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Revisiting the Efficacy of SAARC

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By Dr. Raja Muhammad Khan

King's Palace, Thimpu Bhutan

The 16th Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was held in Thimpu, the picturesque capital of Bhutan on 28-29 April 2010. The summit was attended by all heads of the member states and representatives from the observer countries. It was concluded with a joint declaration issued by the leaders of SAARC. This Thimpu Declaration was titled “Towards a Green and Happy South Asia” comprising of thirty seven points, calling for “increased regional cooperation on trade and tourism”. This summit also marked the silver jubilee of this regional organization as twenty five years have passed by since the establishment of SAARC.

With 1.5 billion inhabitants, the South Asian region constitutes 1/5th of the global populace. Traditionally, the regional development has been hampered by abject poverty, illiteracy, and considerable unemployment. Besides, the unresolved bilateral issues, hegemonic designs of a major country and widening trust deficit have further relegated the chance of regional integration in South Asia. Over the past two decades, the problems related to the climatic changes have lead to drastic projection of submergence of some the areas of Maldives and other island countries. These trends have created fear among the regional countries about the role of major members of this regional organization to deal with Global warming.

With the vision to bring a regional integration and harmony, on December 8, 1985, the only regional organization, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established. The basic objectives of this regional organization were; to promote socio-economic developments within SAARC countries; the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve their quality of life; strengthening the collective self-reliance among the countries and contribute to mutual trust, understanding, and appreciation of one anothers problems. All these objectives were to be attained through cooperation within the framework of SAARC, based on respect for the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states and mutual benefit.

Unfortunately, upon completion of its 25th year, little has changed in the politics of this tumultuous South Asian region. Rather, the menace of terrorism, trust deficit, and falling life standard are the new additions into the inventory of the already existing regional issues. Since the charter of the SAARC forbids bringing bilateral disputes on the agenda, therefore, there remain mutual suspicions among most of its members about the roles of each other. While remaining wide-apart, none of the member state (less India), has been able to make economic progress, as politically they are not on the same page. On the eve of 16th SAARC Summit, the South Asian leaders realized the regional split and a few even sounded their concerns for the organization remaining short of attaining its objectives.

Like previous Summits, the prevalent Indo-Pak tension eclipsed the 16th SAARC Summit too. Referring to Indo-Pak differences, the President of Maldives Mr. Nasheed, said that, “I hope neighbours can find ways to compartmentalize their differences while finding ways to move forward. I am of course referring to India and Pakistan.” Regarding the sideline meeting between the premiers of India and Pakistan, President Nasheed said that, “I hope this summit will lead to greater dialogue between (them)”. It was indeed critically noted by all other member states that the adversarial relations of India and Pakistan “have marred progress in the regional body beyond passing toothless resolutions and espousing lofty ideals”. This was for the first time that the heads of some of the SAARC countries publically raised the contentious nature of the relationship, owing to the unresolved issues between Pakistan and India at this Summit, where bilateral issues are not mandated to be discussed.

This is true that the Indo-Pak tense relationship did not let the organization to realize its full potentials. However, this is equally true that, Indian antagonism is the real cause of this uneasy relationship. At the bilateral level, the meeting of Prime Minister Gillani and Prime Minister Singh on the sidelines of the 16th SAARC Summit was a great breakthrough even under the prevalent tense environment. The over ninety minutes meeting included one hour ‘one on one’ talks. The outcome of the meeting was the concurrence between both to resume the peace talks between India and Pakistan. The foreign ministries of both countries mandated to work out the modalities of the future talks. As per Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the meeting between two premiers remained as, “warm, cordial and engaging”. Furthermore, all issues between India and Pakistan including; Kashmir, Sir Creek, water and Siachin, were on the table and it seems like “a step in the right direction.” Mr. Qureshi declared that, “It (meeting) was very positive and concluded very positively. We have decided to move forward and have overcome suspension of the process.”

