Prior to the SAARC 16th Summit held in Bhutan’s capital Thimphu in April 2010, Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed had affirmed his hopes about the bilateral meeting between Indian PM Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani. Since bilateral issues cannot officially be tackled in the multilateral forum of SAARC, this comment reflected the common feeling among SAARC member States that the Indo-Pak relations overshadow SAARC meetings. The incapacity of its member States to discuss political issues restrains SAARC’s credibility as a regional organization, but isn’t that the only way for such a discordant association to overcome its divisions? Can the Association learn anything from the ASEAN experience? Does 16th Summit offer any hope for a stronger political dialogue within SAARC in the future?
One of the reasons for creating a regional organization is the shared conviction among neighbours that the stronger the regional links, the lower the incentive to use force to resolve conflicts. In this sense, ASEAN Nations signed in 1975, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia adopting the principles of renunciation to the threat or the use of force, and settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful manner. Disputes have not been necessarily absent in Southeast Asia since then, but their common conviction that getting on with each other is an economically win-win situation forced the respect of agreed principles – mainly because, unlike SAARC’s members, ASEAN States are economically interdependent. Because of their complex and confrontational history, SAARC member States have not reached such a level of regional commitment. They agreed to contribute to mutual trust in the region through non-use of force and non-interference, but the absence of political dialogue on bilateral issues made these promises meaningless. Consequently, the threat or use of force between member States of SAARC has remained possible.
The main difference between ASEAN and SAARC lies in the existence of practical diplomatic tools to address these issues. ASEAN member States and other regional and international stakeholders created in 1994 the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) to promote confidence-building and develop preventive diplomacy in the region. Often criticized for its lack of efficiency in tackling long-standing issues like Myanmar’s democratization, the ARF has nevertheless established a diplomatic forum to address these specific concerns. A SAARC Regional Forum to discuss disputes would be a proper way to take political pressure away from SAARC Summits but the creation of such a mechanism seems unlikely as long as SAARC lacks a common vision of regionalism. Pakistan and Sri Lanka are in favor of amending the SAARC charter to enable discussion on bilateral issues: they both believe that economic cooperation can’t be achieved without a resolution of political issues first. India, on the contrary, prefers economic cooperation to be the main driving force of regionalism, for fear that the smaller countries might form a united front to overrule Delhi and with the idea that political gains will follow. Unanimity being the one and only decision procedure, a stronger regional political dialogue is not in all likelihood a potential perspective.
It seems SAARC could learn a lesson from the success of informal diplomacy within ASEAN. Informal negotiations over the Spratly Islands dispute have been efficient in creating confidence-building between the actors and peaceful cooperation while official consultations, subjected to media pressure, focused merely on nationalist demands. Since SAARC’s official track is blocked, member States have also used bilateral meetings outside the summits to discuss their security issues. The meeting between Yousaf Raza Gilani and Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the 16th Summit also proves the relative success of informal sideline diplomacy. Officially discussing political disagreements during the SAARC Summits would probably threaten dialogue on any other subject and even the very existence of SAARC. Keeping the discussions informal and bilateral allows SAARC to slowly but surely move forward on less controversial issues such as poverty reduction. In a nutshell, proponents of a Charter reform should resign themselves to the idea that bilateral diplomacy is probably the only solution to create a stronger SAARC.
Another explanation for ASEAN’s comparative success in conflict management is the use of alternative dispute resolution, through justice or mediation. If ASEAN countries favor bilateral conflict resolution, the principle of non-intervention pushed them to use the International Court of Justice to resolve territorial disputes like the sovereignty over Pulau Ligitan and Pulau Sipadan in 2002 and over Pedra Branca, Middle Rock and South Ledge in 2008. If the recourse to third-party mediation did not determine maritime boundaries, it was often the only way to break impasses and initiate bilateral negotiations. But the lack of confidence in international bodies and the Indian satisfaction with status quo in Kashmir make the use of international justice less likely within SAARC. To conclude, if international and regional ways to deal with disputes are efficient for ASEAN States, it seems bilateral discussions are the only foreseeable solution to make SAARC work in the fields of economic and social development. In this sense, India, as a leading member of SAARC, has a responsibility in convening informal bilateral negotiations with its neighbors to deal with regional disputes.