Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who assumes the SAARC chair in April, has spoken of the importance of assessing Southasian regional cooperation “in the larger Asian context”. The implications here are twofold. First, Southasians must critically assess our own achievements within SAARC, measured against those of other Asian regional groups. Second, SAARC needs to engage more actively with such groups for wider mutual benefit.
The prime minister’s message this past December on the 21st anniversary of SAARC’s founding spoke of opportunities to “re-claim our legacy of interconnectedness to restore the natural exchange of goods, people and ideas that have characterised our shared Southasian space.” Clearly the objective envisaged was not to install the type of central control or conformity over the region as was imposed in colonial times, but rather to enhance connectivity within Southasia in various areas where such links have been obscured and obstructed – the reasons for which have been identified, but perhaps not adequately addressed.
At various times during SAARC’s adolescent years, bilateral political issues, as well as economic disparities and different approaches to development, acted as constraints to collective action. At the 14th Summit in New Delhi on 3-4 April, both the larger Asian context as well as the complex mosaic of bilateral relations within the region will have an impact on the extent of collective success that can be achieved.
In realistic terms, contentious bilateral issues cannot be ignored, as national interests, real as well as perceived, have obvious direct political impact at domestic levels for governments. Happily, however, in the current Southasian context such issues are being dealt with pragmatically – being at least managed, if not settled. At any rate, they are not currently posited as obstacles to discussing issues of a regional nature, nor are they holding up SAARC summits. The meeting of the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan, for example, which concluded on 14 March in Islamabad, was described as “fruitful and positive”, “a watershed” for Indo-Pakistani relations. In the past, faltering Indo-Sri Lankan dealings, for instance, have indeed caused complications for summits and led to their delay. The 6th Summit in Colombo was a single-day meet, although it did eventually establish comfort levels in the relationship between the two countries, as well as reaching a major decision on establishing the Independent South Asian Commission on Poverty Alleviation.
Beyond the borders
Establishing deeper, more substantial linkages with other regional entities and individual countries outside Southasia was particularly slow in the early years of SAARC. The argument was that it was essential first to achieve greater cohesion within the association, and to consolidate its programmes within the acknowledged SAARC framework, before reaching outwards. The 10th Summit in Colombo eventually noted proposals for developing cooperation between SAARC as an institution and individual states outside the region. Despite this, however, there was some initial rejection, later melting into reservations, about inviting high-level political officials (such as the US assistant secretary of state) to speak at SAARC forums on their political views and interests in the association.
By 1993, however, SAARC and Japan had reached a pragmatic agreement for the establishment of a special bilateral fund to finance select programmes, avoiding any political involvement. A similar agreement was signed between SAARC and the European Commission three years later for exchange of information, training programmes, technical assistance, trade relations and other activities. The Canadian International Development Agency did the same in 1997 to work on poverty alleviation, trade relations and projects for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS control. Meetings between SAARC and ASEAN ministers also commenced in 1997 during the UN General Assembly in New York, and have been held regularly ever since. Ultimately, SAARC has cooperation agreements with 19 UN and other multilateral and regional organisations.
During a hiatus in high-level political meetings in SAARC following the 6th Summit in Colombo in 1991, a vaguely defined distinction evolved between SAARC as an organisation and Southasia as a region of seven different countries. At a time when SAARC political meets were not possible due to bilateral difficulties, this enabled close, specialised interactions between ministers and other leaders in the region on the grounds of ‘Southasian’ rather than ‘SAARC’ meetings. Likewise, agreements signed with UN agencies such as the WHO, UNICEF and UNDP permitted conferences of ‘Southasian ministers’ on such focused topics as poverty alleviation, child welfare and health – minus the SAARC logo on their identity cards. Apart from their value in promoting regional cooperation in specialised areas, the conferences also provided opportunities for informal, closed-door, ministerial-level meetings among Southasian leaders.
The Southasian corporate sector, impatient with the political constraints on high-level meetings in SAARC, established a series of practical working relations within itself, which have acted as pressure points on governments to move more quickly on economic cooperation. In fact, the SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry established the South Asia-China Economic Forum in December 2004, which functions well. Similarly strengthening the Southasian nexus through practical dialogue and action in specialised areas were the SAARC ‘recognised bodies’ and apex organisations of regional professionals. The government-private sector partnership is well entrenched in the Southasian political lexicon, and support of professional groups has become an important aspect for governance in the region.
China indicated its interest in seeking some form of association or observer status with SAARC sometime after the 10th Summit, in Colombo in 1998. At the 11th Summit, in Kathmandu, the matter was considered at length, particularly the manner in which China (and others seeking status in SAARC) could participate in the association’s activities, and the extent of their engagement in any decision-making. At the summit in Dhaka in 2005, regional leaders welcomed and “agreed in principle with the desire” of China and Japan to be observers.