While there was a sense of warmth and hope for the resumption of the talks between India and Pakistan from Mr. Qureshi’s press briefing, Indian Foreign secretary Ms. Nirupama Rao remained guarded and cautious throughout. She said that, Prime Minister Singh was, “very emphatic that Pakistan had to act, that the terror machine needs to be controlled, needs to be eliminated.” Furthermore, Ms. Rao said that, both sides would work out “the modalities of restoring trust and confidence in the relationship and thus paving the way for a substantive dialogue on all issues of mutual concern”. The only positive indication given by Ms. Rao was that, India had agreed to “further meetings” with Pakistan “with a view to restoring a full peace dialogue.” At the same time, she said that, “trust remains low amid concerns about Pakistan-based militancy.” This comparatively cool response from the highest bureaucrat of Indian Foreign Ministry creates lot of doubts, whether India is in reality serious for the resumption of the dialogue process.

A similar course of action was followed by India after the two premiers met in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt on the sidelines of Non-Align Movement (NAM). At that time also, the positive outcome of the premiers’ meeting was upturned by India and he had to face big antipathy upon reaching home after attending the NAM conference. Nevertheless, Indian media and pseudo scholars made a lot of outcry that Dr. Manmohan Singh perhaps sold the Indian interests to Pakistan. After agreeing on not keeping the composite dialogue between two countries hostage to terrorism, Manmohan Singh backtracked from Sharm el Sheikh Declaration because of severe domestic backlash. What if Indian premier again succumbs to a similar domestic pressure?

Mr. Siddharth Varadarajan, an Indian analyst, wrote that India and Pakistan do publicly accept this latest dialogue as the only way forward. Nevertheless, “each is paralyzed by the name ‘Composite’. New Delhi is so allergic to it that it will not accept its use, while Islamabad has become so attached to the ‘C’ word that it insists there can be nothing else.” After all this composite dialogue, process has scored remarkable breakthroughs in core dispute areas since its initiation in 1997. Former Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri recently revealed that both sides were very close to an agreement on Kashmir. One might ask a question now that why India today wish for doing away with all of that and altogether ask for a new beginning? The fact is that a lot has been agreed during the various phases of the composite dialogue process by India and Pakistan for the resolution of the outstanding issues.

Similarly, the working groups of the both countries had reached to an amicable solution on the issues of the Sir Creek and Siachin. Only formal signature ceremonies were to be held to ratify the agreements. This clearly indicates that a lot of homework has already been done during the various phases of the composite dialogue process. This indeed is in the credit of both countries. Indian authorities perhaps have now given a second thought to these achievements, because they perhaps desire to continue with the prevalent issues between both countries, which, after all have been created by her. Resolution of these pressing issues would have guaranteed peace and prosperity in the South Asian region, which in turn would have left no grounds for India to remain as the hegemonic military power in the region.

Under the changed international scenario of 21st century, it was expected that wisdom would prevail and the country (India) forming 80 percent of the South Asian GDP would treat the other South Asian countries on equal footings. History is testament that no region has made significant economic progress until its countries are politically on the similar footings. Passing of toothless resolutions and espousing lofty ideals from the platform of the SAARC would make no difference, if there remain inter-state conflicts. The fact of the matter is that it is time for India to do some soul searching and give up the tendency for “one-upmanship”. For a regional integration in South Asia, its leaders would have to find amicable solutions of the issues like; Kashmir, water, Bangladeshi border dispute with India, Nepal’s energy crises, and Afghanistan problem besides others bilateral matters for lessening the internal strives. If bilateral issues are not addressed with an aim to settle these then may be SAARC loses its relevance.

Nevertheless, for now it is the only organization in the region that provides a forum to its member countries, where “South Asian leaders still meet, shake hands, and talk in spite of their mutual disagreements”. In this regards, we have the precedence of the surprise handshake between former President Pervez Musharraf and former Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee during 2002 SAARC Summit held in Kathmandu, Nepal. The handshake reasonably eased the tension between India and Pakistan, erupted because of the mobilization of over a million troops across the Indo-Pak border. Additionally with the increase in its membership, and joining of China, Japan, Iran, Mauritius, South Korea, Australia, the US and European Union as observers, the prospects of the SAARC to become a more viable regional forum would enhance rapidly.

Dr Raja Muhammad Khan is a PhD from Karachi University in International Relations. His special focus is on South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. Presently he is an Associate Professor with National Deffence University, Islamabad.

Dr Khan is a regular contributor to Opinion Maker.

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