Dr Muhammad Khan
THERE are various views about the worth of only South Asian organisation; South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). In its over three decades of active history (1985-2017), SAARC has least contributed towards socio-economic uplift of South Asia and interstate harmony among the regional states. It is worth mentioning that the organisation was aimed at attaining objectives like promotion of people’s welfare and improvement of quality of life by accelerating economic growth, social progress and cultural development in South Asia. Besides, it has set objectives like contributing towards mutual trust, understanding, active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields.
All objectives were to be achieved in the framework of UN Charter with an opening commitment and desire for endorsing peace, stability, amity and progress in the region while respecting the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, national independence, non-use of force and non-interference in the internal affairs of other States and peaceful settlement of all outstanding issues. Unfortunately, neither the principles set-forth, nor the objectives fixed-for could be achieved to the nominal level in these three over decades time-frame. Rather, the regional integration deteriorated in these three decades and the set goals, principles and objectives were not felt anywhere in South Asia.
There were a number of reasons for this decline in the regional harmony and socio-economic development in South Asia under the forum of SAARC. According to Josue Diaz, a US Scholar, “Most such regional organisations are a failure simply because there is one (or two) economically and politically more powerful countries and the rest simply latch on for benefits without proportionate contribution.” He even quotes the examples of EU and NAFTA also besides SAARC, which is worst among entire regional organizations. In South Asian region, India always tried to hijack this organization for the fulfilment of its own objectives.
Though its political aims and objectives are really negligible, yet the basic impediment in the functioning of SAARC is Article X(2) of the SAARC Charter, drafted as per the wishes of India in 1985. This article clearly states that, decisions at all levels in SAARC will be on multilateral issues, and agenda setting would be based on the principle of unanimity for all SAARC summit/ meetings. It was clarified that, SAARC platform would not be used for the resolution of bilateral issues. This indeed is the inbuilt undermining of scope and potential of SAARC right from the outset. There were no multilateral issues in South Asia, however, there were and still pending dozens of bilateral issues between various states of SAARC. India was well aware that, most of the issues are between India and other South Asian state, therefore, this article fulfil the Indian objectives without having served the purpose of other states. Almost all other states of this organization have serious observations against Indian manipulation of SAARC and because of this factor, SAARC could not deliverin 32 years.
There is yet another factor in the SAARC’s failure to deliver. The organization is a geopolitical forum of eight countries of South Asia, rather being a political, social, economic or strategic organization. Its Charter though defines its principle and objectives, but there remains vagueness in almost all articles of its charter. With this obscurity, the organization remained a mixed bag of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Besides, owing to Indo-Pak rivalries, SAARC fell prey to the bickering of two nations. Then there have been wars, conflicts, hostilities, ideological issues, different strategic cultures and host of unresolved issues without it acting as a determined body to resolve them.
While the architects of this organization new the inherent flaws in its Charter, there remained clash is between expectations from SAARC and what it has practically manifested. Whereas, expectations were very high but practically, out-come in 32 years was very low. Indeed, SAARC has repeatedly failed to bring the nations of South Asia closer together. This is not a new conundrum for such a multilateral forum, but, almost all multilateral forums suffer from agenda biases of the politically and economically strong members. In last 32 years of its existence, SAARC failed to hold 11 annual summits for political reasons, both at the bilateral and internal levels. The last summit in Kathmandu was held after a gap of three years and India refused to attend the 19th SAARC summit, scheduled to be held in Islamabad. India otherwise never wanted to take part in the summit, thus took an excuse of terrorism allegation on Pakistan, which indeed, is being promoted by India in almost all South Asian states, Pakistan has official evidences of Indian involvement in this business in Pakistan.
On the socio-economic ground, there is hardly any worthwhile progress. The intra-regional trade of SAARC countries has never increased more than $42 billion, which is just 5% of the total trade of the SAARC countries. In ASEAN, EU and even NAFTA the regional trade volume is much higher. Despite finalization of Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA) in 1993 and South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) in 2004, there are a number of Indian masterminded snags in the regional trade between SAARC countries. Truth is that, there is a long list of issues related to positive list of items to be traded and ‘sensitive list’ of items in SAFTA. All these problems are related to lack of commitments or monopoly of India over the region.
Whereas, on one hand India is trying to use SAARC for its own objectives, on the other hand, one of its former Foreign Ministers, Yashwant Sinha called the ‘SAARC’ as a “failed experiment.” The incumbent National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, very recently said in a conference in New Delhi that, “apart from Bhutan, India had some or the other issue with all its neighbouring countries and that the country will have to prepare itself “in view of the neighbourhood settings.” Some of the SAARC countries like Bangladesh and Afghanistan are being directly dictated by India and some others are being constrained owing to their geographical location. A demonstration of this was evident once India forced these states to boycott 19th SAARC Summit. Should the SAARC still be called as a futuristic organization?
As a major South Asian state, India must realize its responsibilities towards this region and SAARC, otherwise, its regional hegemony will be seriously challenged and its policy of interference in the affairs of other regional countries to promote militancy, sub nationalism and insurgencies will expose its real agenda at regional and global level. On its part, Pakistan must adopt a proactive foreign policy and expose Indian design at all international forums besides taking into confidence the other regional countries including Iran and China.
— The writer is International Relations analyst based in Islamabad.
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