• 6

  • Likes

The last few decades have seen the proliferation of various multilateral institutions promoting regional cooperation, much in tandem with an increasingly interconnected world, grounded in the globalised network of nation states. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), founded in 1985, presents a milestone in recognising this all-pervasive spirit of collaborative mechanisms. With its stated aims of achieving ‘collective self-reliance’ through accelerated socio-economic development of the member states, SAARC was meant to serve as a voice for the region at international forums and a formal facilitator of cooperation with other regional and sub-regional groupings. Despite the ambitious advent of attempting a South Asian integration; over the years, the efficacy of SAARC as an institution has been beset with numerous challenges, most of which originate from the complex power dynamics at play within the region.

The idea of a South Asian union took ground in 1980 with the different nations in the region being beleaguered by the same concerns of poverty alleviation, boosting trade and the advent of economic liberalism. Accounting for a population of 1.6 billion, located in about three per cent of earth’s landmass, the region holds immense potential and SAARC was primarily steeped in the need, ‘to utilise cooperation amongst its eight member states as a springboard’ for facilitating development in the different sectors of the economy, socio-politics and culture.

Resultantly, SAARC expanded its corpus to include redressal of overlapping concerns such as drug trade, human trafficking, and most recently, the challenge of non-state actors in the form of terrorism; in addition to the herculean task of shaping a collective social identity. The wave of unilateral liberal economic reforms, undertaken first by India in 1991, and emulated next by other South Asian economies, gave impetus to formulate the South Asia Preferential Trade Agreement (SAPTA) of 1993. Buried within this context, was the fear of isolation of the South Asian region, set against the backdrop of regional trade bloc formations all across the globe and the ASEAN success.

The principles espoused by the organisation provide for, inter alia, unanimity in the decision making process and a perfunctory exclusion of all contentious bilateral issues from the discussion. The consensus by all provision, effectively allows for a veto to all members, paralysing the working of the institution. Coupled with the conflictual interests and bilateral conflicts between the members, the organisation has failed to achieve most of its stated goals and is regarded as a ‘zombie’by international relations scholar, Julia Gray, who highlights the ‘semi-regular operationality’and low performance of SAARC to put forward a case for its obsolescence. The power asymmetry among the states in terms of the Indian centrism and looming size in the region also imbues mistrust among the members. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to attempt an understanding of the complex intersection between regionalism in South Asia, power asymmetry, and bilateral conflicts, while at the same time exploring the viability of revitalising SAARC.

The failure of SAARC in forging a common South Asian identity has been analysed extensively. According to statistics provided by World Bank on intra-regional trade, SAARC is ‘one of the least integrated regions, with the inter-regional trade at a staggering low of less than 5 per cent. In view of the geographical cohesion, shared histories, and a formal institutional mechanism dedicated to the cause of uniting the region under a unitary banner, it seems absurd that the investment across entire South Asia accounts for less than 1 per cent too. The report also suggests that the potential of the robust demographic dividend of SAARC countries has not been realised under the aegis of SAARC.

Accompanied by the extensive evolution of SAARC’s agenda from an initial economic capacity to socio-political dimensions, Ahmed and Bhatnagar propose that SAARC came to incorporate social and cultural issues in order to promote cooperation in more discordant and vital areas. The arguments seem highly evocative of David Mitrany’s ‘trickledown effect,’however, the typical functionalist understanding seems to have failed in the South Asian region due to the tension and dynamism of the relations between the states. Similarly, elaborating on Julia Gray’s casting of SAARC as a ‘zombie organisation,’ it’s interesting to note that she gives due attention to the achievements of SAARC in ratifying the preferential and free trade agreements in 1993 and 2006 respectively. The term ‘zombie’ does not imply a defunct organisation, but one that operates in as a semi-regular facility and seems unable to achieve its set agenda due to the mismatch between its ambitions and achievements whereby, ‘theoutput in terms of progress on their goals falls below expectation.’

The ineffectiveness of SAARC vis-à-vis its performance index has been deemed as a case of ‘retarded regionalism by analysts. Kumar in his Gray inspired exploration of SAARC as a ‘zombie’ institution suggests that one of the aspects that affect the working of the organisation is that, in essence, it was ‘an unwanted child,’ pushed together by the threat of isolation rather than any other concrete logic as seen in the case of European Union, African Union and ASEAN countries which corresponded to different geopolitical realities. European Union followed a neo-functionalist approach and was a direct response to the project of rebuilding Europe post the devastating world wars. Locating a common external security threat, provided the instrumental foreground in the formation of ASEAN. In contrast, the African Union was enabled through the discernment of a strong, shared identity, following a ‘solidarist.’

