Prospects for SAARC: South Asian Aspirations for Regional Integration

By Dr. Srimal Fernando | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 12 2021
Columns Prospects for SAARC:  South Asian Aspirations for  Regional Integration

By Dr. Srimal Fernando

The regional integration process, especially in the South Asian region has been increasingly influenced by the shifting dynamics of power asymmetry in the regional order. Even with the progress that has been made so far, for South Asia, the path to succeeding in regional integration however, has not been an easy task. In comparison to the arrangements for regional integration in the developing world, it is relevant for organisations such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to set down procedures to strengthen cooperation and to efficiently accomplish its proposed objectives by adopting organisational and foundational modifications. 

Overview of the organisational effectiveness of SAARC

The broader regional integration of South Asia is bound to be affected by the inert participation in regional cooperation initiatives. According to some theorists, SAARC’s incapability in attaining the required authority to wholly implement regional integration policies has been a vital challenge in operationalising supranationalism in South Asia. Thinkers with divergent views debate that small Member States mainly fear about economic domination and the disproportionalities that could be brought about by the larger States. 

Pragmatically, SAARC’s organisational effectiveness can be used to gauge the degree to which its internal administration structures have been productive. The conspicuous flaws in the administrative structure of the SAARC lead to the unfavourable consequence of the SAARC Secretariat being ineffective in the aspects of decision-making. Furthermore, a large proportion of South Asia’s population is not entirely aware of the aims and objectives that led to the creation of the organisation. Lack of public participation has always hampered the effective implementation of its programmes. Another challenge has been the economic factor; the lack of adequate resources to drive forward the integration agenda. On the trading front, historically the region has seen a low degree of trade exchanges between its member countries. Hence, in an effort to strengthen commercial ties amongst Member States, the South Asian Nations formed the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA). 

However, a close assessment discloses that within South Asia’s sphere there is insufficient commitment amidst SAARC Member States towards advancing the regional integration agenda. Meaningful collaboration cannot be realised unless trust is enhanced between Member States, which in turn, can only be realised when antagonistic and bilateral issues can be settled. A key factor that would offer the impetus for integration is SAARC’s ability to wholly implement regional integration policies. A crucial factor for stimulating economic interdependence amongst Member States and decreasing the dependency on other Developed Nations outside the region is efficient regional economic integration among SAARC Nations. Hence, to foster regional economic integration in South Asia, regional policymakers need to consider supporting the harmonisation of their respective laws. 

Regional economic integration in South Asia

While regionalism has been regarded as advancing integration amongst States, new regionalism is mostly viewed as an alternative to multilateralism.  Whereas, new regionalism is considered to be an improvement over the deficiencies of the multilateral systems, a key element that provides the stimulus for integration are the prospects of economic gains that are generally linked with regional integration. While SAARC has made noteworthy steps directed at stimulating regional cooperation between Member States, much still needs to be done. 

Since the eight countries of South Asia are greatly reliant on trade and economics, regional collaboration amongst Member States would require common economic assurance via diplomatic channels. In spite of the SAARC countries sharing several viewpoints of history, culture and proximity, it was apparent that regional trade between them beneath the SAARC umbrella was low. It became essential for SAARC Member States to foster economic cooperation amongst them, as there were attempts aimed at liberalising trade exchanges including for sensitive trading commodities under regional arrangements like the SAARC Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA). Mainly due to policy restrictions that were implemented by South Asian Nations, intra-regional trade has recorded comparatively low figures. 

Several noteworthy changes have been observed in the economy and politics of the region with the conceptualisation of SAFTA in 2006. Trade exchanges over boarders of SAFTA’s Member States has moreover expanded and this has been especially advantageous for Small Nations such as Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bhutan that have made modest benefits as a consequence of SAFTA. Besides, considering that exports from South Asia are primarily agricultural products, the heavy taxes levied on these products has affected intra-regional trade. Two of the largest Nations in South Asia; India and Pakistan have been heavily engaged in trade with other Developed States. The objective of SAFTA; to decrease trade taxes to zero by 2016, has reinforced exchange ties between the Member States of SAARC and boosted financial integration between India and its neighbours. The proliferation of Free Trade Agreements in the SAARC economic zone has compelled a principal compromise between protectionism and economic liberalisation. 

Integration in European and Southeast Asian Nations

The process of integration in European and Southeast Asian Nations were initiated by the driving force of politics. Yet, the efforts towards regional integration subsequently varied in both models of integration. The stimuli for integration in the European case were the Governments of the European Nations and the regional institutions, whereas in the case of South Asia it was the regional corporations and the markets of the ASEAN member countries. Notably, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) model of integration is fundamentally founded on the Member State governments’ collaboration and allegiance to the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA). Unlike the ASEAN or the European region, which were hitherto industrialised and economically established prior to regional integration efforts, developing regions such as South Asia have to make greater efforts towards promoting regional economic development. 

Fulfilling the aspirations of South Asian Nations 

In summary, regionalism is a political venture that should discover compelling methods of relating to States, politicians, and technocrats. A vital tool for States to achieve such an objective is solid political will at the domestic level. It necessitates a strong appeal for integration by the regional heads, aimed at creating comprehensive national policies towards accomplishing social, political and economic development. The regional groupings of SAARC could grow into being vital institutions for developing and promoting the well-being of the people in South Asia and to equip them with a life of self-esteem. To accomplish this vision, SAARC delivered a structure that specifically supported its members, some of which were the Least Developed Nations. 

The disparities amongst the numerous economies of South Asian States that have their foundations in the administrative composition are yet to be efficiently dealt with. Effective regional collaboration in South Asia can be accomplished by concentrating on political signs and the determination of Member States for clear advancement towards economic integration.

About the Author: 

Dr. Srimal Fernando received his PhD in the area of International Affairs. He was the recipient of the prestigious O.P. Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and SAU Scholarship under the SAARC umbrella. He is also an Adviser/Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa in partnership with Diplomatic World Institute (Brussels). He has received accolades such as 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ in South Africa, (GCA) Media Award for 2016 and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) accolade. He is the author of ‘Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of South Asian Union.’

By Dr. Srimal Fernando | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 12 2021

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