14th SAARC Summit: Time to end the South Asian Slumber?

Aparna Shivpuri Singh | 02 Apr 2020

South Asia has been the epicentre of political upheaval and mayhem in the recent past and this state of affairs continues to haunt the region as it gears up for the 14th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit this week in Delhi, an annual meeting held to discuss bilateral and multilateral issues pertaining to regional cooperation.

This summit comes at a time when member states are dealing with domestic turmoil in their home countries. The Sri Lankan government's struggle against the LTTE continues just as India and Nepal are coming to terms with Maoist insurgencies. Pakistan is still in the throngs of tumultuous protests after the suspension of the Chief Justice by President Musharraf, to say little of the never-ending hostilities against alleged Al-Qaeda inspired elements in borderless Waziristan and North West Frontier Province region. Since last October, Bangladesh was paralysed by violent street clashes between rival supporters of outgoing Prime Minister Khalida Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party and opposition leader Sheikh Hasina's Awami League. In January a state of emergency was imposed, elections scheduled for that month were indefinitely postponed and a caretaker government made up largely of technocrats backed by the military was put in place.

The backdrop that overshadows recent events notwithstanding, the summit comes with a few firsts that are likely to herald the birth of new political equilibriums. For one, Afghanistan will officially become a member of the SAARC. In addition, the EU, Japan, US, South Korea and China will attend the summit as observers for the first time. The role of the observers has not been clearly defined but as per protocol, they will attend the opening and closing session of the summit. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso and US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Richard Boucher are scheduled to be present in Delhi.

Even without the spotlight generated by these new developments, SAARC has enough on its plate for member states to chew on, over the two days of deliberations from 3-4 April.

Firstly, the economic performance its member states has not translated equitably into statistics on intra-regional trade. The figures continue to hover dismally around 5 percent, compared to 55 percent for the EU and 26 percent for ASEAN, even though this does not take into account the informal trade that takes place through third countries like Dubai and Singapore.

Secondly, while the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) has been implemented, Pakistan refuses to grant most-favoured nation status to India, a bugbear that has not gone down too well with the latter. In tandem, observers are yet to see progress on the three new agreements that were signed during the 13th SAARC Summit to promote trade and investment in the region.

Thirdly, some of the issues being tabled at this summit have been reiterated many times over. Boosting trade and easing visa restrictions to allow cross border movement of people represent political roadblocks in South Asia, which are likely to be met by the usual stonewalling. For example, India, which shares borders with Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan, is loath to ease visa restrictions, purportedly because of concerns over terrorism and illegal migrants. Non-tariff barriers are also an issue that demands attention as they add to the cost of trading across borders. For instance, Jamdani (a very fine cloth) sarees imported from Bangladesh to West Bengal are first checked in Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh, India) and, if approved, sent to West Bengal. This adds considerable costs in terms of time, money and documentation.

There is no denying that India, as the largest member country, has to play its part and one does notice a perceptible shift in the mindset of the Indian government. It has increasingly come to realise that a peaceful neighbourhood is imperative before it consolidates relationships with the outside world, and it is taking steps to improve the situation at home. It is in India's best interests to allay misgivings that neighbouring countries, especially Bangladesh and Pakistan, have against its intentions as the hegemonic power.

All said, India is beginning to assume greater responsibility in promoting regional trade and development. Of note is  the identification of 13 important border trading centres to promote cross-border trade. The initiative is US$200 million project which permits its border states to develop independent cross border relationships with its neighbours, without being stymied by the perception of federal overlordship.

India has been actively pursuing energy projects with Myanmar and Afghanistan, signalling a positive development as SAARC member states would do well to shift their focus to important issues such as energy, water, infrastructure and education. Recently, South Asian countries took up a call on setting up a South Asian University to be located at Santinektan, the abode of Rabindranath Tagore, in India. There has to be an encouragement of collaborative efforts in these areas, to maximise the utility of an institution like SAARC, whose relevance has increased, since it represents the only real South Asian multilateral dialogue platform. Perhaps the biggest challenge for SAARC is to work out a methodology for bilateral trade agreements to co-exist with SAFTA, as the "spaghetti-bowl" effect does seem to be eating away at SAARC's economic relevance.

The buzzword for this SAARC Summit is "connectivity" and India as the host is encumbered with the opportunity to end the slumber that SAARC has been complicit in. The entry of Afghanistan and the presence of big powers as observers add an interesting dimension, the repercussions of which will only unfold with time. But as far as the member states are concerned, they would do well to be fixated on the need to act collectively and accentuate the relevance of SAARC in this era of globalisation.

Aparna Shivpuri is a Research Associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore. 

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Submitted by K Yhome on 9 April, 2007 - 11:49.

It is Nepal and not Bhutan which is "coming to terms with Maoist insurgecies."  According to experts, closely watching the spread of Maoist groups in the region, some Maoist elements are present in southern Bhutan but have not assumed any serious threat to the Bhutanese government as of now.