While so much of the world embraced globalization by drawing closer together regionally, countries in South Asia barely began to exploit this strategy of international cooperation and prosperity. Despite containing India’s emerging power, two potential hydro giants, Bhutan and Nepal; the prospective sea-trading states Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka; and the appealing tourist destination of the Maldives, South Asia has failed to foster its common future interests and address complex issues involving territorial disputes, national ego, and past history.
The best way for South Asia to fulfill its potential is to reinvigorate its existing, but neglected, regional organization, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Established in 1985, the organization aims to work on economic cooperation and regional integration among its eight member states. With a combined GDP of $3.3 trillion and population of 1.8 billion people, South Asia, acting in concert, could marshal great influence in the world. But the historical tension between India and Pakistan, the controversial involvement of China in the region, and threats such as terrorism and trans-border crime have prevented breakthrough integration initiatives. For instance, the Uri attack of 2016, involving the ongoing conflict over Kashmir, worsened direct relations between India and Pakistan, which then indirectly impacted the entire region, by prompting the cancellation of the 19th SAARC summit in Islamabad. Welcoming India’s head of state to Pakistan would have been a historic, positive move in South Asian regionalism. Instead, nationalistic responses to the attack derailed the summit as a forum for settling differences or working together in spite of them.
SAARC’s limited success stems from this sort of mistrust among its member states. On the one hand, cultural, linguistic, topographical, and economic diversity in South Asia enriches the region. But it also contributes to the many territorial disputes, the growth of trans-border terrorism, and illegal migration problems. Local disputes become common regional challenges: India’s massive economy impacts all South Asian nations, fake currency distributed through marginal terrorist channels shakes India’s economy, and Kashmir disrupts the future of SAARC.
Much also depends on India itself and its own vision for the region. India—which accounts for approximately 80% of the region’s GDP and FDI inflows, in addition to its predominant size and population—has acted like a hegemonic power, rather than a benevolent big brother. This intention, which impedes diplomacy at the level of SAARC, is clear if one looks at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to promote the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC)—both of which pointedly exclude Pakistan. Choices like this feed into the poor dynamics among diplomats at SAARC summits these days: officials sink into debating blame and responsibility for the backwardness of the region.
Nevertheless, there is no path for South Asia towards sustained economic development and more peaceful relations that avoids regional cooperation. Today, India alone powers much of the region’s growth, which the World Bank identifies as the fastest in the world, but this growth could be better still if it encompassed greater intra-regional trade connections and integration projects, as SAARC had envisioned.
As it stands now, India’s economy is a precarious success, surrounded by festering geopolitical conflicts and the danger that its regional strength will always provoke neighbors’ resentment. India’s approach since the 2016 summit cancellation—to exclude Pakistan by turning to sub-regional projects like BIMSTEC—had a short-term logic to it, but this strategy of avoidance cannot last. BIMSTEC’s narrow foundation of technical collaboration and BIIN’s coastal focus cannot replace SAARC’s ambitious vision of a coherent, secure South Asia. Additionally, India’s unchecked hegemonic posture pushes away small states like Sri Lanka, Nepal, and the Maldives. In Sri Lanka, failed Indian peacekeeping missions led the government to cozy up to China, accepting economic investment and military assistance. In Nepal, the ruling Communist Party government has resisted India’s enticements. In the Maldives, India challenged unwelcome political developments by threatening economic sanctions. In each case, India’s interference arguably worsened relations and encouraged opportunistic involvement by China.
Renewed SAARC diplomacy, with its structure of equal, participating states, is the best way to dampen these dynamics and address political differences alongside economic interests. South Asia has too many serious trans-border security complexities and, in Chinese power, one large extra-regional threat. If nothing else, India and Pakistan could focus on this overlapping geopolitical interest. Rather than a failed talking shop, SAARC could become a functioning organization.