Reviving SAARC

ByUmair Jalali

Teaches in The Royal Colosseum and is an avid sports fan


December 17, 2022

Reviving SAARC

Umair Jalali describes the need for a swift change of emphasis

The Reviving SAARC preponderance of strategic alliances before both the global conflicts in the twentieth century gradually mutated into alliances emphasising economic matters. The underlying assumptions of this change of tack was that economic angles ultimately facilitate strategic breakthrough and what emerged in the process were regional juggernauts such as EU and ASEAN that not only streamlined multilateral trade issues but also tremendously helped in bringing enemies closer. Quite surprisingly, this facilitating formula did not succeed in the contentious region of South Asia that is widely recognised to be the least integrated regions in the world. In this context, the premier regional alliance set up almost four decades before given the name of SAARC has not got its moorings together and has failed at the altar of never-ending enmity between Pakistan and India that are actually the primary participants of the alliance.

Currently Pakistan is experiencing economic downturn and is in the grip of high inflation that has become severe owing to extraordinary high inflationary pressures felt globally. On top of such difficulties Pakistan has been hit by unprecedented floods that have badly affected its agriculture causing serious shortage of wheat, rice and vegetables. Most edible items used for daily consumption such as onions, garlic and ginger are imported but they come quite expensive. In order to ease the pressure of price increases one option is to import them from India and the best way is to approach the matter through multilateral means as bilaterally it may be difficult to do so as the incumbent BJP regime in India does not appear to conducive to normalise ties with Pakistan.

It is in this backdrop that PM Shehbaz Sharif has indicated that Pakistan wishes to revive SAARC so that it proves beneficial to the interests of the region. While commemorating the SAARC Charter Day Shehbaz Sharif mentioned that the eight-member bloc has plenty of potential for development and lamented the missed opportunities linked to lack of integration. The enunciations in this respect may appear to be on the rhetorical side but in actual fact the revival of SAARC entails tremendous efforts though this task is doable if pursued with sincerity and determination. In this respect much depends upon the intentions of Pakistan and India because their roles would be crucial in putting back SAARC on rails again. It must be kept on view that a functionally viable SAARC can play a very important role in improving the quality of life of the people of South Asia.

It is widely known that the main obstacle in reviving the functionality of SAARC is the intention of Modi regime to corner Pakistan internationally and this was the reason that resulted in not letting Pakistan hold SAARC summit in 2016 wrecking the prospects of the organisation. It is a pity to observe that a regional entity like SAARC has not been able to hold a summit meeting since 2014 when it last met in Nepal in 2014. The result is that the intraregional trade in South Asia is among the lowest at about 5 per cent of the total trade compared with 50 per cent for East Asia and the Pacific regions meaning that it could be a while before impoverished SAARC can reap the benefits of shared land borders. Multiple factors have prevented the countries of SAARC from mutual trade including tariffs and para tariffs, real or perceived non-tariff barriers, broader trust deficit, political and territorial disputes, terrorism and higher connectivity costs.

The major hurdle is the rivalry between Pakistan and India as both countries have a host of contentious issues preventing them from normalising relations. The long-standing Kashmir dispute between Islamabad and New Delhi is the single-most important reason for the negligible regional economic connectivity that has forced Pakistan and other SAARC countries to look towards the West and elsewhere for trade prospects. There however is a growing realisation across the region that stronger trade ties and mutual economic dependence can over time build an environment of mutual trust and help neighbours settle their political and territorial disputes in an amicable manner. There are many examples in front of SAARC countries to emulate yet the rigidity of governmental stances has so far succeeded in depriving the people of member countries from taking advantage of multiple linkages.

It is widely observed that in Pakistan as well as India there is little consistency where mutual ties are concerned. In Pakistan particularly civilian authorities saying one thing and the powerful military establishment, which has an undeclared veto on all matters concerning India, takes another direction. Moreover, political parties, when in opposition, have also blasted the government in power for wanting to trade with India. In this scenario it is important to trade through SAARC and this is the reason for the current initiative. TW


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