By Sara Aleem
The South Asian region holds a dynamic position in the world’s geography, history and politics. It is the home to one of the oldest known civilisations and has immense strategic importance as it lies at the intersection of various vital trade routes. It also ranks among the most densely populated regions with approximately 25% population of the world. (1)
However, the GDP of South Asia only accounts for 3.92% of the global GDP. The determinants of politics, geography and history play a decisive role in making up the strategic construct of any region. These factors not only constitute the region’s security environment but also translate national interests into political and socio-economic choices. Statecraft necessitates the development and implementation of strategies in the pursuit of national interests. National inspirations driven by national interests influence the decision-making process of the state besides religious sentiments. Thus, the national interest-based approach steers the state’s behaviour in the region.
The strategic architecture of South Asia differs from the rest of the globe due to its distinct security environment and seemingly unusual strategic culture. South Asian region has developed rich and complex layers of political and strategic differences. The turbulent nature of the region with several inter- and intra-state tensions has undermined the peace and stability of the region. The historical disputes and intensification of rivalries in the region have proven to pose a threat to the regional integration. Pakistan and India, both nuclear nations, have a colonial baggage of discord and hostility, impeding the efforts for regional facilitations. However, there is immense potential for accelerating regional integration and economic interdependence between the countries involved yet there is a huge gap between expectations and reality of integration on the ground, as it remains the least integrated region in the world.
Regional cooperation can indeed serve as a precursor to facilitating regional integration. The cooperation in various areas can establish a foundation of trust and generate understanding between the states, which can be advantageous to build the necessary political will and momentum for deeper forms of integration. Through regional integration, the countries within the region come together to solidify a more organised economic, political, and social union for collective benefit. Through regional cooperation, countries can develop necessary partnerships and institutional structures to consolidate a more close forms of integration. The institutional framework of regional organisations plays an important role in making regional cooperation a reality.
The advent of liberal ideology almost transformed the world into a global village. Stepping on to the liberal traditions, saw the emergence of various regional forums from the European Union (EU), to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). (2) The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or commonly known as SAARC surfaced in South Asian region and it was envisioned as the milestone towards broader regional cooperation to achieve the shared dividend of growth, prosperity, peace and stability.
However, past experiences and perceptions put a shadow on South Asian regional integration. The progress of SAARC inches forward at a snail’s pace reflects a lack of commitment of regional leaders because of their tangled web of animosity. Regionalism is a multi-faceted endeavour that mainly involves three pillars; economic interdependence, political harmony, and shared identity, which unfortunately is lacking in the region.
There are many roadblocks hindering in the way to the intended outcomes of regional integration. The unresolved territorial and security issues between India and Pakistan, prime being the Kashmir Issue. Another roadblock is the region is heterogeneous in nature, there is a diversity in the political parameters of the region-some are secular states while others are republic. The structural limitations of the organization are creating impediments in achieving its core objective, the inability to attain tangible success due to environment of mistrust and state’s priority for security above economic progress. The SAARC Charter must be revised and provisions like “Article X”, which stipulates that bilateral and core contentious matters shall be barred from deliberations during the SAARC meetings, shall be omitted. (3) The prioritization of core issue resolution is crucial to maintain a conducive environment for cooperation, trust-building, and progress within the member-states.
By addressing and resolving the core intra-state issues, the organization can foster an atmosphere of stability, mutual understanding, and shared prosperity, which are vital for its sustained development. Moreover, India appears to be tilting up towards the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) which includes countries in the Bay of Bengal region such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, could be driven by its desire to expand its influence beyond SAARC. India may seek to create an alternative forum where it can exert greater control or exercise its influence by engaging more actively with BIMSTEC. The shifting orientation of India is evident during the current tenure of the BJP government under Modi. India is persistently in denial mode to have a dialogue with Pakistan to resolve the outstanding core disputes which is further straining the already strained relations.
The success stories of major economic blocs, ASEAN and the EU, offer valuable lessons for South Asian integration. (4) The key message is, in addition to promoting economic cooperation and free trade as the EU conducts, it is imperative that bilateral disagreements be negotiated and settled on the table with an appropriate attitude. No one state can thrive in isolation unless it collaborates with its neighbours and other regional players. Regions flourish together because of reciprocity and mutual cooperation. A consensus-building approach coupled with solidarity and tolerance is significant. To bolster the regional cooperation and integration it is important to bridge the significant trust deficit which plagues the effective partnership among the South Asian state actors. Confidence building measures or CBMs can play a key role in creating a dialogue-supportive environment and reduce tension between the parties.
South Asia is a diverse region with eight countries that share common historical, cultural, and economic ties. Regional integration can assist address the challenges by fostering economic growth, enhancing trade, reducing financial disparity, alleviating poverty and boosting investment flows within the region. It can also facilitate in building stronger people-to-people contacts and cultural ties, and promote regional collaboration in domains of education, trade, health, and climate change. Nevertheless, the potential benefits of regional integration are significant, and collective efforts to promote greater cooperation and integration in the region should continue.
- Mukherjee, A. (2018). Overview of the groundwater of South Asia (pp. 3-20). Springer Singapore.
- Niaz, M. T. (2022). Regional Integration in South Asia: Utopia or Reality?. Margalla Papers, 26(I), 108-120.
- Noor-ul-Ain Khawaja. (2011). The Restructuring of SAARC.
- Khan, E. M. (2013). South Asia’s Strategic Security Environment. Margalla Papers, 17(1), 21.