IN THE changed situation and pressing needs of the public at large, countries of the region felt the urgency to initiate and institutionalise cooperation in South Asia. For the first time an attempt was made to isolate economic cooperation issues stemming from the traditionally dominant factor of political antagonism. Thus, the formation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is premised on three assumptions. First, the promotion and satisfaction of economic goals through cooperative measures will establish the salience of economic issues in intra-regional relations. Second, the realisation of the equitable distribution of benefits from the expansion of cooperation in areas of commercial and industrial activity will reduce the severity of hitherto unresolved disputes to a manageable level. Last, dialogues through the SAARC forum and enhanced transactions will effect a positive change in the attitudes of leadership and help bring about consensus on peaceful means of conflict resolution.
Several regional organisations in different parts of the world have already come into existence before SAARC and were working fairly and satisfactorily. They include the Arab League established in 1945, the Organisation of American States in 1948, the Association of South-East Asian Nations in 1967 and the European Union in 1993. The last one evolved from the six-nation European Coal and Steel Community created in 1952. It is now a 15-member union and is the most effective of all regional organisations.
A SYSTEMATIC analysis and historical perspective of South Asia indicate that it is a region without regional cooperation or a region without regionalism. Before the sentiments for SAARC, attempts of two generations were identified at Asian regionalism. The first one was pursued during several conferences held in Asia between 1947 and 1955. The main thrust of such attempts was characterised as having been dominated by politico-strategic considerations. The second generation’s attempts began in the late 1960s and the early 1970s motivated by a different thrust, basically being oriented towards a greater economic cooperation in Asia. Both the generations aimed at regionalism encompassing as much of the overall Asian region as possible. It was only in late 1979 or early 1980 that another attempt was made, this time focusing exclusively on the region which is now known as South Asia. In its latest design, the countries of the region resumed the theme to promote peace and stability, on the one hand, and to encourage economic development, on the other hand.
While evaluating the entire system of SAARC, we should focus on the three latest sources of conflict: (a) the involvement in one another’s domestic conflicts, (b) the uncontrolled transfer of arms and weapons to the region from external arms suppliers and (c) the probability of a nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan. One of the basics of internal involvement is the multi-faceted issue of ethnic mobilisation and its potential to spill over at the regional level. It is a new conflict and, in principle, dates back to colonial times. It works both ways: it may support regional cooperation and, at the same time, it is likely to hamper it. While demographic and ethnic problems tend to cause disharmony, they also work in a positive way by contributing to building regional cooperation and consciousness among the South Asian states.
THE emergence of bipolarity and cold war tension between the east and west were successfully exploited by regional antagonists to augment their power, which they used against each other. In general, the success of any endeavour to contain a threat within the region from an extra-regional component would depend much on the identity of interest. This identity of interest may not necessarily be related to the regional sub-system but it gains strength from a common strategic outlook. The competitive globalism of the great powers motivated them to establish an influential relationship with the local powers in various sub-systems of the world. Like others, the need for security against neighbours and economic aid for development strengthened the multidimensional relations with the western powers. Extra-regional orientations caused the new states of South Asia in ways. The first was the disintegration of pre-colonial and colonial interdependence among the regional communities and the second was the significant reduction of autonomy of the region. The US rivalry with the Soviet Union primarily influenced its interests and policy toward South Asia and it also initiated the uncontrolled transfer of arms and weapons to the area.
IN SOUTH Asia, the rivalry between India and Pakistan in nuclear and other spheres must be viewed in the background of old legacies of colonialism, repercussions on the search for a national identity and the lack of adequate control mechanism. Broadly, it can be categorised on the basis of the nature of contentious issues; (a) issues resulting from colonial legacies, (b) issues of political and ideological character, (c) issues of strategic conflict and military balance, (d) issues arising from the spillover of internal conflicts and turmoil and (e) issues related to resource and developmental conflicts. With other countries of the region, India’s giantism is the most real obstacle in the way of regional cooperation. The second is India’s major political problems with all the countries of the region, with the possible exception of the Maldives. Bilateral cooperation among the states of the region should also be considered an ingredient of the whole system as the king of Bhutan has put it: ‘As long as we do not have good bilateral relations, it will be very difficult to have a good regional relationship.’
In fact, SAARC is falling short of gaining a similar significance as is attached to the economic and diplomatic achievements of ASEAN. If we compare various regional groupings in a ranking order, the European community, on account of its high degree of integration as well as economic and political cooperation, would be on the top. At the present stage, SAARC would only be placed at the bottom; but there is also an optimistic approach. If we take into account the central problem of South Asian politics along with India’s relationship with its neighbours and the resulting contentious issues, SAARC has offered an opportunity for introducing confidence-building measures on a higher level and has succeeded in reducing regional tension. In spite of the many obstacles caused by the regional power and economic structure, the anaemic infant SAARC not only survived but even grew slowly, broadening its scope, especially in the sphere of trade, building an institutional framework and generating a climate for regional cooperation.
Dr Rajkumar Singh is a professor and the head of the post-graduate department of political science at Bhupendra Narayan Mandal University, Bihar.
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