International Relations

South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation: Admitting & Amending the failure

“Fractious and quarrelsome neighbors do not make a prosperous community”               

                                                                                                                    – Jigme Thinley

Countries sharing common regional space often involve in enmity and affect the fortunes of all states in the region, making region unstable and unattractive. With the tension among states, idea of regional cooperation among south Asian states evolved in 1980 and established SAARC in 1985 comprising India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Maldives. The tension among states was clearly mirrored in the final formal documents, excluding controversial bilateral issues and stipulates that decisions made must be unanimous. The motivation to form regional bodies is simple, neighbors are better off in friendly atmosphere rather than fractious and this has to be facilitated by Regional co-operation. However, the formation of SAARC has not blunted the historical irritants between member states nor ameliorated distrust and suspicion among members and that kept the contentious issues off its agenda1.

While organisation was designed to facilitate cooperation in economic and social progress, it has been criticized to achieve very little and perceived as a failure both within and outside the region. Unlike the ASEAN or EU, all members are located within a close proximity of one another and all are part of WTO, then too trade between the SAARC states has remained limited2. India is the most powerful among SAARC states and it has been advocated that the smaller region felt insecure because of the big brother attitude of India. The glaring trouble for SAARC is the tension between India-Pakistan relations, which had significant impact on the growth of regional body, which is the main reason of failure of SAFTA (South Asia Free Trade Agreement). Leaders of SAARC states admitted the collective failures due to mutual differences, particularly addressing the conflicts of India-Pakistan, and the abortive role of SAARC in alleviating poverty3.


Thinley addressed that, the SAARC came into existence to encourage development and also to raise the living standards of people from SAARC states but our journey so far is not remarkable. Due to squabbles and tension between member states, he added, we are losing focus and had prevented implementation of numerous toothless, commitment to change4. The structure of SAARC often makes regional cooperation difficult. It is difficult in regional organisation for “countries in establishing balanced relations when one country posses asymmetrical advantage over others.” In South Asia, India is the most powerful country, given its size and centrality in the region and shares a land or maritime boundary with all the SAARC countries making it pre-eminent power in the region and able to influence the conduct of other member states.5

The geographic uniqueness and rapid economic growth makes India stand out as a logical driver for success of SAARC. However, India’s potential on SAARC has been advocated as hegemonic and has led to a sense of insecurity amongst smaller nations.6 Indeed, while the smaller states in region may need India’s support to foster economic growth, they are reluctant to work with India, fearing of its dominance on SAARC by cooperating work with India. However, very less has been done by India to allay the fears of other states and to counter it some country forged ties with china to balance the influence of India. Campaigning of Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan for china’s entry into SAARC is viewed by India to marginalize its influence in the region7. In 2010 India vetoed to convert the status of china from observer to full, might be to protect the interest of country in light of the role of Pakistan and China8.

The remarkable growth of India could act as an anchor of the whole region that is certainly very much needed. Despite Impressive success of India, South Asia as a whole is plagued by extreme-poverty, immense income disparity, and fundamental problem of infrastructure, energy and the environment. On top of this there are also high levels of internal conflicts and political instability within the region. The disputes between states have demonstrated themselves in outright wars (India-Pakistan), low-intensity Conflicts (India-Bangladesh and presence of Indian army in Sri Lanka), cross border terrorism, hostile propagandas and arms race between region’s nuclear rivals. SAARC proved absolute failure to resolve any of these conflicts, which hampered its progress and resulted in stalled summits and cancelled meetings9, 10. South Asian states lacks collective approach and established a system of states with little or no commitment, formal or informal, to regional norms. SAARC needs conflict management but the commitment is lacking and there exists no consensus among member states on the guiding force of regionalism.

SAARC also faces disharmonized notions underlying regional cooperation for instance Pakistan and Sri Lanka advocated restoring peace and security by discussing political issues and also resolving bilateral conflicts where as India and Bangladesh is opposed to amendment of charter and convinced that discussion on bilateral and political matter by any alteration of provision forbidding inclusion of contentious issues will make things worse. Despite strong opposition SAARC occasionally uses a looser arrangement to resolve bilateral conflicts confining within economic or functional areas but unable to resolve political issues11, 12, 13.


AUGEMENTING THE FAILURE: Bilateral Alternative

To counter the ineffectiveness of SAARC, individual states are indulged in bilateral agreement to pursue their economic interests. India shares trading relations with the members of SAARC- Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. Pakistan and Bangladesh also share lucrative trade relations. However, these are bilateral trade ties independent of SAARCand have facilitated much of the trade that does occur in South Asia and have impacted SAARC in significant way14. The increase of independent bi-lateral agreements diminishes their dependence on SAARC to pursue their economic interests and it also shifts the focus of states from the region to individual countries. This diminishing dependence on SAARC to reach trade agreements and divergence of focus from region to self-interest highlights that; the states are prioritizing to pursue self-interest at the expense of regional economic cooperation15.



