Will SAARC finally take off?

Abul Ahsan

About twenty years after its formal launching in Dhaka in 1985 South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) is yet to find a firm footing in the region's agenda. Notwithstanding growing popular enthusiasm and several agreements, decisions and annual summit and ministerial level meetings, the organization is yet far from achieving its potential or even showing meaningful results.

Trade among member countries constitutes less than five percent of the region's global export and the situation about investment, which can boost regional trade and other exchanges, is even more dismal. The process of harnessing regional complementarities through development of transport and communication links, a major focus of all regional organizations, is yet to be seriously initiated. South Asian markets continue to remain fragmented by national trade and other barriers as well as absence of adequate facilitation measures denying the region the crucial benefits of economies of scale of production and exchange.

Lack of trust and confidence among states based on confrontational inter-state relations exacerbated some times by adverse external political and security environ-ment have prevented the organization from following a steady and viable course. To further complicate the matter, historical legacy, painful pro-cess of national consolidation in the face of stresses and strains inherent in under-development, economic and social disparity, sub-national and sectarian conflicts based on linguistic religious and ethnic differences have not too infrequently cast their shadow on co-operation in South Asia.

As SAARC steps into the third decade of its existence how does one assess the implications of recent developments in the region in political and security spheres, some of which are indeed far-reaching in nature, on the future prospect of SAARC. This is particularly apt when South Asia is falling behind other regions of the world where regional co-operation arrangements are gaining in popularity and importance. Membership of the European Union (EU) has recently increased from 15 to 25 and Romania and Bulgaria are due to join the forum in due course as decided earlier. Similarly, serious efforts are underway led by the US to expand the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) originally comprising the United States, Canada and Mexico to form a larger free trade area spanning Central and South America (FTAA). The July 2005 approval of Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement by the US Congress is an important step in that direction. In our own neigh-borhood India, China, Japan and South Korea are in diff-erent stages of engagement with the ASEAN Free Trade Arrangement (AFTA) currently in the process of becoming fully operational, as well as ASEAN plus Three initiative.

The security situation in South Asia has become particularly vulnerable since the launching of the US war on terrorism and attack on Afghanistan and Iraq. Growing involvement of India and Pakistan in the US political and security strategy has further aggravated the matter. The two biggest countries of the region have long been locked up in serious confrontation over Kashmir. Their acquisition of nuclear capability in late 1990s and the continuing missile and conventional arms race have added new and serious dimensions to their rivalry. India is currently said to have 95 nuclear bombs in the stockpile ready to be launched. The Al-Qaeda and the Taliban elements are believed to be maintaining close links with so called Jehadis and Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan and operating from the country. This is a major Indian complaint and cause of concerns for the US. According to a recent US intelligence report Osama bin Laden is hiding somewhere in Pakistan-Afghan border. The US, which is maintaining extensive military and intelligence presence in Pakistan and relying heavily on the government of General Pervez Mosharraf, is ostensibly seeking to maintain a balance in its relationship with the two countries.

By all accounts Pakistan's stability is fragile. The govern-ment is under continuing threat from the Islamic parties and militants who oppose the policy of support for the US. It is also under pressure from the political forces represented by the Peoples Party and the Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League. Equally, the US wants it to do more to curb the Islamic fundamentalists. In the situation the US is believed to be grooming India as a fall back frontier of the security parameter of the region separating it from the turbulent Middle East and Central Asia.

As it is, India which in recent years has achieved spectacular success in information technology, boosting GDP growth, and modernizing the army, is being courted by the US and the West generally as the emerging power in Asia after China. During the recent visit of the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the US the latter agreed to allow India access to peaceful nuclear technology. The US policy makers have been describing India as a strategic allay and exhorting its growing role and importance as a major Asian power. Some analysts see the US as trying to set up India as a counter weight to China's growing economic and military power.

Earlier Indian Commerce and Defense Ministers separately signed important trade and defense agreements with the US. The sale of sophisticated F-16/ F-18 military aircraft to Pakistan and India and highly visible joint US India military exercises under cover of defense collaboration arrangements have further complicated the situation. The Framework agreement between India and the US which has committed India to work with the US in an open ended policy of preventing spread of weapons of mass destruction, defeating terrorism and violent extremism, protecting free flow of commerce via land, air and sea lanes and collaborating in multinational operations will have far reaching implication for South Asia. Equally important is the reference by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about transfer of nuclear technology from South Asia (Pakistan?) and possibility of it's falling in the hands of terrorist groups (Jihadis? Al-Queda?) as he addressed the joint session of the US Cong-ress in 2005. (Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan is still under investigation for transferring nuclear knowhow to the so-called rogue states). The net result of these developments is to involve the region directly in a divisive and dangerous power game threatening its stability further and the prospect of SAARC. Will the forthcoming Dhaka Summit succeed in carrying forward the momentum initiated at Islamabad particularly on co-operation in vital areas such as trade, energy and poverty alleviation?

As it is, bilateral issues triggered by internal dynamics of states have often impacted directly on SAARC process. They took serious turns when vested quarters used them for political expediency. The question of equitable sharing of waters of common rivers has long cast its shadow on bilateral relations between Bangla-desh-India, Nepal-India, and Pakistan-India. The 13th SAARC summit was postponed by about a year because of the Indian leadership's attitude to internal political development in Nepal. Earlier in 1988 Indian action in helping the Sri Lanka Tamil minority led to the boycott of the summit by Sri Lanka. Similarly, Indian reluctance to sit with General Pervez Moshrraf, the alleged initiator of Kargil episode, aborted the Katmandu meeting at the time. It is still not clear what effect the attack on the temple site in Ayodhya by Pakistani armed infiltrators will have on crucial India-Pakistan relations.

In conclusion it may be emphasised that the forces of globalisation and the changing attitude about national security globally are breaking down traditional barriers to interstate and regional co-operation for mutual benefit. In spite of conflicting political and security interests the US trade with China has grown and in 2003 the latter enjoyed a current account trade surplus of $124 billion.

Similarly, Taiwan viewed as a renegade state by China is a major source of foreign investment in the country. Economic relations of China with India, Japan, and South Korea are booming even though there are several on-going problems between them and some of them are of a rather serious nature. There is no reason why the same should not happen in South Asia as well.

The author is a former Foreign Secretary and the first Secretary General of SAARC.

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