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International Relations and Comparative Politics

It isn’t Regionalism, It’s SAARC: Re-Imagining regionalism in South Asia

While the world goes through a wave of nationalism and rethinking of free trade, Asia and Africa are witnessing a renaissance of free trade initiatives and collaborative opportunities. Be it the ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative led by the Chinese or the positive growth of African Union as an organization, regionalism is thriving in the East while it stumbles in the West.

Pakistan’s approach to regionalism has slowly evolved over the last decade and a half. Since China’s ascent to the global power status, Pakistan has tried taking advantage of its ‘all-weather ally’ to bill itself as a reliable trading partner for a global power on the rise by providing Chinese companies a test market and logistical training ground before they expand elsewhere. In addition to this, Pakistan’s strategic location is best exploited by the Chinese as they look for opportunities to assert themselves in South Asia and the Middle East.

A welcome board of Pakistan and China’s friendship is displayed on a wall at the Gawadar, Pakistan, on Wednesday, Aug 03, 2106

Hence, it comes as no surprise then that the most significant and most well thought out phase of the ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative is the China – Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). With a promised investment of over 46 Billion US Dollars, CPEC pledges to modernize Pakistan’s ailing infrastructure, create jobs and give Pakistan a competitive edge over its neighbors. Pakistan is fully invested in the project because without Chinese money rolling in to fund the growth, Pakistan’s other options are few and far between. EU, UK, and the US are unlikely to invest in a country they still only view as a logistical support base for their military adventures in Afghanistan. Russia lacks the economic prowess to invest abroad on the same scale as the Chinese or Americans. So, without China’s money, Pakistan’s chances of growing and stabilizing its economy are next to nil.

Pakistan is not alone in this situation, Sri Lanka is now relying heavily on Chinese investment and infrastructure to expand its economy. Chinese investors are building new ports as well as setting up brand new cities to reshape Sri Lanka’s economic outlook. Bangladesh and Nepal are on the verge of signing on to large-scale Chinese investment projects as well. So, the question arises, in these circumstances, is SAARC even relevant anymore?

Why SAARC is Redundant & Irrelevant

Over the last decade and a half, most of the discussion on SAARC has discussed the potential windfall for its members if Pakistan and India could come to terms with each other and work together. Unfortunately, Pakistan and India have been unable to come to terms and move beyond the political rhetoric that is used in each country for domestic benefits. The result of that has been SAARC operating as a stunted organization where the two most significant members are blocking each other at nearly every corner. Compare this to any other regional group that functions well. EU won’t survive if Germany and France were at each other’s throats most of the time. Neither would ASEAN with Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand refusing to work with each other.

Academics working on International Organizations have long argued that for any regional organization to function well, they need clear and attainable goals. Additionally, they need members willing to take leadership as per the hegemonic stability theory or a structure where individual nations are eager to take up the mantle on specific issues.

For instance, in the EU, Spain, and Italy take the lead of migration and refugee policy while Germany and France are the leaders on most other issues. ASEAN has a similar structure where Singapore and Malaysia take the lead on economic issues. SAARC lacks any of this. Because of India and Pakistan’s refusal to follow each other’s lead, the organization is often gridlocked with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh quickly taking sides while Nepal and Bhutan along with the Maldives sit it out.


The result is a dysfunctional organization that is there in name and on paper while nearly all its affiliates are more actively involved in other groups. Pakistan and Sri Lanka are engaged with Chinese led initiatives while India and Bangladesh have refocused their energies on Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). Additionally, all members have signed on to multiple free trade agreements in addition to the WTO commitments. Internal trade among SAARC members is limited too.

So, the question is then why even bother with SAARC anymore? And the answer to that is finally being discussed out in the open.  At least from a Pakistani perspective, it makes no sense to be part of an organization that is dominated by an arch rival and has offered little benefits. Similarly, for countries like Sri Lanka or the Maldives, the body does not provide tangible benefits of membership. Maybe it is time, that SAARC was revamped into a cultural exchange or technical platform for regional countries to share expertise on non – binding topics.

Regionalism Beyond SAARC

As I argued earlier, SAARC has become irrelevant to the interests of its members like Pakistan. But that does not mean that the idea of regionalism is not relevant or potent in today’s world. In fact, the reason SAARC is no longer relevant is that there are better regional initiatives out there with tangible results on offer for members.

Chinese initiatives operate on the hegemonic stability provided by China that allows unfamiliar countries to work together for broader common goals.  The new regionalism that is being promoted is not geographic but an economic one. This means the global south is being rallied under banners like BRICS, OBOR and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The advantage of that is we are witnessing collaboration between economic neighbors spread across the globe who genuinely wish to work together for higher gain. And because there is a hegemon pushing forward the agenda, members who otherwise are unlikely to work with each other, are willing to collaborate.

In such circumstances, Pakistan is choosing to not play second fiddle to India in South Asia. By allying closely with China, Pakistan is fulfilling its trade and security interests while China can contain India’s economic prowess on all sides. India’s latest initiatives and investments with Bangladesh as well as Iran are signs that India realizes the economic/ geopolitical threat it is under from neighbors on two sides. For India then, BIMSTEC and initiatives in Africa are the best use of diplomatic capital rather than focusing on SAARC.

Torn between two neighbors, SAARC is gridlocked, but regionalism is seeing an uptick. This is a positive that is often lost in discussions on how South Asia has failed to evolve like South East Asia or even European Union. The issue is with our firm understanding and definition of regionalism and what we consider regional success. That definition being Eurocentric, does not take in to account the problems of the post-colonial subcontinent and its economic limitations.

What our region requires that is not a regional organization that intends to emulate the EU, but a series of specific technical initiatives and free trade agreements. Such a structure gives stakeholders the leeway to work with those partners that they wish to instead of being stuck in an organization that includes non-cooperative members. Technical initiatives such as the South Asian University can continue to function while more significant ideas like the South Asian Bank can be revamped into something on the lines of the Chiang Mai Initiative that ASEAN has. If we were to deconceptualize what a regional organization means beyond its rigid eurocentric definition, there is potential for localized cooperation in South Asia on issues that currently are far down the list of strategic priority within the SAARC structure.

To get South Asia to collaborate more, we need to rethink what collaboration looks like. It is apparently not an organization like SAARC, it is more on the lines of a cross between OBOR and ASEAN. There is no hard and fast structure, but the initiatives that are binding for members are taken seriously by all those involved.

For South Asia to indeed grow, SAARC has to die in its current form.



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