The basic premise on which SAARC was founded is clearly showing signs of validation. While shaping the SAARC initiative during the early 1980s, it was assumed that by activating cooperative cultural identities and economic interests, political conflicts and tensions in South Asia could be moderated, if not completely eliminated. Not that SAARC has got firmly entrenched into the economic and sociocultural cooperative ventures in the manner evident in North America (NAFTA), Europe (EU), Southeast Asia (ASEAN) or Asia-Pacific (APEC). And neither have political conflicts in South Asia, such as between India and Pakistan, been resolved or reduced significantly, but there are unmistakable signs of a promise to South Asian regional affairs. SAARC stands at a critical stage of its evolution where, given the right push, it can overcome past constraints and barriers to emerge as a dynamic factor in the peace and prosperity of more than a billion South Asians.
Factors that have contributed towards this positive turn for regional cooperation in South Asia are varied and numerous. Among the important ones, the role of the more-than-a-decade-old “SAARC process” itself should be acknowledged. It has sensitised common people, policy-makers and powerful economic and cultural interests towards the opportunities available in the region for cooperation. South Asian countries now know better than they did during the 1980s about each other´s assets and liabilities, and are exploring areas of mutual interests to be harnessed.
There remain information gaps, ambiguities and lingering apprehensions, but the process of dealing with them is vigorously on. Major shifts in power structures and political dynamics in South Asia since the beginning of this decade in favour of democratic forces, popular accountability and governmental transparency, much against the machinations of the hitherto entrenched interests, have generated aspirations for greater regional identity and interaction across state-erected barriers and territorial boundaries. South Asian civil societies are becoming more articulate and assertive in bringing SAARC out of the corridors of power so that popular forces can play their legitimate role in shaping its future course.
This regional effort of knowing each other and getting together got a strong push from the developments outside the region. The end of the Cold War eliminated the nearly 40-year-old pernicious spillover of the East-West divide in South Asia. More than its political fallout, the post-Cold War international economic imperatives have provided momentum to the pressures of regional cooperation in South Asia. On the one hand, the policies of economic liberalisation and the unleashing of the private sector are nudging the South Asian states to integrate the regional market and coordinate responses to international economic challenges in the area of trade investments and technology transfers. On the other, the global trend of expanding and strengthening regionalism is pressing for greater economic cohesion in South Asia, under the fear that an economically sluggish South Asia may be left marginalised in the post-Cold War world economy.
SAARC and ASEAN
Former Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kwan Yu, commenting recently on India´s efforts for economic liberalisation and globalisation, said that it is entering the expressway of global economy at a time when it has already become slow and congested. This also holds true for the entire South Asian region. As compared to this, ASEAN was conceived in the context of linking non-communist economies of the region with global capitalism. To preserve the so-called purity of this political and economic framework of cooperation, the region´s geographical identity was even mutilated, by excluding the Indo-Chinese countries. ASEAN entered the global economic expressway when the going was fast and smooth.
In looking at ASEAN and SAARC comparatively, it has to be kept in mind that ASEAN countries were at a very preliminary level of capitalist growth themselves when they sought integration into the global capitalist economy. They had no interests of their own to protect and no terms to dictate. But in the South Asian case, particularly in the case of India and Pakistan, significant indigenous capitalist economic interests have grown over the years and they are finding it hard to adjust and harmonise themselves with the powerful economic interests at the global level. ASEAN had the added advantage over SAARC in that the member countries were smaller in size and their decision-making systems, both political and administrative, were generally more centralised and efficient. However, having involved itself in the process, it is clear that South Asia will soon be able to define and project its own forms of productive interaction with the international economic forces.
The combined positive impact on SAARC of domestic economic and political liberalisation in South Asia and the global trend of expanding regionalism is evident. A preferential trading arrangement (SAPTA) has been agreed to and the target for raising it to the level of a Free Trade Agreement by the beginning of the next millennium has been set already. Business interests are identifying and executing areas of mutual cooperation, either individually or under the regional umbrella of similar institutional arrangements like the SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
In recent years, bilateral trade in the region, with the exception of trade between India and Pakistan, has grown manifold and is continuously growing. All of India´s smaller neighbours are seeking increasing access to the huge Indian market for their products. The “big” is no longer awesome and ugly; instead it is becoming beautiful. India, on its part is trying to accommodate its smaller SAARC neighbours as far as possible. The trend set into motion during the previous Congress government received impetus under the United Front regime in the form of the much-talked about Gujral Doctrine which seeks to accommodate smaller neighbours´ interests without expecting reciprocity. India´s agreements with Nepal and Bangladesh on the question of river waters; its duty concessions to Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka; solution of the Chakma problem between India and Bangladesh; and the responsive Bangladeshi attitude towards India on the issues of internal security and stability as well as transit rights for the inaccessible Northeast region, are instances of the positive turn in the dynamics of regional relations.
