After a three-year gap, leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) met in a Summit held in Kathmandu, Nepal, on 26-27 November 2014. It was an occasion to assess SAARC’s efforts to consolidate regionalism in South Asia, and Bangladesh’s role in the context. SAARC as the premier South Asian regional organisation has completed the 29th year of its establishment and has already witnessed 18 summits with declarations and programs of action of far reaching significance for approximately 1.4 billion people living in the region (1/5th of the world's population).
SAARC was born and developed via the adoption of a ‘functional approach’ of cooperation in non-controversial areas like society and culture. Since 1985, SAARC has evolved slowly but continuously both in terms of institutions and programs. That the organisation has provided a sense of regional identity within South Asia and beyond may be celebrated as its major contribution.
While the 17th SAARC Summit was held with the slogan of “Building Bridges,” the 18th Summit was themed on “Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity.” It gives a clear indication of the resolution and vision for effective regional cooperation in South Asia. There were high hopes and expectations vis-à-vis the 18th SAARC Summit, particularly for the prospect of signing three important agreements: two on regional transport connectivity, and one on energy cooperation. Despite the clarity on the first day of the Summit that no agreement was going to be signed due to reservations of some SAARC members who cited incomplete ‘internal processes’, Bangladesh kept hope and pressed for signing the agreements.
Dhaka maintained its diplomatic maneuver to salvage the Summit by signing at least one deal if not all. Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AH Mahmud Ali confirmed that Dhaka initiated a hectic effort during the summit to sign the energy cooperation agreement at the least. Finally, the foreign ministers of the eight SAARC countries signed the SAARC Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation (Electricity) in the presence of their heads of state and governments during the concluding ceremony of the Summit.
Perhaps as the lone member, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina categorically stated in her speech that, “Bangladesh will appreciate the early signing of the Regional Motor Vehicles Agreement and the Regional Railways Agreement.” Overall, Hasina’s speech at the Summit reflects Dhaka’s strong determination to move ahead with South Asian regional integration. She has emphatically called upon the member states to go for more realistic, result-oriented and mutually beneficial partnership for cooperation to prosper together. She has also appealed to the SAARC members to move forward, leaving behind all discords. In her words, “What is needed is to set aside our differences and work on collective strength for bringing real progress to the people in the region.”
The 36-point Kathmandu Declaration 2014 has accommodated Bangladesh’s new vision for collective development in the region bounded by the waters of the Bay of Bengal. According to the 15th point in the Declaration, the SAARC leaders recognised “the manifold contributions of ocean-based Blue Economy in the SAARC Region and the need for collaboration and partnership in this area.” It may be emphasised here that the current government in Dhaka has been pushing this idea of establishing a ‘blue economy’ in the backdrop of peaceful resolution of bilateral maritime disputes with Myanmar and India.
Bangladesh has taken the full advantage of corridor diplomacy of the SAARC Summit which is a major feature of SAARC’s role in improving bilateral relations via a multilateral forum. While SAARC is constrained by its Charter from discuss bilateral disputes and contentious issues, the Forum has contributed significantly to diffuse tensions and improve bilateral relations through informal meetings between the leaders. In this context, Hasina has scored diplomatic gains both for her government and the state. She met all SAARC leaders, including representatives from some observer members. Hasina’s meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is critical as the two leaders met for the second time in three months – which is a rare occurrence. Both the leaders exchanged highly positive views on further strengthening the bilateral relations and, more importantly, the ratification of Land Boundary Agreement by the Indian Parliament and conclusion of the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement. Sheikh Hasina’s brief meeting with her Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif and other leaders boosted the image of her government in the South Asian neighborhood.
While it is true that skeptics and optimists are equally unhappy with the SAARC’s performance, one has also to reckon with the reality that today, South Asia observes multiple processes and dimensions of regionalism. However, the fact remains that one can hardly think of the future of regional cooperation in South Asia, or for that matter regionalism, without SAARC. The new vision of SAARC to promote regional cooperation and solidarity in South Asia must start with a concrete plan of the restructuring of the organisation and implementation of the decisions of SAARC.