SAARC – Impediments to Regional Cooperation

24 Jan, 2000    ·   309

Rahul Arun & Abhishek Srivastava outline the political and economic impediments to regional co-operation in South Asia

South Asia remains a region divided – divided between the hopes of rich and the despair of the poor. A region where the richest one fifth earns almost 40% of the income and the poorest 1/5th makes do with less than 10%. It’s a region where begins with the struggle of survival for 515 million poverty ridden destitute and tomorrow threatens the future of 395 million illiterate adults. The impediments could be divided into political and economic. 


Political Impediments:



The South Asian region has some of the most intractable political conflicts of the world. 



(i) Indo-phobia:- India by virtue of its natural endowments and economic infrastructure occupies a predominant role in South Asia . It occupies 72% of the area, is inhabited by 77% of the population and possesses more than ninety percent of resources in coal crude, petroleum and salt. To India ’s neighbour’s, India wants to translate it’s natural preponderance into political preponderance because of such an erroneous perception some of them (especially Pakistan ) suspect regional cooperation as a mask for Indian domination. They seek, to balance the "big brother" by developing close lies with other giants external to the region which hinders regional cooperation. 



(ii)  Strategic dissonance:- Mutual apprehensions and suspicions has led to divergence in strategic perceptions in the region. The imperative of jointly protecting the region from outside interference is ignored while governments separately assess the intentions and capabilities of outside powers to harm or benefit them. For instance-India’s and Pakistan ’s strategic perspective vis-a-vis china are totally different. 



(iii)  Domestic Conflicts: The domestic and ethno religious conflicts have also been militating against the process of regionalism in South Asia . These conflicts can be classified under two categories (a) Systemic (b) Ethno-religious. 



Military takeovers in Pakistan and frequent Political instability in India fall under the rubric of systemic crisis which derail the process of regional cooperation in the region. The huge ethno-religious overlap across border in South Asia (for ex-India-Pakistan /India-Bangladesh) often leads to a situation where purely domestic conflict has regional repercussions. 



(iv)  Bilateral Problems & Defence Expenditure Chronic bilateral Problems in the region has often led to postponement of SAARC summits which is a big setback to regional cooperation. Indo-Pak problem has often stymied the pace of SAARC ever since its inception. The Indo Pak dispute remains a potentially dangerous flash-point that could disturb not merely the peace of the region but also that of the world. This dispute above all keeps arms spending in India and        Pakistan at high levels and has committed both to the development of nuclear weapons and maintenance of massive defense establishments all of which consume resources which could be put to better use in programmes of poverty  alleviation in both countries. It also prevents the development of a common South Asian defense policy. According to Human Development Report in South Asia 1999, for every dollar spent on social sector Pakistan and India spend 4.32 and 1.70 dollars on defense and debt servicing respectively. Military expenditure in Sri Lanka (as a % of total Public expenditure) has increased by 450% between the period 1981-97. 



(v)  External Powers involvement A number of extra regional factor shape the nature and direction of regional cooperation. During the Cold War days India found a natural ally in Soviet Union whereas Pakistan was America ’s trump-card against Soviet Union in Afghanistan . The competitive power politics between the two super powers led to a huge arms race in South Asia which had an adverse affect on development in the region. 


Economic Impediments:



(i)   Economic disparities: Differential development levels and glaring economic inequalities in the region in areas of trade, manufacture and services etc. makes it difficult if not impossible to carry out a viable economic system out of the unequals. 



(ii) Lack of intra regional trade Intra regional trade among SAARC countries as a percentage of global trade has been only  4%. Restrictive trade policies of SAARC countries, dominance of foreign capital, competitive behaviour of economies, communication gap and lack of monetary cooperation etc. are the primary reasons for such a low trade among SAARC countries. 



(iii) SAARC countries compete for the same foreign markets, offering the same products e.g. Bangladesh , India , Nepal compete for ex port of jute goods to U.K. , E.E.C. and United States market. Likewise India , Sri Lanka and Bangladesh vie with each other for export of tea to EEC, UK , Japan & Australian markets. 



(iv) The lack of solidarity or common stand at international forums by these member countries has been another noticeable constraint. The SAARC countries differed widely at North-South dialogues and GATT negotiations, South-South negotiations, GATT and NAM because of diverse economic and geopolitical interest. South Asia also faces a unique dilemma of the lack of an appropriate model which might inspire emulation. Western European cooperation is reinforced, internally by alliances among powerful industrial, agricultural, humanitarian and labour  interest across borders. The US model of transnational linkages via giant corporations and military forces in both inappropriate and repugnant to South Asia . Perhaps South Asia could learn form the ASEAN experience where concerted action and a shared vision has made it a dynamic regional grouping. In such a scenario, it becomes imperative  to assess the impediments that SAARC faces in the path of regional cooperation in order to lift it out from the morass of  poverty and underdevelopment.