Ever since the concept of globalisation has emerged in contemporary world scenario, regionalism as a concept has gained impetus to cater to the needs of those mutual co-operations that find it hard to function because of the biased regimes or rules of international governance. Scholars like Nye and Haas, have defined regionalism as “the formation of interstate associations or groupings on the basis of regions.” Although the Arab League and the Commonwealth were settled regional organisations, the term had still not entered the International Relations vocabulary until 1940 when the Treaty of Paris enabled the European region to pool the resources of member states, giving birth to the European Coal and Steel Community, which is the European Union in status quo.
The concept of regionalism refers to a transformation of a particular region from relative heterogeneity to increased homogeneity with regard to a number of dimensions, the most important being culture, security, economic policies and political regimes. The convergence along these 04 dimensions may be a natural process or a politically steered one or, most likely, a mixture of both where a certain level of sameness is necessary (not implying that it should be absolute). Further more, all regions are hardly equal in their potential for institutional formation and success. Not only do they vary in their homogeneity, but they also vary immensely in the resources they can bring to bare on the problems of their member states. However, a regional co-operation operates on mutual trust and convenience of proximity to enable development in all ways possible, overlooking cultural and religious barriers to pull one another up.
Since the 1980’s, international economics has seen a revolutionary change by virtue of regional economic and cultural co-operations with the creation of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), African Union, NATO, BRICS, G7, G20 etc. However, to study the regional dynamics of the South Asian region, it is imperative to look closely at the contribution as well as the issues faced with SAARC nations as well as the organisation to achieve a broader understanding of the stability, co-operation and mutual co-existence.
The structural approach to power concedes an advantaged position to India in South Asia wherein India shares borders with all South Asian countries, making it the vital physical link in the region. 72 % of the land surface in South Asia is occupied by India, 77 % of the region’s population resides in India and India accounts for 75 % of the regional economic output. The economic potential and military capabilities of India have made the country a primary regional force in South Asia. An analogy drawn by Mr L. Kadirgamar Ex Foreign Minster of Sri Lanka and a scholar of International Relations with a wheel depicts centrality of India in South Asian affairs. According to him at the hub of the wheel lies regionally preponderant India, radiating as spokes are India’s neighbours with each of whom India shares land or maritime boundaries, but no 02 other countries are thus joined without at the same time touching India also.
A mix of historical experiences, national priorities, regional compulsions and ingrained perceptions shapes India’s ‘power’ in the region. Given that after effects of imperialism in the region most nations, are weary about the co-operations made in order to contain their own hold in the region. This, perhaps had led to ramifications in terms of economic backwardness and the failures of the earlier South Asian Preferential Trading Agreement (SAPTA) because the South Asian nations felt that the impact of their unfavourable trade balance with India would be accentuated if liberalisation was encouraged in regional context. Countries in the region also feared that if market forces are allowed to guide the intra regional trade, India would emerge as the dominating factor leading to the political dependence of these states on India. However, the myth of India’s hegemony in the region is only a perception wherein India has proved to be assertive in the region, by virtue of being the powerhouse of the region, which does not necessarily means that she is hegemonic in nature. India has fulfilled all her responsibilities by instilling maximum stability in the region by extending help to neighbours whenever required and also by stepping up the trade scenario for prosperity in the region. India has embraced her large position in the region and has used it to reap advantage to the region as a whole without any ulterior motives of exploitation, since she herself is the victim of colonization and has pioneered the decolonization drives in most other developing nations.
In order that this faith and trust were instilled further the South Asian Association of Regional Co-operation (SAARC) was conceived in 1985. Although, it has failed to achieve its greatest heights due to regional contentions and the unrest caused by Pakistan. There is action that needs to be taken to ensure better economic co-operation in the region and removal of any obstacle from the regional ties. SAARC in the last 03 decades has not been able to forge a unified approach in regional terms to combat the scourge of terrorism that afflicts South Asia. This chiefly arises from opposition and obstruction by Pakistan as the fountainhead of terrorism in South Asia not only against secular India but also against Islamic nations like Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The single achievement of SAARC in the last 03 decades was the South Asia Free Trading Agreement (SAFTA) that exists more in name than in practice as Pakistan has been obstructing and denying trade routes access to India and Afghanistan through Pakistani territory. Trade and commerce, unhindered, would have been the stepping-stones for political cooperation but Pakistan’s propensity to inject geopolitical rivalries is a minus for SAARC.
However, despite the hindrance caused by Pakistan, scope exists for India to form a separate regional cooperation organisation comprising Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka for a more integrated and unified regional cooperation. The expansion of economic relations with India has benefited the regional economies and India considering it her onus has granted numerous economic concessions during multiple cases in the past. India has adopted a preferential policy towards investment in SAARC countries where Indian companies had invested in business ventures, extended loans and credits alongwith guarantees to their affiliates in the SAARC region. In the case of Nepal, for instance, the constraint of the value- added component imposed on Nepali products for duty free entry into the Indian market was reduced from 80 % to 50 %, and now even this has been completely removed. Under international conventions India is obliged to provide only one transit route to facilitate Nepal’s trade with third countries, but India has provided 15 transit points. Readymade Garments Sector (RMG) is included in India’s sensitive list, but India has granted Bangladesh the opportunity to export 06 million pieces of RMG products to India, provided the entire fabric for the purpose is imported from India. India is Bhutan’s largest trade partner and the India- Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement has also enabled barrier-free trade among the nations. In 2016, Salma Dam or officially the Afghan-India Friendship Dam was built as a hydroelectric and irrigation dam project in Western Afghanistan. With this sort of contextual background, there are only two perspectives, which have started playing out as far as future of SAARC is concerned. The first perspective is that despite SAARC failing as an effective organisation for regional cooperation SAARC continues in name only with token participation. The second perspective is that India with Pakistan’s obstructive tactics in the smooth and effective functioning of SAARC explores other options.
India already seems to be engaged in the second option where a sub-regional cooperation organisation of SAARC minus Pakistan is taking shape. The recent boycott of the 19th SAARC Summit to be held in Pakistan by 05 out of 07 SAARC member nations stands testament to the fact that the region is on the same page as far as Pakistan is concerned. The future of stable economics and peaceful politics rests in the stance that the region takes collectively. The first perspective needs to be reformed once the second is in place with better understanding and free flowing trade in the region. It is established that India, has a very important role to play in the region’s progress where India too, needs the co-operation of her neighbours to stand as a powerful and a united region. Given the trends of isolation of Pakistan, it is imperative that the SAARC nations distance themselves from any sort of unrest and seek for developmental agendas to make South Asia the most powerful region in the world, avoiding any hindrance and negativity that can be an obstacle to development. When that happens, SAARC nations will be in a clearer, more positive environment with lack of obstacles to achieve great heights as a regional power.