SAARC: Regional Integration in South Asia

Following a series of meetings aimed at reaching a consensus, an initiative by Bangladesh led to the signing of the SAARC Charter by seven states on 8th December 1985.The structure formed by the SAARC Charter shaped a compact and strongly institutionalized base for the association. Four levels of decision-making with their subsequent implementation at the lower levels were established. The uppermost level encompasses summit meetings of the Heads of States and Prime Ministers. The SAARC member countries include Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Afghanistan is the eighth member of the SAARC.

The South Asian region is of strategic significance between the east and west concerning defence, trade, transport, population growth, and financial growth. Internationally, regionalism has come to be extensively acknowledged as a principal framework for economic development through cooperative engagement, predominantly in the context of spreading globalization. One of the conspicuous features of international politics since 1945 is the creation of regional organizations on the basis of shared vision and common benefits as well as geographical contiguity. These relations on the basis of shared interests have resulted in the establishment of several regional organizations.

SAARC is one such manifestation of an increasingly interdependent world. The idea behind the formulation of SAARC was to encourage peace, harmony, and financial growth through the collaboration of South Asian states. It also aimed at sharing the accessible resources, building trust among parties, and enabling partnership through dialogue and communication between leaders. South Asia is a region intricately knitted together with a shared history, culture, people to people contacts, and religious traditions. The SAARC region, with its nearly 1.5 billion inhabitants make up a substantial portion of the world’s population, and in any case, its position on the border with China places it at the heart of a vivacious world region. Notwithstanding the few critics who argue that the exclusion of bilateral issues is hindering the success of the organization,  this multilateral institution has enormous potential to mitigate social and financial issues of the region.  For the last 36 years of its existence, SAARC has had some notable achievements in terms of lessening poverty, safeguarding food security, strengthening energy collaboration, and above all promoting trade activities in the region. The economic and social prosperity of a country is significantly enhanced and safeguarded if it is integrated in the regional or global market as part of a regional block compared to its individual participation. Indeed, the advent of a number of regional blocks in Asia, Africa, and America is reflects the veracity of this assertion. A cohesive and integrated regional economy accelerates the economic development of member countries. Besides, member countries can also enjoy improved influence in dealing with the global systems of finance, investment, and trade. Membership of regional block also provides protection when it comes to deal with the challenges of shifts in the global political economy. This leads us to appreciate the fact that regional cooperation is crucial for prosperity of South Asian Region. Economic interdependency and synergy leads to the resolution of conflicts rooted in political differences.

The solution to mutual quandary is in peace and in an environment of negotiation and collaboration rather than of fight and hostility. For national as well as regional prosperity, Peace is indispensable. It is occasionally claimed that unless economic cooperation between India and Pakistan is regularized, South Asian economic collaboration will not prosper. Though the regularization of trade relations between the two countries is certainly critical for the success of SAARC, still the cooperation among other SAARC countries can’t be refuted.

Such as SAARC Free Trade Area (SAFTA), the SAARC Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA), the SAARC Food Bank, the SAARC development Fund (SDF), SAARC Arbitration Council (SARCO), the South Asian Regional Standards Organization (SARSO) have potential to support trade development in South Asia and across the globe for SAARC countries. The South Asian University instituted in 2010 is offering postgraduate and doctoral programs in numerous disciplines. SAARC has also managed to produce situations and forums for Heads of States and Governments to engage in much-needed talks on shared beyond the framework of SAARC itself.

On the security front, SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism deals with the steadfastness of member states to take active measures that perpetrators of terrorism do not escape prosecution and penalty by providing for their extradition or prosecution.  The changes that we are undergoing are global in scope particularly in the backdrop of the Covid 19 pandemic. The accomplishment of states in the contemporary world is measured in terms of being familiarized with regional and global trends. In this respect encouraging exports, attracting investments, and skilled labour, providing a favorable environment for international companies, building beneficial and productive institutions of research and higher learning, exercise political influence on the regional and global scene, and also branding the nation traditionally in the international market-place are worth mentioning. Those who come up with apprehensions regarding the growing influence of China in the region need to understand the fact that South Asia with CPEC is proceeding towards economic integration and regional connectivity. With the emergence of the corridor, the arrival of new political players in the region is something that can provide support for growth. China’s mounting role in South Asia, as apparent from seaports and corridors, will make it an active player in the region. Instead of blaming China, in order to achieve the vision of regional connectivity and development, SAARC countries should join hands and give up the political differences. In this regard, recently Pakistan invited India to virtually attend the upcoming SAARC Summit in Islamabad. The initiative is in need of being reciprocated by New Delhi, and it should walk the extra few miles to ensure regional integration. The good sign is that SAARC Secretary General Esala Ruwan Weerakoon visited Islamabad in December last year and discussed the prospects of the upcoming summit. Pakistan, in the quest of regional serenity, went forward with a pragmatic approach to invite India. This was sensibly recommended by Pakistan, as a way out, so that the obligation of consensus to hold the summit is fulfilled, and the moot goes ahead.

Pakistan’s geostrategic location makes it a potential entity to function as the bridge for linking Eurasia’s disparate regional integration blocs such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAU) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Consequently, it will offer the foundation for expanding CPEC in order to bring together the supercontinent’s many civilizations through a new pancontinental trade network, with the first such connected project being the PAKAFUZ railway through Afghanistan which could form the basis for a larger Central Eurasian Corridor (CEC). It’s vital to point out that this outstanding strategic goal effortlessly merges with Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP) and China’s harmonizing vision to link all of its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) partners more closely together. These thrilling potentials make Pakistan the universal pivot state. For future prospects, it is the obligation of all South Asian countries to address mutual regional problems such as the Afghan humanitarian disaster and the Rohingya refugee crisis. Clearly, SAARC can be an active tool and platform for safeguarding this particular purpose. Moreover, SAARC can offer a favorable and useful atmosphere to shape economic collaborations which can alter the quality of life of the people of this particular region. As SAARC celebrated its 37th establishment day in December, it further elevated hopes that the SAARC leaders will take far-reaching decisions to avert the SAARC from becoming unproductive and stagnant. Undoubtedly, there is no substitute to SAARC measured as an influential regional forum for addressing the concerns of the people of South Asia.

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About Saima Zaman 40 Articles
Writer is the Assistant Editor ‘Mélange int’l Magazine’, ‘The Asian Telegraph’ & Project Coordinator (COPAIR); a degree holder in communication & media sciences.