Neither have Indo-Pakistan relations remained totally unaffected by these regional dynamics. There is now greater pressure within Pakistan for opening normal channels of trade and economic interaction with India, even as the core Paskistani establishment continues to harp on the Kashmir issue. A five-volume study carried out by the Pakistani Ministry of Commerce offered positive recommendations while asking India to reduce subsidies on its agricultural products to create a level playing-field for Pakistani businessmen. It also proposed that the two countries improve transport and communication links. India and Pakistan are also coordinating their approaches in the field of textile trade to meet international pressures. In spite of resistance from the core establishment, Pakistan´s new and democratically more powerful Nawaz Sharif government engaged itself in political talks with India on all matters of mutual concern including trade and people-to-people exchanges. India and Pakistan are also working on the idea of cooperation on the sale of surplus Pakistani hydropower to India.
Questions on Subregionalism
Notwithstanding such positive signals, SAARC is not yet immune and insulated from the adverse impact of the India-Pakistan divide. This has been recently evident on the issue of subregional cooperation which is permitted under the Charter even if not all seven SAARC members are involved. Under this provision and motivated by the desire to speed up cooperation in geographically contiguous and socioeconomically volatile and vulnerable areas, Nepal proposed the idea of subregional cooperation among India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan in the Ganga-Brahma-putra-Meghna subregion, at the SAARC ministerial conference held in New Delhi in December 1996. This was spontaneously endorsed by all the four countries concerned in the hope that such subregional cooperation would minimise disadvantages of asymmetry to smaller countries. The four foreign secretaries in their meeting in Kathmandu in March 1997 have constituted a Working Group of the four countries to identify and implement specific projects.
In January 1997, when Mr Gujral visited Sri Lanka, he also requested the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister to act as the coordinator for subregional cooperation among India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. He also asked Pakistan to join with India in evolving projects for subregional cooperation.
Pakistan, perceiving these moves as targetted at isolating it within SAARC, has reacted unfavourably and its apprehensions are not totally unjustified. The Kathmandu Working Group and its agenda on subregional cooperation has been kept out of the formal SAARC framework. This was perhaps to avoid a situation where Pakistan could object and thwart the move since the SAARC Charter requires unanimity on any action taken. This invites the question if subregional cooperation will erode SAARC and emerge as its alternative, leaving Pakistan isolated and alone?
Some of the SAARC members like Sri Lanka and Maldives are unhappy with this development as well. Here, again, it is useful to draw a comparison with ASEAN which originated and successfully executed the idea of subregional cooperation in the form of “growth triangles” (of limited areas cutting across territorial boundaries) for fast and intensive market-sector and private-sector driven growth. It is not seen as inconsistent with the wider regional agenda of ASEAN, because the growth and dynamic development of parts eventually add to the strength of the entire ASEAN.
Unfortunately in South Asia, Pakistan is not geographically contiguous with any other SAARC member except India, with which it has been shying away from cooperating bilaterally. But then, Pakistan can join hands with other SAARC members to cooperate on specific issue areas, like with India, Sri Lanka and Maldives on tourism or with India and Nepal in air transport. India and the other countries need to explain to Pakistan that the idea of subregional cooperation has been kept out of the formal SAARC framework to keep it flexible and open-ended. The enthusiastic welcome to South Asian subregional cooperation offered by Thailand, which wants to join hands with India, Myanmar and Bangladesh in developing subregional cooperation, in fact opens new opportunities where SAARC members can forge cooperative ties with ASEAN members.
Overall, there is no doubt that, under the thrust of post-Cold War shift in domestic, regional and international affairs, SAARC is poised to make an advance. While bilateral political issues will continue to persist in the SAARC dynamics, their role in deterring regional cooperation will decline. The pace of progress, meanwhile will depend upon hard-core economic cost-benefit issues. The main political factor which seems of consequence now is that of governmental changes and political instability within SAARC countries. Everyone realises how the crisis related to the fall of the United Front government in New Delhi adversely affected the Indo-Pakistan dialogue which showed the possibility of breaking new ground.
The crisis also created anxiety in the other neighbouring capitals about the prospects of their relations with India. Similarly, the change in the government of Nepal has brought about new anxieties regarding the implementation of the Mahakali treaty, and if the political situation in Bangladesh deteriorates to the disadvantage of Hasina Wajed´s Awami League government, Indo-Bangladesh understandings on Ganga waters, transit possibilities and anti-insurgency cooperation may come under a cloud.
In the long run however, forces of economic dynamism will generally acquire the autonomy required to keep the SAARC momentum uninterrupted by political and administrative breakdowns in any of the member countries. Until this happens, SAARC will neither open itself to bilateral and contentious issues, nor will it, like ASEAN, have the confidence to establish parallel fora to deal with political and security issues affecting the region.