As addressed by Singh, indeed, SAARC has fallen short of its founding aspirations and acknowledged that, “the glass of regional cooperation, regional development and regional integration is half empty16.” On closer inspection, India’s prominence is one of the many hurdles towards steps of successful integration. The fear of India that its neighbor will join together to oppose the interest of country which is particularly relevant in the light of bulging relationship of China with Pakistan and also, due to its increasing involvement in the region17. Improving bilateral relations with China may be acceptable to India; however any attempt to balance or reduce Indian influence in the region will not be welcomed by India18.

Besides dampening spirit of SAARC, the indifference attitude of smaller states towards India, added to it, the little or no consensus on basic norms, rules and agreements, pervert India to take leadership within the region. The sheer size of India is seen as dominance irrespective of its behavior and often pointed out its role as a driver of South-Asia. India has to be broad-minded and generous to follow the policy of benign unilateralism, serving its own cause while earning the trust of the state. It has to be understood by India that without securing the region, the quest towards global power is unachievable, however, smaller states have to cooperate as well and the generosity of India should not be interpreted as its weakness19.  Without cooperating India it is not possible for smaller states, principally for Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, to trade, energy arrangements or other initiatives to develop and grow20.

Being the influential and biggest member nation, India needs to take lead, without which SAARC will never achieve its full. Also, India needs to address contentious issues to maintain good relationship with its neighbors without compromising its national interests. To remove deep-rooted mistrust, the smaller states have to play their part to resolve contentious issues, in particular, Pakistan and India should seek to resolve their differences, thereby bringing stability in the region.


Despite strains in relations there have been successes in the past years and has tackled important issues for the region such as development agreements, social charter and also the sensitive subject of fighting terrorism and has achieved acceptable results. Outside of internal conflicts and political instability, SAARC member states have things in common which binds them. Apart from culture, ethnicity and religion, SAARC states are also united by the fact that after years of turmoil, all member states are being run on democratic principles21. However, SAARC is yet to make mark as a viable regional organization and to achieve its true potential, stability of the region is desirable, beginning with Afghanistan and addressing uncertain relations between Indian and Pakistan, which is necessary to achieve regional cooperation as well22.

With the immense investment opportunity, economic interest in South-Asia is escalating along with the increasing importance of South Asia integration at political level. In order to achieve its full potential, member states should physically integrate the region to facilitate trade and economic relations and working towards sub-regional cooperation will bring stability and prosperity in the region. At sub-regional levels, efforts to create social linkage in the field of health, education, poverty alleviation, science and technology and tourism will bring the direct advantage of SAARC to populace23, 24.

The increased external interest in SAARC should act as a pointer for South Asia to understand that the bodies have more potential than the member states think themselves. Adopting multi-lateral approach and improving inter-state relationship, SAARC can project itself as a unified entity to improve international image. All the member states are showing positive economic developments making it potential investment location among foreign investors. With the established image of India in the world, it can take lead to attract foreign investors in South-Asia and also active engagement with the observer countries will boost foreign investment and development in the region. India as a regional heavy weight must take particular interest to expand the trade within the region as well and should foster the investment in the region to create consumer market, which had shown successful results for European Union. Being major player, India needs to act as a driving force behind the integration and should push forward the development of the whole region25, 26, 27.

SAARC has a long road ahead and needs to learn from the European Union, the strong convictions and the development measures designed to build trust; EU also had the difficult starting position like SAARC. South-Asian states have to address contentious issues to remove mistrust so as to create environment conductive to growth. Member States must shun their independent bi-lateral agreements to project themselves as a united entity and an effective organization, conducive to cooperation and trust, with India as leading driver would help the SAARC to grow.



1. Sridharan, Kripa. “REGIONAL ORGANISATIONS AND CONFLICT MANAGEMENT: COMPARING ASEAN             AND SAARC.” Crisis States Research Centre 2.33 (2008): 2-9. Web.

2. RAGHAV THAPAR.”SJIR: SAARC: Ineffective in Promoting Economic Cooperation in South Asia.” Stanford             University.

3. The SAARC experiment has failed – The Economic Times

4. Saarc-leaders-admit-collective-failures- Pakistan newspaper daily

5. RAGHAV THAPAR, op. cit.

6. Australian Government, Department of Defence. 5-6 Web. 14 Jan. 2013.

7. Ibid.  6-9

8. Delinić, Tomislav. Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung – Politische Kompetenz weltweit. 18. Web

9. Sridharan, Kripa, op. cit., 10

10. Delinić, Tomislav. op. cit., 9

11. Sridharan, Kripa, op. cit., 12, 13

12. Delinić, Tomislav. op. cit., 12

13. Australian Government. op. cit., 7

14. Delinić, Tomislav. op. cit., 20

15. RAGHAV THAPAR, op. cit.

16. “SAARC’s future hinges on India, Pakistan reducing trust deficit – The Economic Times.”

17. Delinić, Tomislav. op. cit., 10

18. Australian Government. op. cit., 9

19. Sridharan, Kripa, op. cit., 17,18

20. Delinić, Tomislav. op. cit., 10

21. Ibid 20

22. Australian Government. op. cit., 10

23. Ibid 19, 20

24. Australian Government. op. cit., 9

25. Ibid 18-20

26. Australian Government. op. cit., 8-10

27. Sridharan, Kripa, op. cit., 19, 20

– Dharmesh Patel


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