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Periodic conflicts between India, Pakistan have not helped Saarc

Periodic conflicts between India, Pakistan have not helped Saarc

Oct 27, 2014-

Preparations for the 18th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) Summit, to be held in Kathmandu on November 22-27, are well under way. Expectations from the Summit—which is meeting after a three-year hiatus—are muted. In its nearly 30-year history, Saarc has been criticised for its failure to achieve tangile success, unlike other regional groupings. Pranaya SJB Rana spoke to former Foreign Minister Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, who heads the National Advisory Committee for the 18th Saarc Summit, about Saarc’s shortcomings, its future, and the Kathmandu Summit’s theme of ‘connectivity’.

While other regional groupings in Europe and Asia have taken off, Saarc seems to be stuck. Where did we go wrong?

Much was expected when the organisation came into being in 1985 when the first meeting was held in Bangalore. This was followed by the successful union of European nations which had gone to war in the previous centuries. They joined hands, they expanded the market, and they opened the gates to each other. In a sense what started as a coal community ended up becoming a union with comparable foreign policy, coordinated economic policy, and with almost comparable social and legal framework. The success of EU was followed by Asean, in our own neighbourhood.

South Asia became independent of the empire in the middle of the last century. The newly-free countries were busy just pruning up their own affairs, organising themselves. So, the vision of collective approach was absent in the beginning. But the success of EU and the equally promising Asean, the birth of Nafta in North America, ECLA in Latin America, all these were pointing at the need for South Asia to come closer to each other. Still, it has been a slow process of institution building in South Asia. In fact, Bangladesh and Nepal took the initiative. Other countries were either ambivalent or somewhat suspicious. This is where Saarc is behind in implementing the resolutions that have been passed, such as Safta. The crux of regional cooperation is the advantage of collective approach for market expansion so that it is a win-win situation for every country. The perception of a weak Saarc is correct, but that has been said of other regional organisations as well. Recently, since the change of leadership in India, there is a sign that India will take a lead to pull together the neighbours and it might lead towards a more open dialogue.

Has long-standing tensions between India and Pakistan acted as an obstacle to the growth of Saarc?

Periodic conflicts between the two largest members of Saarc have not helped. There have been times when Saarc was unable to meet. In 2004, the Saarc Summit was in Lahore. Nepal was the chair at the time. For me, as a foreign minister, I had to fly via Dubai. These are periodic difficulties based on conflicts, based on narrow perceptions of national securities, leading to a non-dialogue or suspicions. What is needed now is to allow for implementation of resolutions whether you are talking about terrorism, trade, connectivity, and environment. This is where we need more dialogue. Recently the government formed an advisory committee, knowing the importance of Saarc and of Nepal’s role as a chair, to figure out how to further the cause of effective implementation, to assess things that have gone wrong, and to restart things that have either not set off or are moving slowly. The committee has given its recommendation to the government.

Our focus is on two things. One is the charter guides do not give any liberty to a sub-regional approach. All eight countries have to agree to everything. The charter cannot be reviewed very early on the formation of an organisation, but maybe some kind of taskforce can be formed to look into how Saarc can be made more effective as a committee of all eight countries. On the implementation side, what has been said is that the Secretariat needs to be strengthened. It has to be more than a post office. It has to be staffed with competent people. The advantage of the EU is that their Secretariat is very strong. Politicians discuss and arrive at a solution but the implementation is done by the Secretariat. Nations do not appoint their own party people.

Within this region, new sub-regional groupings such as Bimstec have come up. Do you think they will complement Saarc or will offer needless competition to Saarc?

Bimstec came into being when Saarc was in a slumber. Many member countries were very frustrated with the slow progress of Saarc and were looking for alternatives. If the presence of India and Pakistan and the continued tension between the two countries creates problems in Saarc, maybe we should create another institution with either of the two in. But Bimstec too has become a victim of slow regional approach. One, they are geographically very far apart, as far as border connectivity goes. Take Nepal for instance. Nepal has very limited trade with Thailand and Myanmar, who are both Bimstec members. For countries in South Asia, the focus should be on Saarc. In spite of the slow progress, there is no alternative to Saarc.

Despite the slow progress, there is a growing world interest in South Asia and a few states have requested observer status in the organisation. How can Saarc capitalise on this interest?

The most important thing is the implementation of resolutions. If that goes into creating opportunities, others will come to us. The observer status is the natural outcome of progress. China now is an observer, so are the US, Japan, and South Korea. But Saarc itself has not been as outgoing. Its outreach is somewhat narrow. In the beginning, some countries wanted to provide some resources for exploration and research. The approach taken by Saarc was of exclusion; it did not want outsiders to invest in Saarc.

Today, there is an atmosphere of expectation and an understanding that the regional unity is required. India, the largest country in the region, has shown a very positive outlook. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited all the governments to his oath-taking ceremony. He is also focusing on the region, saying that India’s rise depends on the support of its neighbours. As we are about to meet next month in Nepal, there is a reason to be optimistic about the future of Saarc.  

Let’s talk about Safta, the cornerstone of trade relations in South Asia. Because India is so large, Saarc countries trade more with India, than with each other. How do you make the intraregional trade more effective?

That is a reality. You cannot refute it. Every member country has been trying to trade with the US, EU, and Thailand. Also because we are dealing with different kinds of products. But the essence of regional cooperation is expansion and integration of market. Unless you achieve it by expanding investment in infrastructure, the market does not expand. Let’s talk about tourism, for example. We can provide incentive for the tourists who come to India  to come to Nepal as well and vice versa. We can make it easier for tourists who come to Sri Lanka to come to Nepal or to the Maldives. There are complementary endeavours where a collective approach will be the win-win situation. Let’s take airlines. At one time, even a major carrier like Air India did not go to all eight countries. There was a time when Nepal had air connections with the Maldives, Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Nepal was the only country, with its small airlines, to have connected with these counties. But gradually things fell apart, partly because of conflict, but also because of lack of coordination. Look at Europe, the concept of borders is a geographic exercise, with free trade, free visa. To say that we would like to emulate EU is to say the obvious. Smaller achievements will take us to our ultimate destination. In some ways, we are the prisoners of our own history: history of conflicts and history of isolation. In some ways, we are still parochial. But slowly the difficulties of the past are being eroded. We are at a critical stage.

Has this fed into the theme of the Summit, which is connectivity again this year?

Connectivity is not a year-long exercise. In one way or another, connectivity is a long-term goal. It does not happen right away just because we wish it. Just think of the need to invest in the roads connecting all the eight countries. On the face of it, we are asking for investment. This is where the large countries have advantage over small countries. And this is where India, now with Modi talking about the region more often than any other Indian Prime Ministers, will give vent to better, trusting environment so that things move in the right direction. As I said, there is hardly anything that has not been discussed in the last 29 years. So much has been resolved and yet so little has been achieved. This poor record needs reflections. The kind of excitement and interest the rest of the world has shown towards Saarc needs to be revived. Saarc has a future. Based on what we were seeing in the last few months, it might be the reawakening it needed.

Would you say that the Saarc has a broad, strategic vision and if it does, what is it?

The vision is in the charter itself. The charter says almost everything the EU has achieved. So, it’s not absence of vision. It’s the collective effort to make that vision a reality that we need. The devil is in the details. So, take only that which can be immediately achieved so that there is optimism in the air. We are talking about Saarc fund, food bank, mechanism for a change – everything has been talked about. The sincerity with which we pick up a theme and implement it with the earnestness it needs is what is missing.

Published: 27-10-2014 08:14

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