A case for SAARC reforms

SAARC, regrettably, has yet to develop into a conflict-mediating or resolving institution on multilateral and bilateral issues. While it has succeeded in evolving as a forum, it does not have the capacity to devise instruments for consultations on bilateral and multilateral political and security problems

November 25, 2014 01:11 am | Updated April 09, 2016 11:34 am IST

The organisation of eight South Asian nations, namely Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, with observer nations, Myanmar, China, Iran, the European Union (EU) and the United States, to name a few, is known as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). It was established at the first summit in Dhaka on December 7-8, 1985. The last summit, the 17th, was held in Addu, in the Maldives, in November 2011. After a gap of three years, the 18th Summit Meeting is to be held in Nepal on November 26-27, 2014.

These eight nations of South Asia constitute 3 per cent of the world’s area, but house 21 per cent of the global population. India, significantly, constitutes 70 per cent or more of SAARC’s area and population.

Seven of them have common borders with India but not each other. All have a shared culture, ethnicity and experienced long interactive historical events including British imperialism and its consequences.

South Asian nations together also make an integrated “condominium” of common rivers, a mountain system, an ocean and a conjoint ecological system. The region’s endowment for economic production is also more or less the same.


Since India constitutes 70 per cent or more of SAARC’s area and population, and has political conflicts with all its neighbours, India has to redefine its role, from seeking reciprocity in bilateral relations, to being prepared to go the extra mile in meeting the aspirations of all other SAARC nations.

SAARC, regrettably, has yet to develop into a conflict-mediating or conflict-resolving institution both on multilateral and bilateral issues. It has succeeded however in evolving as a forum and a framework but which does not have the capacity to devise instruments and techniques for consultations on bilateral and multilateral political and security problems.

This is because the SAARC Charter mandates that decisions, at all levels in SAARC, are only of multilateral issues, and only those issues are for inclusion in the agenda in a SAARC summit meeting on the basis of unanimity. Article X(2) of the Charter, thus excludes “bilateral and contentious issues” from the ambit of SAARC deliberations.

A shortcoming in the current situation is that unlike Europe, SAARC is not an association of nearly equally sized countries. India, as stated earlier, is about 70 per cent of the size of South Asia, and the other SAARC member-nations have a common border bilaterally only with India, and not with each other. The economic and quality of life disparities among South Asian nations are also quite wide.

Sri Lankan policy

During the period of 10 years since May 2004, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was pathetically hamstrung by the sectarian, former secessionist and pro-LTTE parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) for its survival in Parliament and majority.

Hence, India’s policy towards Sri Lanka was driven both bilaterally and in U.N. organisations by the hyperbole of the parties of the Dravidian Movement, in speech and dramatics, and which was bolstered by the threat of these parties to withdraw support to the Manmohan Singh government. These sectarian parties thus exercised a veto over the UPA government’s Sri Lanka policy.

As a consequence, China, which is not a member of SAARC, gained a strategic advantage in Sri Lanka by moving into the policy space vacated by India. Hambantota port is an example of how China filled the vacuum when India decided, based on the DMK’s threat, to decline Sri Lanka’s offer first to India to assist building the port.

SAARC thereby underwent rigor mortis and the summit failed to take place after 2011 for three years. Time is at hand now at the Kathmandu summit to rectify this.

Furthermore, with India having declined to help Sri Lanka build the Hambantota port (later built with China’s assistance), it is unproductive for SAARC’s effectiveness to unilaterally protest periodic visits by Chinese submarines to Hambantota port, which is on the shores of the international waters of the Indian Ocean.

Issues before SAARC

The destiny of South Asian nations today is to either swim together or risk sinking separately in the battle against poverty and unemployment as well as in meeting the challenges of the environment, national security, and globalisation.

Today, there are five crucial issues on SAARC:

First, SAARC is off and on in a limbo. Thus the first issue is this: how to grapple with SAARC’s uncertain future and how to put it back on the rails again, and not permit in the future, international political changes affecting the functioning of SAARC.

Second, SAARC has to resolve whether essential economic cooperation in an increasingly globalised world economy can be achieved despite continuing political conflicts.

The issue is whether political differences — beyond vital national interests issues — can be set aside by each member country while a more harmonious environment is created through healthy economic cooperation.

Third, is SAARC so fragile that it cannot survive if bilateral controversial political questions are raised in its deliberations without undermining its utility?

Fourth, given that India is 70 per cent of SAARC, geographically and economically, and that the other SAARC nations have borders only with India and not with each other, unlike in the EU, does India have the special responsibility to go the extra mile to make SAARC work?

Fifth, given the way World Trade Organization (WTO) disciplines are to be enforced, does SAARC need a “level playing field” regional agreement, modelled on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), with cross-retaliatory powers and a Regional Trade Organization (RTO) to enforce it?

A road map for reforms

To address these five issues and overcome the current impasse in SAARC and to make it work, two preconditions have to be obtained:

(1) India has to go the extra mile to make SAARC work because India is 70 per cent of South Asia, and has common borders with seven SAARC nations.

(2) South Asian countries have to work on the common values and shared historical perceptions of the peoples of the region, consciously addressing essential political differences.

Transparency in action in bilateral dealings is key to achieving these two preconditions. No country of the region should either act the big brother or be a dog in the manger.

Hence, mindful of the uphill task of promoting South Asian regional integration, I suggest the following reforms:

(a) No SAARC nation should internationalise any bilateral issue beyond the SAARC forum.

(b) SAARC will do all it can to facilitate the creation of the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) immediately, if possible by the end of 2014. Thereafter, SAARC resolves to make Sri Lanka’s coast the gateway to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) by developing the hard infrastructure and freight movement facilitation.

(c) SAARC should strive to enhance investment activity between its member states, and not merely trade. South Asian joint venture promotion schemes should also be promoted on a priority.

(d) The energy sector should be linked together through a unified South Asian electric power grid system and countries could pool their technical and financial resources in collaborative projects.

(e) In only the fields of science and technology, universities in SAARC countries should pool their faculties and teach across borders or engage in online education using the Internet.

(f) Broader popular support at the grass-root level must be vastly improved by encouraging freer legal movement of people for economic and cultural tourism reasons by minimising immigration procedures.

(g) Effective steps must be undertaken to jointly deter cross-border, illegal migration, terror attacks and block the narcotics trade and drug trafficking.

It should be remembered that the EU was made possible only due to the conclusion drawn by the people of Europe, after the experience of two terrible world wars, that a third world war would destroy Europe totally. Hence, despite a violent history of warfare, European nations sank their differences and formed the EU. Furthermore, there were a few leaders like Adenauer, de Gaulle, Schuman and de Gasperi who had a vision of a peaceful development of the continent and dared to embark towards this goal.

But as the popular saying goes, it takes two to tango. With two of the eight SAARC nations in possession of deliverable nuclear weapons, it is imperative for the peaceful existence of SAARC nations that they effectively bind together and develop harmoniously.

(Dr.Subramanian Swamy is chairman of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Strategic Affairs Committee. Thearticle forms the text of his speech at the LalithAtulathmudaliMemorial Lecture in Colombo on November 26.)

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