- In 1985, at the height of the Cold War, leaders of South Asian nations — namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka — created a regional forum.
- The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established with the goal of contributing “to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems.”
- The first SAARC meeting took place in Dhaka in 1985, and there have been 18 summits till date. However, the organisation has not had a smooth run.
- Afghanistan was admitted as a member in 2007.
- SAARC is aimed at promoting the welfare of the people; accelerating economic growth, social progress and culture development; and strengthening collective self-reliance. The organisation also seeks to contribute to mutual trust and understanding among the member countries.
- Other objectives include strengthening cooperation with other developing countries, and cooperating with international and regional organisations with similar aims and purposes.
- SAARC summits are usually held biennially and hosted by member states in alphabetical order. The member state hosting the summit assumes the Chair of the Association.
- SAARC has its headquartered in Kathmandu, Nepal.
- It has 10 observer states, namely, Australia, China, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Mauritius, Myanmar, South Korea, and the United States.
- The official language of the organization is
- However, despite the framework SAARC provides for cooperation amongst South Asian nations, it has remained sidelined and dormant since its 18th summit of 2014 in Kathmandu.
- India cancelled attendance at the last planned SAARC Summit in Islamabad in 2016, after the attack on Indian Army’s brigade headquarters in Uri.
- South Asian University (SAU) – India
- South Asian Regional Standards Organization (SARSO) – Dhaka
- SAARC Development Fund (SDF) – Bhutan
- SAARC Arbitration Council (SARCO) – Pakistan
SIGNIFICANCE OF SAARC
- As the largest regional cooperation organisation, SAARC’s importance in stabilising and effectively transforming the region is becoming increasingly self-evident.
- There Is No alternative capable of bringing together South Asian countries for mutually beneficial diplomacy has emerged.
- In 36 years of existence, SAARC has developed a dense network of institutions, linkages, and mechanisms.
- SAARC Charter was signed in 1985. It made some progress in developing common cause in several fields like agriculture, education, health, climate change etc.
- From 2010, South Asian University began in Delhi.
- SAARC has made significant contributions to the development of civil society and track-two initiatives.
- Though SAARC’s charter prohibits bilateral issues at formal forums, SAARC summits provide a unique, informal window — the retreat — for leaders to meet without aides and chart future courses of action.
- The coming together of leaders, even at the height of tensions, in a region laden with congenital suspicions, misunderstandings, and hostility is a significant strength of SAARC that cannot be overlooked.
- SAARC members are among the top troop-contributing countries to UN peacekeeping missions. With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, a joint peacekeeping force from the SAARC region under the UN aegis could be explored to fill the power vacuum that would otherwise be filled by terrorist and extremist forces.
- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi seized the Covid-19 crisis and utilised SAARC’s seal to convene a video conference of SAARC leaders. They underscored the need for cooperation on a regional basis for fighting the pandemic.
FAILURES OF SAARC
- Numerous agreements have been signed and institutional mechanisms established under SAARC, but they have not been adequately implemented.
- SAARC agreed on South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) in 2004 at the SAARC Summit in Kathmandu. Each Country shall accord national treatment to the products of other Countries. It was agreed that customs duties on all goods traded would be reduced to zero by 2016. Pakistan has, thereafter, blatantly flouted the provisions of SAFTA by drastically limiting the list of items that can be imported from India.
- Eminent Persons Group recommended in 1999 that SAARC should strive to make South Asia a Free Trade Area by 2010, a Customs Union by 2015, and an Economic Union like the EU by 2020. It remained a pipe dream.
- The third SAARC summit in 1987 adopted a Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism and updated it in 2004 with the signing of an additional protocol. These instruments demonstrate the collective commitment to rid the region of terror and promote regional peace, stability, and prosperity.
- lack of trust among the member countries has been the most significant factor between India and Pakistan. In recent times, Pakistan’s non-cooperation has stalled some major initiatives under SAARC. For example, despite India’s keen interest in cooperating and strengthening intra-regional connectivity by backing the SAARC–MVA during the 18th summit of SAARC, the agreement was stalled following Pakistan’s reluctance.
- Similarly, the SAARC satellite project that India proposed was abandoned following objection from Pakistan in 2016.
- SAARC has also faced obstacles in the area of security cooperation. A major hindrance in this regard has been the lack of consensus on threat perceptions, since member countries disagree on the idea of threats. For instance, while cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan is a major concern for India, Pakistan has failed to address these concerns.
- SAARC has hardly done anything in dealing with the corona virus pandemic. This bloc, especially right now, can do a lot. From providing each other with emergency health equipment and mobilising health workers in each other’s country to purchasing vaccines in bulk. But, they remained inactive when the countries needed each other the most.
