Kathmandu, Nov 22, 2014:The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)’s 18th Summit is just days away. All eyes are now set on this gathering as the leaders of the region will be meeting to deliberate on the key issues of significance to the region. This summit is considered important also because SAARC leaders will have to seriously mull over the future of this regional bloc. They will have to give it a new direction, a sense of purpose and, overall, prove its relevance in the face of genuine criticisms that it has become nothing more than a ‘talking shop’.
As SAARC marks its 30th birthday next month, this regional group will need to revisit the lofty objectives that its founding leaders had set forth at the time of its inception. The SAARC leaders, with all seriousness, have to make an objective assessment of SAARC’s report card until now. They will have to figure out its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and thereby set the tone for its future. One key question that needs to be asked in this context is: What has SAARC done for the millions of the region’s poor? Has it touched the grassroots people?
Needless to say, poverty still remains a major setback to this region’s progress. The South Asia region is home to 451 million poor (i.e. 28.83 per cent of the world’s poor, according to the Asian Development Bank). The total population of the region is 1.40 billion or 23.7 per cent (one-fifth) of the global population. Therefore, poverty alleviation through sustained economic growth should be the region’s number one priority. Economic growth and development are achieved when there is peace and political stability. Attaining these very goals should be SAARC’s main mantra. Though the region abounds in both physical and human resources, they largely remain unutilised. This should not be the case and SAARC will have to break all barriers to harness every possible resource for building its economy.
The SAARC member countries will have to overcome the political antagonism that is the hallmark of the region and vigorously promote economic cooperation. It is high time SAARC now prioritised economy above all. It is the economy that matters the most in the present century. SAARC will have to boost its economy, promote intra and inter- regional trade and commerce to emerge as a major economy. SAARC should hence strive for outward-looking, pro-poor growth strategy in the current global scenario.
Apart from widespread poverty which characterises the region, South Asia happens to be afflicted with hunger, disease, terrorism, ethnic rivalries, intra and inter-state wars, political turmoil, instability, leadership crises and security issues. These are the common problems of all the countries of the region and need to be tackled head-on. It is a region endowed with fertile land but cannot feed its people, a region that has given birth to learned human resources in all walks of human endeavour but has not yet been able to liberate itself from the shackles of underdevelopment, foreign intervention and vested interests.
The SAARC leaders have to take on this challenge and prove their leadership prowess that they are really the people’s leaders. As is aptly said the only safe ‘ship’ in a storm is leadership.
The former Indian Prime Minister Dr Man Mohan Singh, addressing the 16th SAARC Summit held in the Bhutanese capital Thimphu in 2010, had said, “the glass ofÂ regional cooperation, development and integration is half-empty.” He was referring to the SAARC’s tardy progress on these fronts. Not only Dr Singh, many scholars and analysts in the region and the world have criticised SAARC for not really taking off. What holds back this regional group is the deficit of trust between the major regional players – India and Pakistan. The relations between these two countries very much determine the SAARC’s progress.
On the question of how to make SAARC successful, some scholars have come up with suggestions as opting for the European Union model by adopting common boundary and common currency policy a la the EU. However, the reality is neither SAARC can opt for the EU model nor it is necessary at this stage. A South Asian Union is not immediately possible. What SAARC member states need to do at this stage is remove the trust deficit and adopt confidence-building measures for a truly meaningful regional cooperation. At this stage, SAARC will have to develop a new strategic vision to accomplish its objectives. There is a need of policy change and practical reforms. It will have to change its ways and its structure, and revitalise itself.
Nepal, which has become an ardent advocate of SAARC from the very beginning, is assuming its chairmanship from this 18th Summit. It is an opportunity for Nepal to demonstrate its leadership qualities. Nepal should take this opportunity to introduce a proposal for development of a new economic corridor with China, incorporating all the SAARC member countries. China is an observer to SAARC and is found eager to expand its economic ties with South Asia as was evident from the agreements on economic cooperation signed during the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visits to some major SAARC economies in September this year.Â During Mr Xi’s visit to India, the two countries signed a trade agreement worth 20 billion dollars for a period of five years. It is in the fitness of things to bring such a proposal because South Asia’s prosperity in the 21st century is likely to depend very much on the economic development collaboration with China. Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan’s partnership with China for economic cooperation vindicates to this fact.
Nepal can become a nucleus of SAARC if this huge economic investment and trade collaboration taking place bilaterally between China and SAARC countries could be channelised and institutionalised through SAARC at Nepal’s initiation. With greater regional integration and expanding economic and trade ties with major Asian economies, SAARC could become a bridge between East Asia which is rich in human resources and technology and West and Central Asia which are rich in natural resources and finance. SAARC’s new vision should be to become that bridge.
That SAARC continues to hold together despite various strains at different times in its 29-year journey is an achievement in itself. Now, SAARC should chart a new course and develop into a potent economic powerhouse befitting the 21st century as an ‘Asian century’.