFTA and paved the way for its formal launching on 1 January 2006. Now it can be hoped that tariffs would be reduced within the stipulated timeframe of 2016 by all the participating countries. Especially openness to trade and investment would lead to the development and alleviate poverty and backwardness.
Evaluation & Prospect
While evaluating the entire system of SAARC we should focus the three latest sources of conflict: (a) the involvement in one another’s domestic conflicts, (b) the uncontrolled transfer of arms and weapons to the region from external arms suppliers, and (c) the probability of a nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan. One of the basics of private involvement is the multifaceted issue of ethnic mobilization, its tendency to escalate to separatist movements and its potential to spill over at the regional level. It is a new conflict and in principle, dates back to colonial times. It works in both ways: it may support regional cooperation and at the same time, is likely to hamper it. While demographic and ethnic problems tend to cause disharmony, they also work in a positive way by contributing to building regional cooperation and consciousness among the South Asian states.
The emergence of bipolarity and cold war tensions between East and West were successfully exploited by the political antagonists to augment their power, which they used against each other. In general, the success of any endeavor to contain a threat within the region from an extra-regional component would depend much on the identity of interests. This identity of interests may not necessarily be related to the local sub-system, but it gains strength from a shared strategic outlook. The competitive globalism of the great powers motivated them to establish an influence relationship with the local authorities in various sub-systems of the world. Like others, the need for security against neighbors and economic aid for development strengthened the multidimensional relations with the Western powers. Extra-regional orientations caused the new states of South Asia in ways. The first was the disintegration of pre-colonial and colonial interdependence among the regional communities and second was the significant reduction of autonomy of the region. The US rivalry with the Soviet Union primarily influenced its interests and policy toward South Asia and on the other, it also initiated the free transfer of arms and weapons to the area.
In South Asia, the rivalry between India and Pakistan in nuclear and other spheres must be viewed in the background of old legacies of colonialism, repercussions on the search for a national identity and the lack of adequate control mechanism. Broadly, it can be categorized, as five on the basis of the nature of contentious issues; (a) issues resulting from colonial legacies; (b) issues of political and ideological character; (c) issues of strategic conflict and military balance; (d) matters arising from the spillover of internal conflicts and turmoil; and (e) issues related to resource and developmental conflicts. With other countries of the region, India’s huge mass is the most real obstacle in the way of regional cooperation. The second is India’s major political problems with all the countries of the region, with the possible exception of the Maldives. Bilateral cooperation among the states of the region should also be considered as ingredient of the whole system as the King of Bhutan has put it, ‘As long as we do not have good bilateral relations, it will be tough to have a good regional relationship (Kapur, 1994).’
In fact, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC is falling short of gaining a similar significance as is attached to the economic and diplomatic achievements of the ASEAN group. If we compare various regional groupings in a ranking order, the European Community, on account of its high degree of integration as well as economic and political cooperation, would be on the top. At the present stage, the SAARC would only be placed at the bottom; but there is also an optimistic approach. If we take into account the central problem of South Asian politics along with India’s relationship with its neighbors and the resulting contentious issues, the SAARC has offered an opportunity for introducing Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs) on the higher level and has succeeded in reducing regional tensions. In spite of the many obstacles caused by the regional power and economic structure, the anemic infant SAARC not only survived but even grew slowly broadening its scope, especially in the sphere of trade, build an institutional framework and generate a climate of regional cooperation. For further development of regional collaboration and make SAARC institution success and powerful countries of the region must keep apart from their bilateral issues and hatred in the larger interest of the people in universal welfare spirit.
- Advancement of Indo-Pak peace process to get the maximum dividends from SAARC.
- India should consider genuine concerns of the SAARC members.
- The SAARC charter needs to be amended to include bilateral confliction issues and provide redresser machinery.
- Focus of SAARC members should change from conventional to non-conventional threats.
- Sincere effort should be made to make SAARC a strong dispute redress mechanism.
Need to come out of the “state centric model” and to change negative mindset of members.