Currently, China enjoys excellent bilateral relations with all Southasian countries – although some are perceived as being more excellent than others. China’s economic rise has long been spoken of as an opportunity rather than as a threat. Beijing has established institutional linkages with virtually all of the world’s regional organisations – including ASEAN, the European Union, the Arab League, the African Union and Latin America. China also opened a strategic dialogue with the US in 2005. In the meantime, however, SAARC has been a notable exception. China’s foreign policy is directed to ensure a peaceful and stable environment both in Asia and globally, which would in turn permit China’s economy to develop without disruption. Towards this end, Deng Xiaoping spoke of “hiding one’s capacity while biding one’s time”. As such, China today retains a modest image, describing itself as a developing country despite being a nuclear power, a space power, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the fourth largest economy in the world.
At a conference on Afghanistan held in London in February 2006, China’s Foreign Minster, Li Zhaoxing, proposed a regional road network to link China and SAARC countries, including its newest member, Afghanistan. He also identified security as “the key to success in regional cooperation”, and referred to the three evils of terrorism, extremism, and separatism (which, incidentally, Sri Lanka and China have in several communiqués pledged to fight against). Li gave priority to combating these threats through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, in which India, Pakistan and Iran have observer status, and in which Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal seek the same.
China’s relations with India, the largest of SAARC’s member states, have steadily improved. Prime Minister Singh has said that after years of Western domination, “together with China [India can] reshape the world order”. A strategic dialogue is proceeding, and Sino-Indian border disputes are being settled outside the glare and blare of publicity. The manner in which the larger SAARC relationship with China is to proceed remains to be determined. Given the extensive bilateral dealings Beijing has with virtually all the Southasian states, however, China’s relationship with SAARC should not be less than the sum total of these individual bilateral ties.
It is expected that once the parameters of the future relationship between China and SAARC have been worked out, a study would need to be undertaken of the areas in which cooperation can be mutually beneficial in what Chinese officials call a ‘win-win situation’. Given the varied nature of the bilateral relations China has with individual Southasian states, the regional equation will need to move into areas that do not affect existing bilateral relations. Most recently, at the sessions of the National People’s Congress, which ended on 16 March, China acknowledged the massive problems it faces given the growing disparities in the country. Poverty alleviation, of course, remains a prime and common concern of all SAARC countries and of China.
Disparities continue to abound among SAARC’s member states as well, not only with respect to population, economic and military strength, but also in terms of criteria such as standing in the UN Human Development Index (UNHDI). These tend to help shape the relationship each Southasian country has with countries outside the region. In Sri Lanka (which enjoys the highest UNHDI rating of any regional country), President Mahinda Rajapakse’s economic vision seeks to achieve a balanced economic development benefiting all segments and areas of society, particularly comparatively disadvantaged rural areas. This could be termed as an essential corrective measure of localisation in a period of globalisation.
China, meanwhile, has been complemented by the UN Development Programme for moving 300 million people out of poverty in a relatively short time as “one of mankind’s greatest achievements”, and is now focusing added attention on marginalised rural areas. Academic institutions such as Sichuan University have already begun to hold seminars and workshops with Southasian diplomats and experts on poverty-alleviation programmes.
Of particular note is the proliferation of linkages that individual SAARC members have with extra-regional entities. India, for example, has multiple identities. Apart from SAARC, it has links with ASEAN and with states such as Japan, Korea, China and many others. While maintaining its own identity, SAARC as a regional organisation needs to venture its team onto a larger playing field – for the moment, at least into the greater Asian context, if not beyond. The observer status granted to SAARC by the UN General Assembly would be one avenue for the association to open wider its windows to breezes from outside Southasia – without, of course, being blown off its feet.
Himal Southasian would like to be among the first to welcome Afghanistan into its formal membership of SAARC. Three decades of occupation, war, autocratic regimes and ethnic and political conflict have kept from Afghanistan and its citizens the peace and opportunities for progress that they deserve, while leaving the country with neither basic infrastructure nor services, nor even the benefits of institutional memory enjoyed by most of its neighbours. As Afghanistan works to build itself up anew in the face of continuing insurgency, the editors, together surely with the rest of Southasia, hope that involvement in the network inherent to a regional association will help in the Afghan quest for permanent security and prosperity. We celebrate, too, Afghanistan’s entrance into an organisation that has long missed its presence. We look forward to the formal entrance of this old friend as indicative of Afghanistan’s true return to the region, after having been sealed off for some thirty years. With the presence of Afghan representatives in governmental and non-governmental forums in years to come, we will surely see added perspective to conversations on pressing matters of security, development, modernisation, diplomacy and cultural transformation.
~ Nihal Rodrigo is former secretary-general of SAARC, presently Sri Lanka’s ambassador to China.
Image: Penguin India
Penguin India withdraws The Hindus
On 11 February 2014, Penguin India decided to recall and destroy all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. The decision was part of an agreement between them and Shiksha Bachao Andolan, a Hindu campaign group that filed a case against the publishers in 2010, arguing that the book was insulting to Hindus and contained “heresies”.
From our archive:
Diwas Kc reviews The Hindus: An Alternative History. (March 2010)