Too close, too far

  • SAARC should prioritise effective policy provision policies
- Madhukar Sjb Rana, Atul K Thakur

Nov 27, 2018-

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) are identical with respect to their aims, basic institutional mechanisms and processes. This is a striking fact since the ASEAN governing principles were used as a model during the drafting process of the SAARC Charter. Broadly, its decisions are consensus based, voluntary and non-binding. And, therefore, no country needs to change its policy or laws just because of an agreement in ASEAN or SAARC.

Ironically, it was only in 2007 that ASEAN leaders adopted the ASEAN Charter. SAARC did so in 1985. Till then, decision-making was described as pursuing growth the ‘ASEAN Way’—based on top down informality. With the charter in place, it now accepts that ASEAN should be rule-based with some binding legal obligations. The process is fundamentally inter-governmental with very little delegation of powers to the secretariats in both instances—with much less in the case of the SAARC Secretariat. In fact, a former Foreign Minister of Thailand (1997-2001), Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, was appointed to give it even more prestige and leadership dynamism. Let us keep in mind that Dr Surin was ASEAN’s choice for the post of UN Secretary General.

SAARC can be said to be founded on a grand hope nourished by several fears: given the harsh reality of long drawn Indo-Pakistan hostility and, not least, the overwhelming asymmetry of India vis-à-vis its neighbours. They are all ‘India-locked’, so to speak, if they have to trade regionally. After all, land connectivity is the sine qua non of regionalism. It appears a new attitude is dawning in India that may well go beyond what the Gujral doctrine has enunciated as India’s New Neighbourhood Policy of non-reciprocity in trade concessions.  

Innovations in institutional structures and processes, beyond the ASEAN model, are accounted by the presence of an influential, dynamic civil society in regional diplomacy. Hence, unlike ASEAN, they were able to find a place in SAARC’s institutional architecture. The ‘SAARC Social Charter’ is mainly the handiwork of the region’s civil societies.

Additionally, the 17th SAARC Summit endorsed the setting up of a ‘Conclave of Parliamentarians’ to deepen the political interface through broad spectrum political and legislative dialogue between parliamentarians. This innovation permits the influence of the national legislatures on regional policy making. It is often underscored that SAARC is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ ‘baby’ and so this is a welcome countervailing force, especially in matters concerning people-to-people diplomacy.  Owing to the greater depth of regional integration and the geo psychology of the South East Asians to do more and talk less, unlike South Asians, the ASEAN Secretariat is far more influential than the SAARC Secretariat. SAARC’s outstanding innovations, compared to ASEAN, is the establishment of regional centres and the South Asian University.

Furthermore, given their mediocre to poor performances, it may be argued that ‘Regional Centres’ exemplify the propensity for unilateralism in SAARC. Each national leader, at the time of the summits they took part in, sought to have an institution created in their vision—probably only to safeguard national prestige with no real sense of purpose or accountability for their impact.

The ASEAN Secretariat has effectively adopted more innovative approaches by moving towards the creation of an ‘ASEAN Score Card’ that basically helps monitor  both progress and compliance towards market integration. This is a clear sign that the ASEAN’s bureaucracy is more a managerial civil service as compared to the administration-bound bureaucracy of South Asia.

It may be underscored here that when Regional Poverty Monitoring was proposed by the SAARC Independent Commission on Poverty Alleviation in 1992, chaired by Nepal’s former Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, it was vetoed by the foreign ministries as they believed, across the board, that such a provision would erode national sovereignty. There is no overarching framework in ASEAN to develop its capacity to handle bilateral conflicts or resolve disputes. At least in SAARC, the annual summit is there for such purposes and the civil society and media are, relatively, very powerful institutions to push for change.

The ASEAN process was and is nourished by a common external security threat (China) as well as by the vast Chinese diaspora, which is behind the entrepreneurial spirit within the region. The ASEAN process gets its economic momentum from the Japanese ‘flying geese’ as it moved from South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong to South East Asia where industries seeking cheaper labour were scattered all over East Asia. While South Asians policy makers were guided by the traditional concept of ‘comparative advantage,’ those in South East Asia were driven by more modern theories of international trade—such as ‘competitive advantage’ and ‘supply chains’, which are totally non-existent in SAARC so far, except in the service sector.

The openness of ASEAN is to be seen from the formation of an elaborate architecture for pan-Asian regionalism in matters of economics and security. India, on the other hand, was reluctant to accept outside powers to begin with. Their current role as ‘observers’ is ambiguous. Observers remain passive nations whether it is the United States, China, Japan, Australia, Myanmar or Iran. Only now a small window of opportunity has been opened to them: they can propose regional projects.

This is one of the issues gripping the prospects of deeper South Asian integration: the lack of a sense of urgency among the member-countries of SAARC to come to terms with the changing geo-strategic scenario beyond their borders. Making effective provisions in policies to create a progressive way forward should top among the priorities; sustaining them must remain the heart of matter.


Madhukar SJB Rana is the former finance minister of Nepal and an economist; Atul K Thakur is a New Delhi-based columnist. They can be reached at

Published: 27-11-2018 07:41

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