A Summit of substance

  • Saarc leaders would do well to take up regional security for discussion, even informally, at the Summit
- Gopal Thapa
A Summit of substance

Nov 9, 2014-

Later this November, Kathmandu will be at the centre of regional and international focus. And for good reason, this time around. The Heads of State and Governments of the Saarc countries will be gathering in the Capital for the 18th Saarc Summit. Kathmandu is thus undergoing a massive facelift, bedecked like a soon-to-be-wed bride. Thanks to the Summit, restoration and reconstruction works ongoing at a rapid pace have at least given a new and respectable look to a city, otherwise languishing under piles of debris, neglect, and apathy. The media coverage has just begun to pick up, albeit only on the preparatory and programmatic aspects.

Region of many civilisations

Samuel P Huntington, in his landmark book The clash of civilizations, says, “Regions are a basis for cooperation among states only to the extent that geography coincides with culture. Divorce from culture, propinquity doesn’t yield commonality and may foster just the reverse. By and large single civilization organizations do more things and are more successful than multi-civilization organizations. This is true of political and security organizations, on the one hand and economic organizations, on the other.”

Saarc is a fitting picture of a multi-civilisation organisation. Except for India and Nepal, the eight countries of the region don’t share civilisational commonalities. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam are the three different civilisations they share. The economic, political, social, and geographic   landscape is also one of sharp contrast. Huge territorial asymmetries, uneven level of economic development, and low level of social awareness, followed by different political systems are what define the character of each member country.

Moreover, each member state is embroiled in inter- and intra-state problems. Pakistan and Afghanistan face serious threats from religious extremists. India, the most prolific member, is also raked with the problem of extreme poverty, bad governance, and the scourge of terrorism. The host country, Nepal, continues to smart under political instability and a prolonged political transition. Even as the Saarc Summit is almost at the doorstep, key political leaders have failed to reach consensus on the new constitution. It looks likely that the government and the primary political party leaders may not be able to spare themselves from the blush before other leaders at the Summit.

Saarc’s progress has also suffered from deteriorating bilateral relations between two of its most influential members—India and Pakistan. The two countries continue to endure a deep distrust, strategic in the main. No issues of economic, trade, or social overtones can make progress in an environment bereft of security and strategic trust. The fundamental bottleneck for Saarc to make progress is, therefore, believed to be the continuing distrust between Pakistan and India. Worse, their differences at the bilateral level have continued rather than diminished, as was expected briefly after the advent of Narendra Modi as India’s dynamic new prime minister. It is widely held that meaningful regional economic cooperation is to a great extent contingent upon improvement in bilateral relations between the two member countries.

Little integration

Saarc’s inability to score even a modicum of success in fostering regional economic cooperation is attributed largely to its inability to lend inadequate focus on regional economic integration. Many independent studies have shown that Saarc remains one of the least integrated regions as of now. The disconnect between each member country remains, despite Saarc’s more than three decades of existence. The capital cities of the member countries remain unconnected, even by air, let alone overland. Even from the standpoint of diplomatic representation, many member states still remain disconnected. For example, Nepal doesn’t have residential diplomatic missions in Bhutan, the Maldives, or Afghanistan, and vice-versa.

This lack of integration has also been one of the principal reasons that the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (Safta) hasn’t gotten off the ground. It is in this context that a theme, ‘Deep integration for peace and prosperity’ which has reportedly been adopted for the Summit merits appreciation. However, the substance is not the theme, its implementation is. And this is where Saarc has failed abysmally. Regional economic integration should, therefore, be the real agenda for deliberation at the 18th Summit. It has to identify a concrete programme of action to inject dynamism into the regional economic cooperation process.

Saarc’s founding fathers had thought rightly about keeping political and security issues outside the purview of the Summit during the organisation’s initial phases. Saarc would have long ceased to exist had such issues been included in the Charter. Thanks to the wisdom of the founding fathers, Saarc has carved its own identity—it has been recognised now as the South Asian way of life. Yet, this wisdom has not helped much in connecting the region, politically, economically, socially, culturally, or intellectually, even as Saarc has come of age. For the last few years, when Saarc entered its implementation phase, the region’s leaders did precious little.

Consequently, Saarc Summits have simply been a reiteration of the same old agendas, identified decades ago. New themes, such as connectivity and building bridges, have since been adopted. But the ideas and objectives contained in those themes have remained totally unimplemented.   Leaders gather at the Summit, sign some documents made ready by their foreign ministers, make speeches full of rhetoric—only to be forgotten once out of the Summit hall—and spend time on expensive retreats and sight-seeing. For this very reason, Saarc Summits are increasingly being viewed as occasions for merely dissipating the scarce resources of poor member countries on lavish holidays and retreats for the Heads of State and Government.

Building trust and confidence

Vernon Hewitt, an expert on South Asian matters, writes in his 1997 book, The new international politics of South Asia, “The potential for Saarc becoming a collective security arrangement is remote. Until this takes place it is fair to assume that the real benefits of economic cooperation will be denied.” Hewitt goes on to say, “In 1989 Pakistan suggested that, like ASEAN, SAARC should also take on issues of regional security in order to facilitate wider economic and regional issues…Yet, it is possible that SAARC could provide the region with a framework in which to establish confidence-building measures between New Delhi and Islamabad.”

There is a lot of wisdom in what has been suggested above. Perhaps the time has come for Saarc leaders to think out of the box and show real courage and vision in taking up issues of regional security for discussion, even informally, at the Summit. If the Berlin Wall can be demolished, if the mighty and monolithic USSR can disintegrate with time, why can’t Saarc discuss and deliberate on regional security issues for the sake of building trust and confidence, mainly between two of its influential members? Undoubtedly, this is a tall task. Nonetheless, can the two visionary prime ministers of India and Pakistan show the courage of conviction to pursue such matters? Also, can Nepal, as host to the Summit, dare to propose an agenda to this effect in the upcoming Summit? This would make the 18th Summit one to be remembered, one with real sheen and substance.

Thapa is a former chief of protocol at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Published: 10-11-2014 08:55

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