SIGNIFICANT REASONS FOR SAARC’s FAILURES:
- The asymmetry between India and other member countries in terms of geography, economy, military strength and influence in the global arena make the smaller countries apprehensive. They perceive India as “Big Brother” and fear that it might use the SAARC to pursue hegemony in the region. The smaller neighbouring countries, therefore, have been reluctant to implement various agreements under SAARC.
- SAARC does not have any arrangement for resolving disputes or mediating conflicts. Disputes among the member countries often hamper consensus building, thus slowing down the decision-making process. SAARC’s inability in this regard has been detrimental to its growth.
- Given SAARC’s failures, member countries have turned to bilateralism, which in turn has adversely affected the organisation. Bilateralism is an easier option since it calls for dealings between only two countries, whereas SAARC—at a regional level—requires one country to deal with seven countries. Thus, bilateralism decreases the countries’ dependence on SAARC to achieve their objectives, making them less interested in pursuing initiatives at a regional level.
- SAARC faces a shortage of resources, and countries have been reluctant to increase their contributions.
- Terrorism emanating from Pakistan is the biggest stumbling block as stated by India. But contradictions in ASEAN never derailed the Group.
- SAARC’s biggest failure comes from the political sphere, mainly due to India-Pakistan tensions. Heads of State met only 18 times in 34 years. It is five years, since the last Summit in Kathmandu.
- Importance being given to BIMSTEC instead of SAARC
- Entry of china into south Asian geopolitics for various reasons
- The organisation must be reformed and member countries must reach a consensus regarding the changes required. However, considering the differences that exist among the members, particularly between India and Pakistan, such a consensus will be difficult to reach. Until the member countries resolve their issues, the future of SAARC remains uncertain.
- Allowing SAARC to become dysfunctional and irrelevant greatly distorts our ability to address the realities and mounting challenges facing SAARC nations.
- SAARC could adopt the “ASEAN minus X” formula, where members who are unwilling to join the consensus can be allowed to join at a future date, while members who wish to go ahead with connectivity, trade or technology cooperation agreements are not impeded.
- In a region increasingly targeted by Chinese investment and loans, SAARC could be a common platform to demand more sustainable alternatives for development. Together they can fight for common cause like opposing trade tariffs or demanding better terms for South Asian labour around the World.
- SAARC is needed to allow for the diplomacy and coordination that is needed between member-states in order to adequately address the numerous threats and challenges the region faces.
- In a meeting of SAARC health ministers, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had talked about free entry to health workers from SAARC nations and an air ambulance service which would be helpful as it would help each other in times of need. But, the talk need to be materialized.
If the geopolitical dynamics following World War II could allow die-hard enemies France and Germany to interface effectively enough to create the European Union, there is no reason why India and Pakistan cannot come together.
SAARC has the capacity to bring nations together. As Nelson Mandela said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.
Threat of china in south Asia
China has recently launching
- China-South Asia Emergency Supplies Reserve- The emergency reserve aims to devise a common strategy for combating the COVID-19 pandemic through vaccine development and distribution & to create an emergency reserve to combat contingencies caused by climate change.
- Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Center- The Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Center aims to pool strength and integrate resourcesto assist South Asian countries’ economic development, livelihood improvement, and poverty reduction.
The project carries a symbolic meaning.
- It is a message to India about its position against China’s membership to SAARC and also an exhibition of China’s power to form a parallel organization in India’s immediate neighborhood.
- it is a demonstrative message from China to the Western powers that it still enjoys confidence from many South Asian countries
China’s Interest in South Asia
South Asia is of vital strategic importance for China for many reasons, especially in current times.
- Geographically, South Asia lies between East Asia and the oil-rich Middle East.
- many South Asian countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) have become party to China’s Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI)
- Since the violent border skirmishin the Galwan Valley and the diplomatic row over India’s targeting of Chinese business interests in India, China-India political relations have further degenerated in 2021.
- China became an observer state in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 2005, and since then, it has been pushing to be a full member of the regional organization.
- China has also contributed$300,000 to the SAARC Development Fund. However, India’s long and continuous objection to Chinese membership in the South Asian regional forum has prevented China from becoming a full member.
- Other than SAARC, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation(BIMSTEC) is another regional organization
- Even though it was created as an “alternative” to the failing SAARC, BIMSTEC too has not made any significant mark in promoting regionalism in South Asia.
- There is a probability that the China-led “minus-India” initiative would undermine the existing regional process in South Asia.
- At a time when the SAARC and BIMSTEC processes are suffering an uncertain future, these regional organizations might see China’s new platforms as direct competition to their regional integration agenda.