Mention the acronym SAARC and eyes glaze over, people stop reading editorials like these and they turn the page – as some of you probably already have. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation has been a regional talk shop ever since it was set up more than 40 years ago, unable to fulfill many of the promises it made about co-prosperity, cooperation, poverty alleviation, energy self-sufficiency, and environmental protection.
Unlike ASEAN or the EU, SAARC is hobbled by its asymmetry. One member state has 1,000 times more people than the two smallest countries in the grouping. That gravitational pull, and India’s aversion to multilateralism in dealing with neighbours (combined with a chronic lack of political will among those neighbours to make SAARC work) has hobbled the organisation. There is cynicism about SAARC, even officials from member states publicly poke fun at it. But, like the United Nations, SAARC can only be as effective as its members want it to be.
Sub-regional groupings like BIMSTEC (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar Economic Cooperation) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative are somewhat more tangible. There are also Track 2 think-tanks and private sector initiatives to get the SAARC juggernaut to roll.
The 6th SAARC Business Conclave this week in Kathmandu was one such exercise where, besides the usual lament about unfulfilled aspirations, there was networking and useful sharing of ideas. As in all such SAARC-related events, the elephant in the room was India, and the need to balance its size with its status as an equal member state.
However, the dragon in the room was China. How can these economic behemoths be hitched to pull in the same direction, and take South Asia along? So far, Beijing’s foray into trade, investment and connectivity in South Asia have been bilateral, but its Belt Road Initiative hopes to go regional with the possible extension of the Qinghai-Tibet railway through the Himalayan Range, and across Nepal to India.
SAARC has been held hostage by politics, specifically the strained relations between its two biggest members, for far too long. Trade, investment in energy, river sharing and better connectivity within South Asia could help bind the countries more closely, and build on existing bilateral agreements, as US Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz argues in this week’s Guest Editorial.
It is incongruous that intra-SAARC trade constitutes only 5% of the international trade of countries in the region. Of all international investment in the region only 7% is between SAARC members. It is absurd that in this day and age the world’s most deprived region should not be working together to raise the living standard of its people.