South Asia Moves Forward, Cautiously, Unevenly

05 Abril 2007
The 14th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation has made cautious moves towards mutual co-opearation and greater integration in the subcontinent, reports Praful Bidwai.
South Asia, home to more than one-sixth of humanity, and situated at the junction of three important sub-regions of the Asian continent, has made cautious moves towards mutual cooperation and greater integration. Although analysts warn against taking the hyperbolic rhetoric of “a new dawn breaking out over South Asia” too seriously, there is little doubt that the region is making purposive efforts to fulfil its potential as one of the world’s fastest-growing economic clusters, as well as a centre of great ethnic and religious diversity. South Asia is also beginning to grapple with political ideologies and conflicts which have recently spilled over beyond the region, including Islamic radicalism and Western hegemonism. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has just admitted Afghanistan as its eighth member-state. Iran has been also invited to SAARC as an observer. Iran’s new status is seen as a statement of the importance it enjoys in the region—in sharp contrast to Western efforts to isolate Tehran. At SAARC’s 14th summit meeting, which ended here on Wednesday, the leaders of the eight nations that constitute its membership resolved to develop “cross-border regional projects” pertaining to four issues that affect their people’s daily lives—water, energy, food and the environment. They set up a SAARC Development Fund for poverty alleviation, with an initial modest capital base of $300 million. They also called for the full implementation of the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) agreement in “letter and spirit”, signed earlier. And they demanded a international convention on terrorism, “which would take every possible measure to prevent and suppress, in particular, financing of terrorist acts by criminalising the provision, acquisition and collection of funds for such acts.” “More important than these declarations is a combination of two moves made at the New Delhi summit,” says Anuradha Chenoy, professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “The first was the agreement to set up a SAARC food bank and also a South Asian University. And the second was a unilateral declaration by India that it would allow duty-free imports of all goods from the least developed members of SAARC, comprising Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, and Afghanistan.” Adds Chenoy: “The SAARC food bank can, if implemented efficiently and sincerely, address a major need that the people of this poor region feel. The region is home to the world’s largest number of people living on less than $2 a day. At the same time, it suffers from periodic shortages of food in different countries, coupled with surpluses”. India’s unilateral offer to open up its market to its smaller and poorer neighbours is likely to speed up regional economic integration. India already has a free trade agreement with Sri Lanka. That only leaves out Pakistan, which has made SAFTA’s implementation conditional upon a resolution of its political and boundary disputes with India, especially Kashmir. As of now, intra-SAARC trade accounts for less than five percent of the total international trade of the region’s countries. India as the largest and fastest-growing economy of the region needs to move beyond the principle of “strict reciprocity” which it has so far followed, according to S Akbar Zaidi, a Karachi-based economist. Former Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral had enunciated the doctrine of unilateral non-reciprocal gestures towards India’s smaller neighbours. It is now being implemented. Zaidi argues that ideally, the doctrine should be extended even to Pakistan; it would entail no major loss for India. India needs to do more to balance its trade with the rest of the region. Its imports from it add up to only a quarter of its exports to it—despite the mutual complementarity of the region’s economies. “As important as the SAARC members’ mutual talks, was the presence of observers to the summit, including the United States, China, the European Union, Japan and South Korea,” says an Indian ambassador to a neighbouring country, who insisted on anonymity. “This has raised SAARC’s profile to the highest level since the Association was established in December 1978. And not to be discounted are the bilateral discussions that took place between the leaders of different member-states. These were conducted in a particularly friendly climate. That’s no mean gain.” The diplomat emphasised the entry of Afghanistan into SAARC as “a major achievement”. This was an Indian initiative, but was not resisted by Pakistan—“a tribute to improved relations with India, despite India-Pakistan tensions over Afghanistan.” This could soon pave the way run for trade and transit across the entire region. (Pakistan, suspicious of India’s traditional friendly ties with Afghanistan, has so far refused India’s request for allowing overland transit of goods to Afghanistan.) The SAARC summit was accompanied by a number of meetings of civil society organisations from the member-countries, focused on people-to-people cooperation, human rights and media contacts. An important initiative was an assembly on human rights, convened by Amnesty International, India. This urged the South Asian governments “to establish a regional mechanism to address the human rights abuses in the region.” Such large-scale violations of rights are perpetrated through security laws and their specific forms, including anti-terror and detention laws. “SAARC seeks to promote trust and cooperation across South Asia. Security laws, justified in the context of terrorism in South Asia, frequently curb the freedom of expression and the ability of citizens to express peaceful political dissent. These laws seek to promote security but curtailment of enjoyment of rights erodes people’s sense of security,” said Mukul Sharma, director of Amnesty International, India. The Assembly drew upon the experience of the Organisation for African Unity, which has incorporated human rights into its agenda. Other civil society groups underscored the need for more open visa regimes and greater people-to-people and media interaction. The governments of the region responded positively to the demand by the South Asian Free Media Association for special visas for journalists. “There is a positive change in the SAARC agenda towards greater cooperation on substantial social and cultural issues,” says Chenoy. “The SAARC Development Fund and a South Asian University represent a significant improvement on earlier initiatives, which were confined to setting up documentation centres, some of which were not followed up. The University has a lot of potential which will grow if the eight governments put some energy into it, rather than leave it to private initiatives.” Adds Chenoy: “One cannot expect dramatic progress in SAARC given the history of fraught relations and mutual rivalries. But incremental progress has certainly taken place and must be welcomed. As must the remarkably friction-free climate of dialogue.” South Asia has so far been a laggard as far as regional cooperation is concerned. But after the Delhi summit, the prospects of such cooperation have improved.