In the South Asian region, national identities were forged as being conflictual, due to historical competitiveness and the trauma of partition dating the post-colonial period. Within this context, it’s not impossible to imagine that economic cooperation as a means of achieving integration, has been reduced to a secondary premise rather than the primary concern of the SAARC states. This is widely held relevant in terms of the India-Pakistan bilateral relations and is increasingly being noticed in India’s interactions with its other neighbouring states too. The power asymmetry within the SAARC countries stems from apprehensions amongst the smaller states regarding India’s predominance in terms of size, demography and economic prowess in the region. Bimal Prasad points out that the Indian ascendancy in the region is seen as a security threat by the smaller states, often contrasted with expressions of their willingness to maintain amicable relations with India.

The understanding of regionalism as a concept comes to hold a different meaning for different states when they choose to be part of any regional organisation and the interests that they choose to define is vastly subject to the relations among them. Most cooperation mechanisms tend to socialise their member states into a set pattern of acceptable norms, standards and values while delegitimising certain behaviour as was the case with the European Union. This exclusionary prospect seems to be amiss in SAARC where the members can’t even work out a definition of a threat since they vastly differ on how to define the concept of threat. Within this framework, the history of conflict between India and Pakistan set against the backdrop of the lingering Kashmir issue has also played a restricting role in the implementation of both South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement (SAPTA) and South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA). Whereby, the escalating tension between the two nations in terms of the military takeover in Pakistan and a nuclear arms race, led to the side-lining of the SAPTA negotiations and its eventual suspension.

Similarly, Pakistan’s insistence to stipulate a list of positive items to be allowed for trade with India under the SAFTA trade provision was contradictory to the terms agreed upon by all signatories to specify a ‘negative list’of items to be excluded from receiving preferential treatment. The first wave of tariff reduction in 2006 was not facilitated between India and Pakistan, and consequently, this confrontational positioning of the two countries inhibited the proper functioning of the SAFTA, creating disastrous ripple effects for the rest of the involved parties. Pakistan’s delay in reciprocating India move to accord it the ‘Most Favoured Nation’ clause also seems inconsistent with engaging in an economic multilateral institution for the pursuit of security, integration and development.

The issue of cross-border terrorism is another incrementally featured dimension in the constantly deteriorating state relations between India and Pakistan. With the recent case of September 2016 Uri Attack, India refused to take part in the SAARC Summit, slated to be held in Islamabad. Citing the responsibility of the attack on Pakistan-based elements and the alleged involvement of the state in fomenting these actors, India’s refusal was followed by different SAARC states issuing statements raising the same concerns, eventually culminating into the cancellation of the summit. India’s decision while criticised by some elements based in the neighbourhood does not mitigate the concerns that SAARC is a redundant organisation. This may be buttressed by viewing the frequency of SAARC summits in the first place, in the past thirty-three years since its inception, only eighteen summits have been held successfully. Seemingly constructive overtures made during the present year have also failed to reify into any possible normalisation of the bilateral ties so far, leaving the question of SAARC exactly where it was, laden with uncertainty.

Apprehensions among the smaller states regarding India are vastly rooted in the perceived notion of India acting as the ‘Big Brother’ in the region and the risk of the country pursuing hegemony by capitalising on its relatively large size in the military, economy and robust demography. The Nepal- India bilateral tensions have also stymied the working of SAARC in recent years with the political discourse in Nepal becoming highly imbued with anti-India sentiments. The growing resentment against the Indian influence in the nation has led to the looming China factor being regarded as a welcome change.

Hence, the regional cooperation between the SAARC states is impeded by the fact that the Indian predominance in the region has led member states to court Chinese investment in their economies as a tool of balancing against India. India’s security perception is forged with due consideration to its neighbouring states and is particularly wary towards China gaining a foothold in the South Asian region due to the conflictual geopolitical interests of the two nations. China also has the status of an observer state in SAARC and is wooing the island economies of Sri Lanka and the Maldives with multi-million dollars development projects under its Belt and Road Initiative.

The avoidance of all bilateral issues of contention serves as a grave weakness in SAARC’s mandate and structure, with the conflictual views of the members making the task of amending it impossible. The organisation was borne out of typical ‘functionalist optimism’ of economic cooperation paving the way to the resolution of political issues. However, the close interaction between politics and economics has made the interest in pursuing any viable economic opportunity secondary to the political dynamics of the region. Islamabad’s reticence from co-opting into any India led SAARC initiatives, such as the shared database, the satellite project and the trans-border road and transport connectivity agenda defeats the purpose of nurturing economic integration through the framework of SAARC. However, this can be juxtaposed by India’s refusal to accept help from Pakistan or any other country in ‘developing’ the project. There are genuine concerns regarding the idea that India is not willing to oversee the aforesaid efforts through a collaborative prism, leading to the dwindling impetus towards regional cooperation.

The South Asian regionalism with India as the fulcrum is also being considered through a fresh lens whereby the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) has emerged as the more favourable forum for regional integration in lieu of SAARC. India’s enthusiastic backing of BIMSTEC, as witnessed during the recent BRICS Summit, has helped revitalise the moribund platform. The shift of India in prioritising BIMSTEC over SAARC has been perceived in terms of, ‘the growing realization in New Delhi that the India-Pakistan rivalry will never allow for meaningful regional cooperation from within the SAARC framework.’

In addition, India’s Look East Policy has entailed several global and regional initiatives, such as the Trans-pacific partnership and India’s engagement with ASEAN, that attribute to the dwindling importance of SAARC. The SAFTA also fails to cater to its purpose due to the lack of commitment on the part of member states and the bulk of FTAs already being in place through bilateral agreements. The real purpose of these FTAs is for ‘stimulating trade between a South Asian state and a non-regional partner (Kelegama, 2015).’ Coupled with the lack of financial connectivity, inadequate banking and/or limited financial assistance channels, SAARC is ripe with major structural weaknesses. Even if reformed, SAARC may not be able to function due to the political milieu and power equations in South Asia.

The burden of bilateral conflicts and the repositioning of geopolitical aspirations and realities, particularly in the case of India-Pakistan relation, cripples the organisation acutely. The true barriers to trading in the region stem from the inability to inculcate compatibility among the states for the further exploration of economic, security and socio-cultural interests common to all. Suggestions of corrective measures towards the restructuring of SAARC range from a more enhanced financial connectivity to alternate organisations. However, prior to all the solutions remains the questions whether SAARC can actually be reformed given the lack of consensus between the states as to whether there is a case for reforming the organisation?

India’s unique position in the region - geographically as well as through its consistently increasing global power - disallows for any meaningful regional cooperation without the active involvement of the nation. At the same time, this imposing presence poses a dilemma for the smaller countries which either face the risk of being isolated in case of non-cooperating with India or threatened by its strategic interest and mileage in the neighbourhood. With these states often balancing through the China card, the ambiguity of the future of the SAARC and the South Asian regionalism remains to loom large. However, it’s definitive that without the resolution of the bilateral conflicts, there is no possibility for the revival of SAARC at all.


Batra, A. (2015). SAARC and Economic Cooperation. India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 41.

Bhatnagar, Z. S. (2008). SAARC and Interstate Conflicts in South Asia: Prospects and Challenges for Regionalism. Pakistan Horizon, Vol. 61 

Gray, J. (March 2018,). Life, Death, or Zombie? The Vitality of International Organizations. International Studies Quarterly, Volume 62

Kathuria, S. (2018). One South Asia.World Bank Group.

Kelegama, S. (2015). The Trials and Fortunes of Regional Cooperation Under SAARC. India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 41.

Kenneth Abbott, D. S. (1998). Why States Act Through Formal Institutions? The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol 42.

Kumar, R. (2018). South Asian ‘Zombie’: The futility of reviving SAARC.Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Issue Brief.

Prasad, B. (1999). Prospects for Greater Cooperation in South Asia. In N. J. Eric Gonsalves, The Dynamics of South Asia: Regional Cooperation and SAARC. SAGE.

Ramasubramaniam, R. (2016). Enough of SA(A)RCasm: Venture for New Directions.
Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

 Image Credit: Foreign Policy

Share this article

Written By Shatakshi Singh

Currently pursuing her Master's in International Relations and Area Studies.

Leave A Reply